Monday, June 21, 2010

An Aristotelian Life (Part 1)

"An Aristotelian Life" is an essay by Marcia Homiak that appears in the collection Philosophers Without Gods. This is a pretty good collection of essays with some solid philosophical pieces being mixed-in with more anecdotal and autobiographical pieces.

Homiak's essay lies more on the philosophical side of the ledger, although it is an easy read (not that reading philosophy should always be like wading through verbal quicksand).

Homiak, like many of the contributors to the collection, adopts a conciliatory tone towards religion. She begins by praising her religious friends and noting how their beliefs have helped them to live good, decent, hard-working and charitable lives.

This acknowledgement inspires the remainder of her essay. She asks the question: is there any secular philosophy that can have a similar effect on our lives? She answers in the affirmative by outlining an Aristotelian vision of life.

The essay has three main sections. The first section gives us the basic sketch of an Aristotelian life. The second section shows how these Aristotelian principles can be used in everyday life. The author draws on her own experiences in this section. The final section compares the Aristotelian life with the religious life.

In this post, we will focus on the first of those sections.

1. Seek Happiness or Eudaimonia
The Aristotelian vision of life is set out in the Nicomachean Ethics. It begins with the simple observation that the good life is the life of happiness or flourishing.

For some, this goal of happiness is compatible with being an emaciated, malnourished but deliriously happy heroin addict. This is obviously not Aristotle's vision. For him, happiness consists in the exercise of our distinctively human capacities for rational thought and cognition.

What are these capacities? They are those with which we explore the deep nature of reality, seek reasons for action, and appreciate beauty, symmetry and elegance. Or to put it another way, they are the capacities with which we go beyond the superficial but essential business of survival and approach the ideals of the good, the true and the beautiful.

2. Individual Activity
The first sphere in which these capacities need to be exercised is the sphere of individual activity. This encompasses our jobs and our hobbies.

For the Aristotelian, these quotidian practices should be besieged by all the powers of the rational intellect. If you wish to be chef, you should explore the nuances of textures and flavours. If you wish to be a football player, you should try to understand the rhythms and strategies of the game. If you wish to be an accountant, you should try to plumb the intellectual depths of bookkeeping.

It also important not to become too absorbed by one activity; not to put all of your cognitive eggs in the one basket. Such a life would be shallow and unstable. For example, the life of the footballer can only be sustained in youth and good health.

Instead, you should seek to exercise your mind across a range of disciplines and activities.

3. Collective Activity
Of course, no man (or woman) is an island. They cannot pursue activities in total isolation. There are two reasons for this. First, we need the help of others to prevent life becoming a grueling, back-breaking struggle for subsistence.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, we need the help of others to fully realise the potential of our rational and cognitive powers. Think, for example, of the musician playing in an orchestra, or a physicist participating in the experiments at CERN. Both individuals supersede their personal limits.

Something interesting happens when we engage in these collective activities. We begin to feel a deep sympathy and empathy for the other participants in these activities. We call this friendship and it gives us a new set of motivations and desires, namely: desires for the well-being of others.

4. Political Activity
This leads us finally to the Aristotelian view of politics. Aristotle argued that flourishing can only be achieved in a properly-constituted political system.

Aristotle's most radical proposals (for the era) were in favour of compulsory public education and some system of welfare. The educational system would give people the training they need to utilise their rational and cognitive powers, while the welfare system would give people access to the materials they need to survive. Both are necessary preconditions for flourishing.

Turning to the question of governance, Aristotle advocates an egalitarian and democratic system. Every citizen has a vote in a citizen assembly that elects executive officials, and these officials can only hold office for a specified period of time. This prevents the concentration of power in one person or group of persons. This is in stark contrast to the political system of Plato, which envisioned governance by an elite (nb: there is some elitism in Aristotle due to his prejudices against women and slaves -- more on this in the next part).

5. Virtue and Vice
So there you have it: an Aristotelian vision of the good life. And as can be seen it is wholly secular. One final point that is worth raising is Aristotle's thoughts about the consequences of living the good life.

He does not think that the person who lives the good life will be morally vicious. For to truly exercise one's rational and cognitive powers, one must achieve an appropriate balance between competing moral vices.

For instance, one will not be cowardly or rash but will display courage and valour; one will not be profligate or insensible, but will display temperance and self-control; one will not be obsequious or sulkily insular, but will display friendliness and compassion; and so on.

This is the famous idea of the Aristotelian mean.

That's it for now, in part two we will see how practicable the Aristotelian model is in real life.

Wielenberg on the Meaning of Life (Part 2)

This post is part of a short series on chapter one of Erik Wielenberg's book Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe. The chapter, and indeed the book as a whole, looks at the possibility of finding meaning without God.

Part one introduced us to some arguments to the effect that life without God would be meaningless. There were four such arguments. The first suggested that life needs a meaningful final outcome. And since the atheist thinks that death is the final outcome, life cannot be meaningful. The second and third arguments suggested that life needs to have meaning conferred upon it by some external supernatural being. The final argument suggested that without God there is no morality, and that without morality our actions lack any external validity.

