Hierarchy and Domination, Cont.
April 1, 2012

Replying to my last post on liberalism and republicanism, Corey Robin writes:

Nice job, though you should point out that my main concerns are: 1) freedom as non-interference fits a commonsensical understanding in US, which the workplace compromises all the time, and thus provides us with a good standard to mobilize political argument; and 2) I’m not against notions of freedom as non-domination, I just don’t want to throw out freedom as non-interference as well. Also I’m not sure I’d include Milton in that camp; he seems okay with some hierarchies and other parts of republican tradition are very okay with social hierarchy, including slavery.

The final point about Milton and pre-modern republicanism is well taken. Early republicans desired non-domination, but only for a select class of people: usually land-owning white men. One of the crucial differences between modern and pre-modern republicanism is the modern republican’s conviction that non-domination is a global imperative.

But the principle of non-domination requires to distinguish between dominating and non-dominating hierarchies. Republicanism is not pure horizontalism. Instead, republicanism condemns certain existing hierarchies — in modern times, hierarchies predicated on gender, race or sexual orientation — on the basis that they are de facto dominating. We can imagine other hierarchies that are not inherently dominating, such as the social hierarchies that often exist between a student and a teacher, a governor and constituents, or a jury and a defendant. But note that these hierarchies have very clearly defined formal legal boundaries, and that they are not static; a constituent can run for office, a student can become a teacher, and a member of the jury may one day be put on trial. Republicanism is not inherently anti-hierarchy, but seeks to make necessary hierarchies transparent and dynamic.

This, I would argue, is a preferable alternative to abolishing hierarchy altogether. Informal hierarchies will always be with us in one way or another, but carefully constructed formal hierarchies can serve as a check on them. Without that formal element, informal hierarchies become opaque and impossible to contest through anything but brute force.

But to return to the conflict between non-interference and non-domination: I should have been clearer about the fact that Corey is not opposed to using the concept of non-domination in our understanding of liberty. Our disagreement is entirely over whether non-interference as liberty is also a necessary concept. I would argue that it is not, for two reasons: the first, which I presented in my last post, is that non-domination theory already adequately accounts for any conceivable instance of unjust interference.

The second objection is implied by the first: freedom as non-interference can’t adequately account for cases where interference is warranted or even desirable. As a result, contemporary liberal theorists have had to propose various side constraints on freedom from interference, and various other criteria for what constitutes justice. Those additional criteria — fairness and equality, for example — may plug the gaps created by freedom as non-interference, but the result is far from elegant. (And, as I have noted before, these additional criteria can still leave critical weaknesses exposed.)

In Justice For Hedgehogs — which I’ll be blogging more about in the near future — Ronald Dworkin repeatedly references the old aphorism about the fox who knows many little things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. He diagnoses most modern analytic moral theory as being rather foxy: a cumbersome patchwork of narrowly targeted principles that often conflict with one another. In place of the fox’s approach to ethics, he argues for hedgehog morality: one big mutually-reinforcing system of value. Freedom as non-domination is that system, and freedom from non-interference seems increasingly to be a millstone around the neck of the progressively-minded fox.

As to Corey’s first point, about non-interference’s usefulness as a rhetorical appeal to common sense: that may be so, in some cases. The art of political messaging is very different from the art of moral philosophy, thank christ. But I stand by non-domination as the appropriate test of what our political goals should be. When you take that case to the voters, you can call it whatever the hell you like.

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Relative Moralism
March 11, 2012

Via Lee McCracken, here’s a particularly pungent example of how right-wing moralists like to abuse the term “moral relativism.” Our author, Gene Callahan, thinks that this is an example of the moral relativist position:

The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad.

That’s Irin Carmon, writing in Salon, and making the perfectly reasonable point that women have better knowledge of their own sexual behavior than Rush Limbaugh, and are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform it to Limbaugh’s mouth-breathy demands. Callahan seems to think this is roughly analogous to arguing that serial killers are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform to the demands of God, society, or the criminal justice system. In other words, he reads Irin’s position as being, “Moral truth is whatever I, personally, want it to be.”