As noted last time out, the morality argument is addressed in later chapters. So the remainder of this series will be preoccupied with the first three.

Wielenberg identifies three possible responses. The first is attributed to the philosopher Richard Taylor.

1. Life is What You Make It
Richard Taylor was, by all accounts, an affable fellow with a talent for apiary-maintenance. He also wrote an interesting article about the meaning of life. Like Camus, who was mentioned in part one, Taylor used the story of Sisyphus to illustrate his arguments.

Sisyphus, according to legend, was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. As soon as he reached the top, the stone would roll back down and he would begin his task anew. This is thought to be the epitome of the meaningless existence.

Taylor disagreed. He argued that if Sisyphus had strong desires to get the stone to the top of his hill, which were being satisfied at every stage of his task, and if his memory was reset every time he returned to the bottom of the hill, his life would have lots of internal meaning.

This is the familiar "it's the journey not the destination" model. Meaning is derived from the satisfaction of desires, and provided the satisfaction is roughly contemporaneous with our actions, life will always be meaningful. All this concern with final outcomes and external significance is just misplaced.

Taylor's model has some interesting implications for philosophy. Namely, that we shouldn't take an overly philosophical stance on our lives. For in taking that stance, we need to distance ourselves from our immediate desires and preferences and make them objects of philosophical analysis. And by distancing ourselves from our desires in this fashion we will limit our ability to derive satisfaction from what we do.

2. Are all actions meaningful?
There is a certain attraction to what Taylor has to say. In particular, the idea that meaning derives from the coincidence of desires and activities, and the concomitant idea that life needs no external validation, seems appealing to me.

Still, one can't help but wonder: are all desire-activity pairings equally meaningful? Wielenberg thinks we have reason to doubt this and he makes his point by asking us to consider two different cases.

The first is that of the expert musician who are thoroughly engrossed and satisfied by what they do. To give you a flavour of what this might look like, here is Glenn Gould playing part of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

This musician's life would certainly fulfil Taylor's criteria for a meaningful existence. But what about a second example involving a coprophagic individual, i.e. someone who enjoys eating faeces. Suppose they derive immense satisfaction from this activity. This life would also satisfy Taylor's criteria.

But would we say that both individuals live equally meaningful lives? To sharpen the force of the question, imagine you are given the choice of one of these lives to live, which one would it be?

Wielenberg thinks it obvious that we would be fools not to pick the life of the musician. This suggests that there is more to meaning than engaging in desire-fulfilling activities. What that "more" might be will be considered in the next two posts.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wielenberg on the Meaning of Life (Part 1)

Albert Camus began his famous meditation on the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus, with a rather pointed observation:
There is but one truly serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest - whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories - comes afterwards.
There is some force to this. We live such tiny lives, rounded by a sleep, that we had better figure out if they are worth living in the short time we have available to us.

 Of course, the most popular suggestion is that life derives its meaning from God. But how could this be? And can there be meaning in the absence of God?

Erik Wielenberg's book Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe tries to answer those questions. As the title suggests, his goal is to show how meaning can exist without God but in the course of making this argument he has to deal with the theistic position.

The book is richer than I can hope to do justice to here. But an overview of the introductory chapter will give some flavour of his approach to the topic.

1. What is Meaning?
Wielenberg begins by distinguishing between three possible conceptions of the meaning of life.

The first, illustrated by the apology of Socrates and implicit in most religious views, is that of supernatural meaning. The idea here is that life only has meaning if some supernatural being has conferred or imbued with meaning.

The second is that of external meaning. The idea here is that life has meaning if it brings about some good that is external to the life of the agent. This good need not be supernatural nor rely on any supernatural forces. For example, alleviating the suffering of others might be said to give external meaning to your life.

Finally, there is the concept of internal meaning. A life can be said to have internal meaning when it is meaningful to the agent who lives it, when that agent derives satisfaction from what they do, irrespective of external or supernatural significance.

2. Meaning without God?
Having introduced those three conceptions, Wielenberg then considers four arguments suggesting that life without God has no meaning.

The first of these, arguably the most intuitive, can be called the final outcome argument. The infamous William Lane Craig likes to emphasise this one. The following being a representative quote:
If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death row, we stand and simply wait for our unavoidable execution. If there is no God, and there is no immortality, then what is the consequence of this? It means that the life that we do have is ultimately absurd.
We may wish to quibble with the loaded analogy -- even if we are ultimately "executed" our lives are not necessarily like those of death row prisoners -- but the vision here is clear. Life is seen to be a sequence of events or stages, and what meaning it has derives from the final stage in the sequence. According to the theist, the final stage is our immortal union with God; according to the atheist the final stage is oblivion. WLC thinks it obvious that the former has meaning but the latter does not.

Before moving on to the next argument, I cannot help but include a bit of Shakespeare. Here is the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech from As You Like It. It captures the vision of life just outlined:

The second argument, which is implicit in the quote from Craig, is the pointless existence argument. Craig acknowledges that immortality would not be enough to give life meaning. Instead, some criteria for establishing what a successful life would look like need to be set by a supernatural being. This being assigns purposes to our lives and judges whether we fail or succeed in fulfilling them.

The third argument comes with a self-explanatory title: the nobody of significance cares argument. Wielenberg takes this from a paper by Susan Wolf. The basic idea is that a life has to mean something to someone of more intrinsic worth that oneself. In other words, it has to mean something to God.

The final argument is the God as the source of ethics argument. To appreciate this argument we need to revisit the idea of external meaning. It was said that making the world a better place could give life with some meaning. But in order to do this one must operate from the correct moral foundation. If God's existence is necessary for the existence of morality, then a universe without God could never be made "better".

The premises of this final argument have been discussed many times on this blog (see the various articles on morality and religion in the table of contents) and Wielenberg dedicates subsequent chapters of his book to it. The remainder of Chapter 1 explores some potential non-theistic responses to the first three arguments. We will consider these in part 2.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Rethink It (Part 1)

This post is the first in a series on Sharon Street's article "Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Rethink It". According to her webpage, the article is due to be published in Philosophy and Public Affairs.

It is structured largely as a response to a 1996 article by the legal theorist Ronald Dworkin. That article was entitled "Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Believe it" - hence the title of Street's article.

Although structured as a response to Dworkin, the article also aims to be of broader significance to the realism vs. antirealism debate in metaethics. As discussed previously, Street defends a form of antirealist constructivism, although she is less explicit about the constructivist aspect in this particular article.

Before even responding to Dworkin, Street spends some time assessing the lay of the realist v. antirealist land. I summarise this below.

1. The Practical Standpoint vs. the Theoretical Standpoint
The first thing Street notes is that we can view ourselves and our actions from two perspectives: the practical and the theoretical. From the practical standpoint we take things to be valuable and make normative judgments. From the theoretical standpoint we view our values and normative judgments as part of a complex causal history.

The potential clash between the two perspectives was long ago highlighted by Kant (he suggested that we could never consistently view ourselves as causal/mechanistic beings) and it plays a central role in Street's article. She argues that, if one is a moral realist, it is very difficult to reconcile the following propositions:

  1. Our normative judgments (i.e. judgments about right and wrong) are correct.
  2. Our normative judgments are subject to causal explanation.
On the other hand, if one is an antirealist (constructivist) it is easy to reconcile these propositions.

The full argument for this will be outlined in a subsequent post. To appreciate it, we will need to pin down the differences between moral realism and anti-realism. This is the next step in Street's article.

2. Realism and Antirealism
Street contrasts realists and antirealists by looking at how they respond to three separate questions. 

First, there is the question concerning the ontological status of moral values. Realists contend that moral values are somehow woven into the ontological fabric of reality; that they are mind-independent. A brief articulation of this idea can be found in my series on Erik Wielenberg. Antirealists argue that values are mind-dependent; that they don't come into existence unless and until practically rational beings come into existence.

Second, there is the question of the ideally coherent Caligula. This is a philosophical thought experiment relating to the infamous Roman Emperor. Caligula had a reputation for sadism, and the philosopher would like to know two things: (i) whether sadism is a value that can be held by a fully consistent and otherwise happy rational agent; and (ii) whether a consistent sadist would have a moral reason to inflict cruelty.

According to the moral realist, such an individual could exist but he would be wrong about his moral reasons. This is because moral values are mind-independent and so it is never morally acceptable to be a sadist. 

Antirealists are somewhat conflicted on the Caligula-issue. Kantian antirealists will argue that there could never be an ideally-coherent Caligula. For the Kantian, valuing other human beings is a necessary feature of practical agency. Thus, one could never have a moral reason for being a sadist. The Humean antirealist is far more bullish. He/she accepts the possibility of an ideally-coherent Caligula and accepts that such an individual would have a moral reason for being a sadist.

3. Structure of Street's Paper
The above serves as an extended introduction to the realist/antirealist debate. Where does Ronald Dworkin fit into this? Well, Dworkin defends a rather unique form of realism and tries to defend it from the kind of antirealism espoused by Street.

The remainder of Street's article has the following structure:
  • Summarise Dworkin's version realism
  • Fully articulate the practical/theoretical standpoint problem facing Dworkin (and other realists).
  • Consider possible solutions to this problem.
  • Consider Dworkin's solution to this problem.
  • Explain why he is wrong and why antirealism is the more plausible position.
  • Defend antirealism from some other objections.
We will look at each of these elements in future entries.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Constructivism with Sharon Street

This is an index for my posts on Sharon Street's various articles on metaethical constructivism. According to Street's version of constructivism, moral judgments are correct if they withstand scrutiny from the practical standpoint. The practical standpoint is the one we all occupy and consists in taking things to be valuable.

Street argues that constructivism can be developed into a complete and satisfying answer to the major metaethical questions. In particular:
  • It shows how moral judgments fit within a naturalistic picture of the world.
  • It allows for a robust form of moral truth.
  • It offers a plausible moral epistemology (i.e. the method of "withstanding scrutiny").
  • It answers at least some questions about moral semantics (although it considers these to be of lesser importance).
I have covered two of Street's articles so far. I may cover more in the future.