Evidently, Callahan only read the very last paragraph of Irin’s column, and, lacking any real context, filled in the gaps with the stupidest and least charitable reading of her position that he could concoct. In fact, I don’t know how anyone who read the rest of the column could characterize Irin’s position as anything but a moral realist position: women have a right to autonomy and sovereignty over their own bodies, because they are full and equal persons to men in every respect. I suspect Callahan is doing all of this hand-waving about moral relativism either because he doesn’t have a counter-argument, or knows that the counter-argument is too ugly to say out loud.

Look, Ross Douthat and James Poulos have already tried similar stunts with at least a little more adroitness. It would be getting tiresome now, if it hadn’t always been tiresome. The popular moral stance among social liberals on this issue is a moral realist one; if you think that position is wrong, then state your case. But hiding behind cries of “moral relativism” and denying the moral urgency of your opponent’s argument is just another way of saying that you endorse existing hierarchies and inequalities for familiarity’s sake.

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Darwinian Ethics
January 8, 2012

A post by philosopher Michael Ruse called A Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy has been making the rounds in the philosoblogosphere. The thing is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s an executive summary:

  1. Substantive ethics is the product of natural selection.
  2. Naturalism is correct.
  3. Moral realism is wrong.
  4. However, ethical claims have the phenomenological “meaning and character” of objective facts.
  5. Therefore, relativism is also wrong.

Or to put it as Ruse does, “although philosophy may lead to skepticism, psychology makes it impossible to live that way.” The fact that ethical claims are “only” facts about our mental states doesn’t diminish their importance, because our own mental states are all we really have direct access to.

Note that while this is a Darwinian/naturalist approach to ethics, it differs significantly from the sort of reductive, pseudo-empirical claptrap espoused by New Atheists such as Sam Harris. As I’ve written before, Harris’ attempts to reconcile moral realism with reductio ad scientism is doomed to failure. However (if you’ll forgive some self-citation):

I can speak of a world without morality or meaning, but I can’t actually live in it. I’m trapped in the world created by language and conscious thought; there is no way for me to un-see the value I attach to things, or cause my mind to reject its own existence.

That’s more or less in agreement with what Ruse argues above, though he does some extra work to connect this position to the Darwinian tradition. He also connects it to the Humean tradition, acknowledging the importance of the is/ought distinction that reductive materialists tend to reject out of hand.

So if you are, like myself, both a non-believer and a non-reductive materialist, Ruse’s position seems pretty satisfying. Though I wonder what believers (particularly Christians) might make of his final claim:

I think the kind of position I have just sketched should be welcomed by a Christian influenced by naturalism, and I am thinking here of course of Thomas Aquinas and the influence of Aristotle. As a Darwinian, I think we should do what is natural. As an Aristotelian, the Thomist thinks we should do what is natural. I see a meeting point here. It doesn’t incline me to be a Christian but I see how a Christian could start with my position and then put it in a theological context.

Any thoughts?

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Pragmatism and Scientific Realism: Two Great Tastes!
April 26, 2011

“This right here is some @resnikoff linkbait,” tweets young Dylan Matthews, and he is not wrong. The linkbait he refers to is a post over at his own (all too infrequently updated) blog arguing that Sam Harris is trying to have it both ways with his insistence that science can answer basic moral questions.

Dylan writes:

While there are a number of different philosophies of science and epistemologies that can accommodate the scientific method, Harris is certainly correct that you have to accept one of them for the whole thing to work. Harris’ choice appears to be scientific realism, which, in short, is the view that science describes a world that is really “out there”, and that a scientific observation is true when it corresponds to this real world.

Which is funny to me, because Harris is a utilitarian. At least that’s what I and Orr make of his conclusion that the good is the “well-being of conscious creatures”. A quick scan of the book shows that Harris explicitly identifies identifies as a consequentialist (see page 62; sadly there’s no Google Books preview I can link to). Consequentialism + a hedonic conception of the good = good old fashioned utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism, unlike some other ethical theories, has philosophical implications outside of ethics. In particular, I think it commits you to some form of pragmatism. If the answer to “what should I do?” is “whatever action maximizes the general happiness” then the answer to “what should I believe?” is “whatever belief is conducive to maximizing the general happiness”. That starts to look a lot like pragmatists’ argument that what is true is what is most useful to believe.