1. What is Constructivism in Metaethics?

2. Constructivism about Reasons

3. Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Rethink It

Monday, June 7, 2010

What Good is an Explanation? (Part 2)

The post in the second in a series on Peter Lipton's article "What good is an Explanation?". The article tries to ascertain what the intrinsic and instrumental good of an explanation actually is. Lipton identifies "understanding" as being the intrinsic good of explanation.

The problem is that "understanding" can sustain at least five distinct conceptual interpretations. In part one, we went through each of these interpretations and tested them against three key features of an explanation. Through this process we learned that the causal-conception of understanding is the strongest.

According to this conception, we understand why something is the case when we identify what caused it to be the case.

In this part, we will do two things. First, we will follow Lipton as he tries to discover why it is that the identification of causes satisfies our explanatory lust. Second, with the discussion of the intrinsic good of explanation under our belts, we turn to consider the instrumental good(s) of explanation.

1. Is there a Question?
Before we answer the question "why do causes explain?", we must consider whether the question makes any sense. After all, we have just defined explanation in terms of cause and so there may be a suspicion that the question is akin to asking "why are bachelors unmarried?".

Despite this suspicion, Lipton thinks that the question can make sense. Particularly if we reformulate it as "why do causes explain rather than effects?". This seems to be non-trivial question as is illustrated by an example.

At the Mt. Wilson Observatory, Edwin Hubble famously observed the red shift of galaxies. This red-shift was explained by the fact that these galaxies were receding away from us. By contrast, the red-shift did not explain the recession of the galaxies.

Why the asymmetry?

That seems like a question worth asking.

2. So, Why Do Causes Explain?
Answering it proves to be quite tricky. Lipton starts off by saying that the cause (C) of an event (E) explains E because C is what brings about E. The problem with this reply is that "brings about" sounds suspiciously like "causes", so we haven't really answered the question.

An alternative definition, and the one preferred by Lipton, is that causes explain because they make a difference. That is to say, they show why E occurred instead of not occurring. Lipton's approach here is similar to the counterfactual approach to causation being discussed in my series on Steve Sloman's book Causal Models.

Lipton lists four attractive features of the "making a difference"-view.

The first is that our ability to manipulate causes in order to alter effects is what gives us control. And since control is of enormous practical value, the making a difference-view accounts for our fascination and preoccupation with explanation.

The second is that it accounts for our ambivalence about certain causes. After all, not all causes are explanatory. For example, if we were told that a rabbit has been killed and were asked to explain why, we could give two answers. First, we could describe the behaviour of one particular fox who was seen in the area at the time. Second, we could cite the high numbers of foxes who live in the area.

Lipton suggests that the high population was what really "made a difference". Why? Because it would seem like if only one fox was in the locality, the rabbit could probably escape and survive. However, given a high population, the rabbit seems to be doomed.

The third attractive feature concerns its importance in constrastive explanations. Again, an example will help to illustrate the idea. Suppose we are wondering why Martin got paresis (a form of partial paralysis). You claim that syphilis was the cause. We might be satisfied with this if we are contrasting Martin with an ordinary healthy member of society. But suppose we are contrasting Martin with Bill, who also has syphilis. In those circumstances, we would be less satisfied with the proffered explanation.

Lipton argues that "making a difference" accounts for the discrepancy between the two cases: the syphilis makes a difference in the first case, but not in the second.

The fourth, and final, attractive feature concerns its ability to draw out the distinction between descriptions of causes that are explanatory and those that are not. The example Lipton uses is a fire in a university department. A report into the incident cites the lack of appropriate insulation of high voltage power lines as the cause of the fire.

If we asked for an explanation of the fire we would be displeased if a colleague said "the fire was caused by the problem cited on pg. 17 of the incident-report". It may well be that pg. 17 contains a description of the lack of insulation, but citing a page reference does not explain the incident.

This is because a truly explanatory description should cite the features of an incident which made the difference between the incident's occurrence and non-occurrence. Pg. 17 of the report, however accurate, did not make a difference.

3. Instrumental Goods
It is obvious enough that explanation has many practical and instrumental benefits. If we can identify and manipulate causes, our ability to pursue our non-explanatory goals will be greatly enhanced.

However, there is another, less obvious, instrumental good associated with explanation. This is that explanations allow us to make inferences. And the making of inferences lies at the heart of many inductive and intellectual practices. For example, scientists must infer which hypothesis is true or false; historians must infer which events are most likely to have taken place.

By constraining these inferential practices so that they must offer the best available explanation of the relevant phenomena, we are helping these researchers in their studies.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Constructivism about Reasons (Part 3) - Withstanding Scrutiny and More

This post is the third in my series on Sharon Street's article "Constructivism about Reasons". In this article, Street tries to present a systematic statement of the constructivism approach to metaethics.

In part one, we introduced the questions motivating Street's inquiry. We also discussed the topic of restricted constructivism in considerable depth. In part two, we tried move away from restricted constructivism towards a full-blown or metaethical constructivism. In this part we complete that move.

The essence of metaethical constructivism is captured in the following statement: an agent has moral reason to Y if Y withstands scrutiny from the perspective of the agents other normative judgments. This is repeated for each and every moral judgment the agent makes.

In this post we will do two things. First, we will consider what it means for a judgment to "withstand scrutiny". And second, we will offer six general observations on the nature of metaethical constructivism. These six observations reflect similar observations made in part two about the nature of restricted constructivism.

1. Withstanding Scrutiny?
To grasp the concept of "withstanding scrutiny", we need to understand: (i) the constitutive relationships between normative judgments and (ii) the difference between a normative judgment and a desire.

Suppose I judge that I have reason to become a doctor. Suppose further that studying chemistry is a prerequisite for getting into medical school. Now suppose that when you ask me whether I am going to study chemistry I answer "no, I have no reason to do so".

What should you make of my response? Clearly, I am making a normative error of some description. My claim that I have no reason to study chemistry does not withstand scrutiny from the perspective of my reason to become a doctor.

This example illustrates the constitutive relationships that exist between reasons. If you accept that you have reason to do X, and if you accept that Y is a means to X, you cannot turn round and claim that you have no reason to Y. One reason (rX) legislates the standards with which another reason (rY) can be scrutinised.

Reasons that survive the process of scrutiny can be called normative judgments.

Normative judgments are, according to Street, distinct from desires. To draw out the distinction, she imagines the case of someone with a diseased leg. He is told that it will have to be amputated or the disease will become life-threatening. Since (we assume) the man values his life, we can say, unequivocally, that he has reason to amputate his leg.

The conclusion would be different if we referred only to the man's desires. Desires do not have the same constitutive relationships as reasons. So it would be perfectly possible for the man to desire to live at the same time as desiring not to have his leg amputated.

The distinction Street makes turns on a definition of what it means to desire something. Street equates it with mere conscious whim and so her point is clear: a reason-for-action can exist without conscious awareness.

2. Six Observations about Metaethical Constructivism
Okay, now that we have a fairly detailed account of metaethical constructivism, we can turn to some general commentary. In doing so, we will follow the six-observations-motif that was set earlier in this series:
  • (1) According to metaethical constructivism, the correctness of a normative judgment is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of withstanding scrutiny.
  • (2) There may be a worry that metaethical constructivism is circular. This is because it seem grounds one set of normative judgments in another set, thus presupposing what it is trying to explain. But, argues Street, withstanding scrutiny describes what is constitutively involved in making a normative judgment. This does not require us to presuppose other substantive moral judgments because constitutive entailment is not the same as rational entailment.
  • (3) Not all normative judgments will be determinate. The constructivist allows for the possibility of conflict between a persons normative judgments. When conflicts arise, three strategies are available (i) appeal to our often implicit judgments about trade-offs between values; (ii) appeal to the judgment that is more fundamental to our being (this is usually obvious because it is the judgment that covers more aspects of our lives and activities); or (iii) accept that there is an ineliminable contrast or dilemma. On this third possibility, Street argues that although the constructivist is happy with the possibility of moral dilemmas, they should be reluctant to embrace them: many so-called dilemmas are likely to derive from a lack of knowledge.
  • (4) Radical choice may play a role in metaethical constructivism. A radical choice is one that is based on no reason whatsoever. Such radical choices may be required to solve a moral dilemma. But they may also be involved at a much deeper level: in adopting the practical standpoint in the first place (I'm personally sceptical of the possibility of abandoning the practical standpoint).
  • (5) Reflective equilibrium plays a key role in metaethical constructivism. A reflective equilibrium is reached when all of one's beliefs and values are in harmony. The process of "withstanding scrutiny" is designed to help reach reflective equilibrium.
  • (6) This is a fully-fledged metaethical thesis. It explains the ontological status of moral truth and it shows how to gain epistemic access to moral truth.
It would be worthwhile going back to see how these observations compare with those made in relation to restricted constructivism. 

Before we conclude, there are two final worries about metaethical constructivism that need to be addressed.

3. What is a Reason?
Metaethical constructivism explains one set of normative judgments in terms of their withstanding scrutiny from another set. But this explanation could be wholly uninformative.

After all, these normative judgments are simply judgments about what we have reason to do. And in order to have a reason to do X we must first judge that X is valuable. Which is just another way of saying that we must have reason to do X. The concept of a reason, it is argued, is no less troublesome than the concept of normative judgment or value.

In effect, we are shifting the metaethical debate away from the question "what is normative correctness/incorrectness?" to the question "what is a reason?". Street agrees that there may be a problem here. There is a sense in which having reasons-for-action is just a brute fact about being a human being.

Still, it seems plausible to demand some explanatory account of what a reason is. Unfortunately, Street seems to waffle a bit in her response. I think I can distill it to the following:
  • A reason can be explained by taking (a) the primitive experience of valuing something and combining it with (b) an account of the constitutive relations between reasons.
I can't say I'm persuaded by that. It doesn't seem to provide us the understanding we would expect from an explanation. I tend to think that an evolutionary and physiological account could be added to this to show how the primitive experience of valuing came into the world.

This would require some additional explanatory spadework.