So Harris has a problem. He can be a scientific realist, which rules out both pragmatism (which rejects the idea that there needs to be a real world “out there” which true statements reflect) and utilitarianism (because it implies pragmatism). Or he can be a utilitarian, and a pragmatist, and acknowledge that religion is often a source for good in the world and a source of joy for many privately. But you can’t be a utilitarian and a scientific realist, and you certainly can’t try to get to utilitarianism through scientific realism, which is what he’s trying to do now.

I’m not sure that’s exactly right. I get the sense that philosopher Neil Sinhababu’s pleasure-based hedonic utilitarianism is consistent with scientific realism, at least if you think Sinhababu’s claims about the objective goodness of hedonic pleasure hold up. (Incidentally, Neil, if you’re reading this I’d love to get your take.)

But while I don’t believe Dylan has scored a hit, I think y’all already know I find Harris’ theory to be deeply ill-conceived. I encourage you to read the excellent essay that inspired Dylan’s post to find out why.

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Wittgenblogging: The Sixth Proposition, Part 2
November 30, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein 2
Image by Christiaan Tonnis via Flickr

(Part 1 is here.)

Okay. So. In the last few pages of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein finally gets around to tying up some of the nagging loose ends. Stuff like ethics, aesthetics, God, life, and death. As far as the first three go, whether or not you think Wittgenstein believes they exist sort of depends on what you think “exists” means. Are they a part of the world? No. Do they interact directly with the world? No. (“God does not reveal himself in the world.”) However, they seem to interact in some with the will. (Which, itself, doesn’t really interact with the world except to the extent that it influences your body’s behavior. “[T]here is no logical connexion between the will and the world,” says Wittgenstein.)

That doesn’t mean that these matters are irrelevant. After all, the will — the self — is the “limit of the world,” as we discovered the last time around. What changes the limit of the world, Wittgenstein writes, makes it “an altogether different world. […] The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” This fits in with his earlier expressed affinity for solipsism, compounded when he says that, “at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end.”

So what are ethics and aesthetics, exactly? To Wittgenstein, they’re transcendental properties that are “higher” than logical propositions. That’s why neither ethics nor aesthetics can actually be put into words or logical propositions. It’s also worth noting Wittgenstein’s construction of how good is good and bad is bad: “There must indeed be some kind of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but they must reside in the action itself.” Skepticism of the existence of God or ethical laws is “nonsensical,” because “it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked.” Asking a question requires being able to formulate a proposition.

For Wittgenstein, that’s pretty much it. There is no discussion to be had about the nature of God, or beauty, or right and wrong. And that’s where I hesitate to jump aboard. It seems to me that these things aren’t so much transcendental properties that act upon the self as properties of the self. We build them as much as they build us, and as such it is within our power to change them. Therein lies the value of asking questions about these things and formulating propositions: we can refine those questions and propositions. We can make them more internally consistent and we can make them better for us. The questions may not strictly have what Wittgenstein would call sense, but they do have some utility.

New Salon Column
October 2, 2010

This went up yesterday. It’s basically an attack on arguments for public policy—but specifically taxation—that put a high premium on notions of what people earn and deserve as central to justice. I do this adapting certain arguments from John Rawls and Peter Unger, the latter of whom originally presented what I turned into the kayak thought experiment in his book Living High, and Letting Die. You should read that book! And also my column!