4. Where does it all End?
Constructivism maintains that one normative judgment is scrutinised from the perspective of another, and that this other is scrutinised from the perspective of yet another and so on. The end result is a picture of a morality sustained by a web of interlocking normative judgments.

The question is whether, when it comes down to it, there is only one possible set of interlocking normative judgments or many such sets. There are two different constructivist answers to this question.

According to one class of constructivist -- Kantian or Substantive Constructivists -- there is ultimately only one set of values that all practical agents must share. For example, Christine Korsgaard in The Sources of Normativity argues that all agents must value humanity and that every other normative judgment must be consistent with this value.

According to a second class of constructivist -- Humean or Formal Constructivists -- there could be many sets of interlocking values. We have to work with what we've been given.  In other words, substantive moral values cannot be derived from a purely formal account of practical reason.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Constructivism about Reasons (Part 2) - First Steps to Metaethics

This is post is the second in my series on Sharon Street's article "Constructivism about Reasons". In this article, Street tries to offer a systematic statement of the constructivist thesis.

In part one, we covered the questions addressed in Street's article and the approach she takes to answering them. We also covered the phenomenon of restricted constructivism in some detail.

In this part, we take our first steps away from the restricted approach towards a full-blown metaethical constructivism. To be precise, we take three steps in that direction. First, we summarise some key points about the nature of restricted constructivism. Second, we give a loose account of metaethical constructivism, showing in the process how it differs from metaethical realism. And third, we provide a more formal definition of metaethical constructivism.

1. Six Observations on Restricted Constructivism
In part one, we gave a formal account of restricted constructivism. This account highlighted the five key ingredients to the restricted approach and then showed how these ingredients were used in the work of John Rawls and Thomas Scanlon.

The results of that formal account can be summarised as follows: one set of normative judgments (target set) is deemed to be correct if it is entailed by a further set of normative judgments (grounding set).

To give an example, our judgment that slavery is immoral is correct because it is something to which free and equal agents would agree when negotiating a social contract from behind a veil of ignorance.

Six observations can be made about the restricted position:
  • (1) The moral correctness of particular normative judgments does not depend on opinion; it depends on withstanding a procedure of scrutiny. Thus, it is possible to make moral errors.
  • (2) The approach raises worries about circularity and uninformativeness. After all, one set of judgments is being grounded by another set of judgments. There is a danger that the target set of judgments end up being semantically or ontologically equivalent to the grounding set of judgments.
  • (3) Whether a target judgment is true or false is usually thought to be a determinate matter. That is, there is one and only one answer to the question about the moral propriety of slavery. 
  • (4) The idea of radical choice plays no part in the restricted account. Radical choice is choice based on no reasons whatsoever. This cannot arise for restrictivists because the grounding set of normative judgments is a fixed point from which all other choices are made.
  • (5) The idea of reflective equilibrium does play a part throughout the process of fashioning the restricted view. A reflective equilibrium is reached when all of one's moral and factual judgments are in harmony.
  • (6) Restricted constructivism is not metaethical. The grounding set of normative judgments could be derived from any metaethical theory.
Keep these observations in mind because we will be considering them again after we have developed a fuller account of metaethical constructivism.

2. Constructivism v. Realism
What would a full-blown or metaethical constructivism look like? Simple, it would look like restricted constructivism except that it would not have a presupposed set of grounding normative judgments.

In other words, it would assess the moral correctness/incorrectness of one set of moral judgments in light of another set of moral judgments, and it would assess the correctness/incorrectness of those moral judgments in light of another set of moral judgments and so on.

The obvious question is: where does this process come to a halt? That question will be answered at the very end of this series. For now, we will focus on the differences between metaethical constructivism and metaethical realism.

The constructivist thinks that our ability to pass normative judgment on certain activities is derived from our ability to value things. Indeed, valuing things is the essential feature of being a practical agent. That is: an agent who reasons about what he should and should not do. Thus, according to the constructivist, the values that we have depend for their existence on the fact that we value them.

That statement captures the primary distinction between realism and constructivism. The realist argues that moral values are mind-independent. So even if we didn't value them, they would still exist and they would still be valuable.

To support this claim, analogies are the key weapon in the realist armoury, analogies with mind-independent scientific and mathematical facts being the one's with most firepower.

Who is right, the constructivist or the realist? Street proposes the following thought experiment to answer that question.

3. A Thought Experiment
There was a time when there were no creatures capable of valuing anything, just as there was a time when there were no creatures capable of appreciating mathematical truths. Nevertheless, from the valueless depths of the big bang, the evolutionary unfolding of reality has led to the existence of valuing creatures.

Let's suppose that two such creatures came into existence on the same day. Creature 1 valued its own preservation and reproduction; Creature 2 valued its own destruction. We can call these primitive or non-instrumental values. No prizes for guessing which of these creatures' basic valuing-structure has been passed down to us.

The constructivist intuition is that in taking life to be valuable Creature 1, for all its evolutionary success, was not recognising some mind-independent Platonic value. Nor was Creature 2, for all its self-destructive tendencies, failing to recognise some mind-independent value. Prior to them taking something to be valuable, there was no value in the world.

In this sense, value is mind-dependent.

Nevertheless, once these creatures had values it was possible for them to make normative errors of judgment. This is because their non-instrumental values entailed a set of instrumental reasons and it was possible to be mistaken about those reasons.

For instance, because Creature 1 wished to survive, he had reason to eat food and to do whatever was necessary to find food to eat. Creature 1 had these reasons-for-action even when he was not aware of them. They arose solely from the fact that he valued his survival. A similar analysis could be applied to Creature 2, as is illustrated below.

The important points arising from this thought experiment are the following. First, values are not mind-independent. Second, once there are creatures capable of valuing things, there is a possibility of making a normative error.

The key challenge facing the constructivist is the status of the primitive or non-instrumental values. Nowadays, it seems perfectly possible for us to question whether or not they are valuable. How does this become possible and what does it mean?

Imagining a third creature will be instructive in this regard. Suppose that this third creature takes two things to be valuable: (i) the preservation of its own life and (ii) the preservation of the lives of its offspring.

Obviously, this creature will be inclined to affirm the following proposition "My survival is valuable". But it is not a done deal since he must check to see whether that proposition is entailed by his other primitive value.

When he does the necessary checking, he is likely to still affirm the proposition. After all, his offspring may well depend on him to provide them with food, shelter and protection. Thus, if this creature woke up one morning and said "my life is no longer valuable" he would be mistaken: this judgment does not withstand scrutiny from the perspective of his other values.

The situation quickly becomes complex. Modern human beings will have hundreds of values, some of which may be mutually incompatible. Nonetheless, the constructivist argues that the basic process of scrutinising one set of normative judgments in light of another is the correct way to go.

4. A Formal Account of Metaethical Constructivism
We are now in a position to offer a formal account of metaethical constructivism. It is the following:
According to metaethical constructivism, the fact that X is a reason to Y for agent A is constituted by the fact that the judgment that X is a reason to Y withstands scrutiny from the standpoint of A's other normative judgments.
To give an example, the fact that I have a reason to consume food is constituted by the fact that my judgment that I have a reason to consume food withstands scrutiny from the standpoint of my judgment that my life is worth living. That's an unattractive mouthful, but such is the circumspection of philosophers.

This formal definition implies that moral truth is always relative to some other set of normative judgments that the agent holds. This means that although there are objective moral facts, they are not absolute.

Actually, that last point is disputed. Kantian constructivists will argue that there are some values that must be affirmed by all practical agents. These values, if they exist, would be absolute.

This brings us back to the five key ingredients of restricted constructivism (see part one). Do these ingredients have analogues in metaethical constructivism? With one exception, they do.

  1. Targets: Any normative judgment that needs to be considered.
  2. Procedure: Withstanding scrutiny (yet to be defined).
  3. Results: All moral reasons-for-action
  4. Grounding: All the agent's normative judgments, except the one being considered.
The one thing missing from this is the materials that go into the constructivist procedure. The materials are the reasons-for-action that flow from the grounding set of normative judgment. Street argues that they are absent from metaethical constructivism because it is supposed to account for all moral reasons.

Anyway, c'est tout for this post. In the next part we will take a closer look at the idea of "withstanding scrutiny".

Constructivism about Reasons (Part 1) - Introduction

In a previous two-parter, I had the opportunity to run through Sharon Street's take on the metaethical claims of constructivism. In this series, I will go into those claims in more depth and tease out some of strengths and weaknesses of metaethical constructivism.

As per usual, I am basing all of this on an article. And once again the author of the article is Sharon Street. The article is entitled "Constructivism about Reasons" and in it Street valiantly attempts to flesh out the constructivist account of moral reasons.

This article could well be her most important work to date -- it is certainly the best of the three I have read -- so I want to give a fairly detailed exposition of its key points. This will, of course, be spread-out over several posts.

In this post, I will do two things. First, I will try to give an overview of the article: what questions does it deal with and how does it deal with them? And second, I will cover the concept of restricted constructivism. This is something I covered previously, but the discussion here will be more elaborate and, with luck, more informative.

1. Moral Reasons and Metaethics
One cannot live without asking practical questions. Or so it would seem. These practical questions have a familiar form: "should I become a doctor or a lawyer?", "Should I drink tea or coffee?", "Should I give money to charity?" and so on.

These questions are all demanding reasons-for-action. We want to know if there are any reasons for being a doctor, reasons for being a tea-drinker, and reasons for being charitable. Such things, if they exist, would form part of our normative judgments about what we should and should not do.

But what are these normative judgments really? What do they mean and how do they fit within the ontological structure of reality? These are the questions at the heart of metaethics. In a previous post, I gave a short description of three approaches to this topic.

Street's article offers a systematic statement of the constructivism approach. According to this approach, normative judgments are ontologically constituted by the fact that they withstand scrutiny from the practical point of view. That is: from the point of view of an agent who is in the business of asking and answering practical questions.

This may seem a little opaque right now, but perseverance should lead to clarity. The first step is to get a feel for the overall structure of Street's article. The article has two major components, each of which is in turn broken down into a set of sub-components.