Just for kicks, you could also check out this weird and confusing rebuttal from Roberty Stacy McCain’s sidekick, Smitty. In it, Smitty:

  • Makes several claims about my beliefs that are either irrelevant (I’m pro-choice), flatly untrue (I don’t believe that it’s immoral for rich people to be rich, nor do I think that “equality of opportunity is meaningless”), or both.
  • Condemns abortion (a legal procedure) and then turns around and adopts a baffling sort of legal-realism-on-crack, in which someone deserves something as long as they didn’t violate the law to acquire it.
  • Implies that my entire argument was dictated to me by my parents and, weirdly enough, Rousseau. (Evidently, Smitty believes that people in Rousseau’s state of nature are subject to a progressive income tax.)
  • And, lastly, gives this as the moral case against progressive taxation: “The moral case for tax cuts is that honest people don’t spend money they lack.” Which I’ll admit I found more than a little mystifying.

Smitty’s post was actually kind of a bummer, because I’m interested in hearing some more sober, coherent rebuttals. I know I’m taking a minority view here, and that a lot of really smart people disagree. But to the extent that Smitty provided anything useful or instructive, I think it was a lesson in the perils of adopting an attitude in which anyone who presents a competing conception of justice is evil or stupid, and just wants to confuse you with his lies. It blinds you to the actual arguments they’re making, and your withering contempt for them obstructs your own ability to persuade. So in the end, nobody really learns anything.

In conclusion: “Smitty” is a fun name to say out loud. Smitty.

Nietzsche Blogging: Twilight of the Idols
September 25, 2010

Gotzen-dammerung - The first edition cover of ...
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With the beginning of Twilight of the Idols, we move into late-era Nietzsche. Soon he’ll be swallowed up by insanity, and I think here is where the first warning signs appear. He’s still the Friedrich we know and love (or hate, or feel deeply ambivalent about), but something’s different. The wit and mockery on display here is a little more acidic. And Nietzsche is ripping into his fellow philosophers like we have never seen before.

I’m not that deep into Twilight of the Idols, but so far almost all of it seems given over to harsh criticism of different philosophical traditions. Platonic forms and Kantian idealism each get savaged as different incarnations of the same error, and Utilitarianism gets dismissed in a single snide comment. Not even Socrates escapes unscathed.

Here’s a passage from the essay, “The Problem of Socrates,” which I think gets at Nietzsche’s larger project in this work:

It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence when they merely wage war against it. Extrication lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change its expression, but they do not get rid of decadence itself.

He is referring here to the Socratic method, and reasoning itself. It’s a jarring argument coming from the man who once held up reason as the only true path to the truth.

But I don’t think this is a contradiction so much as it is a summary of his whole project. Nietzsche is deeply passionate about reason as he sees it, not the idealism of prior philosophers. But perhaps more importantly, he’s an enemy of intellectual complacency and the self-assuredness he identifies as a symptom. Attacking the assumptions of even his own heroes is a way of fighting that good fight.

“Philosophy is Dead,” Cont.
September 8, 2010

I wanted to highlight two responses to my last post.

bmichael gets to more or less the same conclusion as I in a much more succinct manner:

I mean, it’s like the number “3” is the answer to what? Nothing. It’s not the answer, description, or solution to anything without a context, and where there’s context there’s philosophy.

And pyrrhosrepublic says:

Wouldn’t epistemology and philosophy of science still exist even with a radically positivist (=everything should be explained by science) worldview? Perhaps Hawking should take a note from Ayer and the logical positivists who themselves retreated from their zealous (Ayer’s word) initial view.

However, I disagree that scientists and philosophers should stick to their own disciplines. Ideally, to me, both of them would be fairly well-educated in the other’s field.

I should clarify: I think everyone can benefit from an understanding of philosophy and science, and I think philosophers and scientists can certainly benefit greatly from learning where their disciplines interact. That being said, it’s getting increasingly tiresome to listen to scientists presume they know more about philosophy than academic philosophers (Hawking) and vice versa (Fodor). I’m of the view that any intellectual pursuit should be approached with a surplus of intellectual humility, and that’s doubly true for pursuits in which you’re an amateur.

“Philosophy is Dead”
September 8, 2010

NASA StarChild image of Stephen Hawking.
Image via Wikipedia

So says Stephen Hawking, apparently, in his latest book. I wish I knew the full context for this claim, but right now I can only speculate based on the range of responses he’s received. I suppose the argument he’s making here is that empirical science can answer or make irrelevant all of the questions we typically associate with philosophy.