The first component deals with the topic of restricted constructivism. This is an approach that is popular among political theorists; it's most common form being that of the social contract. Street identifies the five key ingredients of the restricted constructivist approach and shows how they are used in the work of John Rawls and Thomas Scanlon. She closes by making six observations about these theories.

The second component deals with metaethical constructivism. Unlike the restricted variations, this approach adopts some definite positions on the nature of moral truth. Street explains the approach in detail, highlighting its similarities and differences to the restricted approach.

In the remainder of this post I will provide the general outline of restricted constructivism, describing its five key ingredients in the process, and applying this to the work of some leading constructivists.

2. The Ingredients of Restricted Constructivism
As mentioned above, the central constructivist claim is the following:
The truth or falsity of a normative judgment depends on whether this judgment withstands a  procedure of scrutiny from the standpoint of a further set of normative judgments.
So suppose we are concerned with the correctness of our judgments about the propriety of abortion. In particular, suppose I think that abortion is morally permissible. Am I right to think this? The constructivist answers that question by assessing whether the judgment is consistent with my other normative judgments.

So suppose I also believe that the ability to exercise autonomy over our bodies is a moral good. I can say,  with good conscience, that this judgment entails my judgment about abortion. But what if I have other normative judgments about the sanctity of life that would not entail my view about views? Ah well, therein lies the rub for the constructivist. We will need return to this problem later.

For now, we will focus on the approach of the restricted constructivists. Stated baldly, restricted constructivists establish the correctness of a particular set of normative judgments by seeing whether they are entailed by another presupposed set of normative judgments. Whether this other set of judgments is itself entailed by further judgments is not something that concerns the restricted constructivist.

To be more formal, there are five key ingredients to restricted constructivism. They are:
  1. The Targets: These are the normative judgments whose correctness/incorrectness is at issue. For example, judgments concerning the propriety of abortion.
  2. The Procedure: This is the process through which the correctness/incorrectness of the targets is established.
  3. The Results: The conclusions concerning the correctness/incorrectness of the target judgments after the procedure has been undertaken.
  4. The Grounding: The set of normative judgments that are presupposed in the constructive procedure.
  5. The Materials: The reasons-for-action that derive from the set of grounding judgments. A single normative judgment can supply many reasons-for-action.

I personally find Street's distinction between 4 and 5 to be unclear and feel they could be combined into one ingredient. But I will try to stick with her characterisation in spite of my confusion.

To better understand the significance of these ingredients, we need to see how they are used in the work of the leading restricted constructivists. Street looks at two such theorists: John Rawls and Thomas Scanlon.

3. Rawls's Constructivism
John Rawls is widely acknowledged as the most influential political theorist of the 20th century. He developed a comprehensive framework for judging the moral acceptability of social institutions. Rawls's work, from A Theory of Justice in 1971 to Political Liberalism in 1993, is avowedly constructivist in nature.

The five ingredients to Rawls's theory are as follows:
  1. Targets: Rawls is concerned with the correctness/incorrectness of judgments about social and political justice. Who is entitled to what?
  2. Procedure: To determine the correct principles of justice, we must imagine a social contract being negotiated from behind a veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance ensures the impartiality of the negotiators.
  3. Results: The two principles of justice and everything that follows from these principles. The first principle grants every citizen equal access to basic liberties (speech, conscience etc.). The second mandates an egalitarian distribution of wealth and other privileges.
  4. Grounding: A set of normative judgments endorsing the idea that people are free and equal, and the idea that society is a system for ensuring cooperation over time.
  5. Materials: The conceptions of individuals and society that flow from the set of grounding judgments.
Rawls is pretty clear that his philosophy takes no stance on the deeper nature of moral truth. He simply assumes that people will have reasons to participate in society and to think of themselves as free and equal. These reasons could derive from secular or religious moral traditions. It does not matter. Rawls's goal is merely to specify the system of social justice that follows from these reasons. 

Indeed, Rawls thinks the lack of commitment to a deeper metaethics is a virtue of his approach: it makes it more acceptable within a pluralistic democratic society. But it also robs his philosophy of the moral spine it needs to withstand objections from those who do not think we are free and equal.

4. Scanlon's Constructivism
Thomas Scanlon, although less influential than Rawls, is a highly respected moral and political philosopher. His 1998 work What we Owe to Each Other sets forth a restricted constructivist account of moral duties and obligations.

The five ingredients are as follows:
  1. Targets: Judgments concerning our moral duties to one another. Should I respect your religious beliefs? Should I prevent you from harming yourself?
  2. Procedure: Contractualist bargaining. Every person in society negotiates with every other person about the duties they can reasonably be expected to discharge.
  3. Results: An indefinite set of moral principles specifying the facts that are relevant to our duties.
  4. Grounding: A set of normative judgments stating that we have reason to live with others on reasonable terms.
  5. Materials: The reasons-for-action that arise from the grounding judgments.
Hopefully this gives some idea of how restricted constructivism works. Again, the basic idea is that one set of normative judgments (targets) is entailed by another (grounding) via a specified procedure.

Okay, we'll leave it there for now. In the next post we will make six observations about restricted constructivism and use these as a springboard for developing a thoroughgoing or metaethical constructivism.