Bold statements like this are evidence, I think, of why scientists should stick to science and philosophers should stick to philosophy (and philosophers of science and experimental philosophers should, well, keep doing their thing). But I think it’s worth making two not-at-all-novel observations: that philosophy is the mother of science, and in fact that the English term for science used to be “natural philosophy.”

Even if you take a strictly empirical view of the nature of the universe, that is a philosophical position—one closely associated with the British empiricists of the Enlightenment and best expressed in the modern era, I think, by Alfred Ayer. In Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer took the position that all metaphysical claims were incoherent, full stop.

Let’s take a charitable view of Hawking’s remarks, and assume that this is what he meant. What does that do to ethics? Epistemology? Well, Language, Truth and Logic is a work of epistemology and philosophy of language, so suffice to say those two disciplines remain intact. And while Ayer argues that ethics is only slightly less incoherent than metaphysics—that moral claims tell us about the disposition and emotional states of the speaker, not a true or false fact about the universe—that matter is by no means settled.

There’s a lot in empiricism I’m sympathetic to, but I’d caution Hawking and other scientific triumphalists like Sam Harris to learn a little intellectual humility and recognize the limitations of scientific inquiry. Speculating on matters that lie outside of science’s explanatory power doesn’t mean we need to abandon logic and reason entirely, but it does mean recognizing that empirical models are not the only tools in our cognitive toolbox.

Nietzsche Blogging: Ressentiment
September 6, 2010

Tarantula (film)
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Oh, S. Pritchard, my unwanted reading partner. His liner notes are becoming even more obtrusive and obtuse—as I wade further into Part Two of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I’m seeing more and more comments like “Yech! Sentimentality,” scrawled in the margins. Admittedly, Nietzsche’s stabs at poetry are more often than not unsuccessful and bathetic, but you don’t need to scribble all over the page to underline that point.

At least Pritchard’s notes on “On the Tarantulas” tell me something I don’t know, although perhaps they don’t send the message their author intended. The titular tarantulas of this passage are “you preachers of equality,” who Nietzsche accuses of preaching the morality of ressentiment (what I believe he would later call “slave morality”). In other words, the preachers of equality deem their oppressors evil and call the good that which harms their oppressors and brings them beneath the heel of the oppressed.

I’m not entirely sure of the historical/political context for these remarks, but it must be significant. There’s no doubt you can find certain ideologies in the modern era that fit the mold—a crude example might be the more hardline elements of Hamas—but to suggest that any doctrine of equality espoused by an oppressed minority is “secretly vengeful” is patently absurd. Is there anything in the actions or philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. to suggest that what he truly sought was white subjugation at the hands of black Americans? Of course not, and to even suggest otherwise is monstrous. When he preached equality, he meant it.

Which brings us to Pritchard’s notes. “On the Tarantulas” seems to be the first passage in the whole collection with which our conservative Christian friend fervently and whole-heartedly agrees. In the margins, he lists who he believes the modern-day tarantulas to be: “nihilist punkers,” “sociobabblers,” “deconstructionists,” “free thinkers,” “civil rights politicos,” “gays,” the black power movement, and radical feminists. If some of these references—“punkers”—sound a little bit dated, it’s because this is an old copy. As far as I can tell, Pritchard wrote these notes some time in the early-to-mid-’80s.

But that’s neither here nor there. The takeaway, I think, is that Pritchard identifies slave morality with virtually every group or ideology which challenges white heterosexual Christian male hegemony in the United States. Which is funny, because in finding an agreeable interpretation of this one passage, he reveals his stunning ignorance of what Nietzsche has been teaching about morality for the rest of the book. The philosopher is just as quick to condemn the morality of the master as of the slave—indeed, his whole moral project is based around obliterating your confidence in the values you were taught, and forcing you to invent your own. Pritchard’s notes are a reminder of how easy it is to take a single passage of Nietzsche’s out of context and use it to reaffirm the very moral principles he condemns elsewhere.

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