Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nagel’s False Dichotomy between Absolutism and Utilitarianism

I suppose this is the last of my posts on “War and Massacre.” Afterwards, Walzer and Brandt. Down the road, Machiavelli and Melville’s Billy Budd will come into this little series on war. If you haven’t read Billy Budd, give it a whirl, and afterwards see Terence Stamp portray the title role in the 1962 movie rendition.

The last point about Nagel is typical of a problem to be found in many ethics articles. Nagel offers a false dilemma between absolutism and utilitarianism. How many undergraduates are asked to take either of these two sides in term papers, by the way? A lot. If they are less unlucky, they will have a virtue ethics alternative, as if it were a competing alternative, and as if it were the only one. W. D. Ross is forgotten. Alan Goldman’s books fall stillborn from the presses.

In any event, Nagel says that either we accept the utilitarian view of moral deliberation over war or we accept that morality requires a less “administrative” and more personal mode of justification. The latter course requires that we be prepared to justify our decision to each affected party, rather than to justify them by some higher level calculus, as utilitarians try to do. It therefore entails that absolute constraints on utility maximization be maintained. As a result, weapons of mass destruction, the strategic bombing of innocents, and other modes of massacre are to be considered absolutely wrong (i.e., wrong in any case.)

I’ve argued in the previous post that this is a non sequitur. We can justify to each individual the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This points to a defect in Nagel’s dilemma, wherein he implies that either one is with the absolutists or with the utilitarians. The third alternative, unchecked by Nagel, is that there are no absolute constraints upon the use of weapons of mass destruction or the strategic bombing of innocents, even though utilitarianism is not the correct view to take of the matter.

Instead, one might opt for a common-sense approach to war and massacre. Common sense bids us to weigh individual rights to go unmolested along with the reasons to promote utility of one’s own society under undeserved attack. Neither has an absolute trump value over the other. Other common-sense factors enter into the matter, such as the membership of the victims of the bombing in the society that has launched the undeserved attacks. (Bad luck, to be an innocent member of a bellicose society and as a result to be a victim of its victims’ retaliation.)

Of course, when some one mentions “common-sense” as a reason for his position, you should reach for your wallet, as it were; expect an unsatisfying argument. But in this case, I am not arguing for an alternative to absolutism or utilitarianism. I’m merely showing that there is a common-sense alternative to them. However, I would be prepared to argue for the common-sense view. But enough has been said on this blog over the last few weeks, let alone five years, to obviate that necessity now. The point is that much common moral argumentation is neither absolutist nor utilitarian. To overlook it is fatal to any formal treatments of morality, such as Nagel's.

Walzer next. And we will return to our series on Kekes's The Art of Life

Friday, November 16, 2007

Strategic Bombing of Innocents
Obviously, we countenance the killing of innocents as a last resort in fending off a bellicose aggressor. So, we are considering the case of bombing a city as a last resort, in order to weaken the will of the aggressor to fight on. Is it justified? Leave aside the question of the degree of efficacy of the strategic bombing of innocents. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. It has been known to steel the will of a beleaguered country, and it has been known to crush its will. Suppose that in the case at hand we may be justified in believing that the enemy will fold or will fold with probability 50% or more.

I imagine that I am entering waters already plumbed deeply by others, but the following consideration seems an important obstacle to the view that it is always wrong to conduct strategic bombing of innocents.

We assume that it is permissible to bomb enemy military targets with collateral deaths of innocents. In such cases the diminution of the enemy military and the innocent deaths have a common cause: the bombing. But the innocent deaths are not the cause of the diminution of the enemy military. In the case of strategic bombing of innocents, the bombing is also the common cause of the same two effects. The difference is that the innocent deaths cause the diminution of the enemy military. (In this case it is a psychological diminution, whereas in the latter case it is a physical one, but that is not relevant.) So, the only difference is in the organization of the causal chain of events. In the one case, the innocent deaths are a means. In the other, they are not.

Therefore, there can be no other plausible argument in favor of the position that the strategic bombing of innocents is wrong besides the following: It is wrong to treat people merely as a means and not as ends in themselves. This is the Kantian view of the matter.

It's a plausible enough case. Note, however, that it seems that we sometimes permissibly use people who serve us as means alone. Take luggage handlers at an airport for example. In my experience, Kantians rule the use of service personnel permissible by explicating “treating as a means alone” as "treating in a way that one would not accept as a universal principle." No one could accept that strategic bombing of innocents be universal law, but we can all accept that there be a service industry such as baggage handling. You're not really treating service personnel as means alone if you wouldn't object to ending up as service personnel yourself. This is supposed to show the crucial moral distinction between using baggage handlers as means and bombing enemy cities as a strategy in war.

In fact, it does no such thing. As I suggested in the last post, consider your country attacking an innocent and peace-loving neighbor for no reason other than desire for power and wealth. Suppose your country kills some of the neighboring country’s citizens and oppresses the others. Suppose the other country cannot stop your country’s military without unacceptable losses to itself except by a strategy of bombing your city, the place where you and your family live.

I would have no objection to being bombed. I accept that as a universal principle, one may conduct strategic bombing of innocents in such cases. I don’t see how I could reasonably object to my family’s being wiped out. Moreover, it seems arbitrary to object to being bombed as a means while nevertheless allowing that one would have no objection to ending up as a collateral casualty when one's country's military is bombed. In short, there is no morally relevant difference.

The case for a moral distinction between collateral innocent deaths and strategic bombing of innocents is therefore unsound.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Flaws in Nagel’s “War and Massacre”

Nagel offers little in the way of argument for absolutist constraints upon violence in war. But, there is a criticism of absolutist condemnations of certain kinds of violence which says that the absolutist is simply reluctant to get his hands dirty (in other words to sacrifice his integrity.) The criticism is an attempt to psychologize and therefore explain absolutism as based upon non-rational desires rather than sound reasons.

Nagel, however, says that this criticism from dirty hands is confused.
First, it is a confusion to suggest that the need to preserve one’s moral purity might be the source of an obligation. [SNIP] Secondly, the notion that one might sacrifice one’s moral integrity justifiably…is an incoherent notion.
In fact, the criticism from dirty hands rests on no such confusions. It contends that the absolutist is afraid of taking a moral stand that requires boldly indecent acts, preferring to hope that meekness and pusillanimity will pass as morally sufficient stances in situations in which a compelling argument for violence is obvious. It is an insufficiency of spleen to the extent that one is unable to grow morally into the person who recognizes when sacrificing one’s decency is morally justifiable. It is a hope that in the final reckoning, as it were, the judge of us all will not have the heart to give the performance of the meek and earnest amongst us a lower score lower than the brazen and brutal, even when the latter got things right. There is sufficient hope to allow the absolutist to forego mustering the spleen necessary to pull the trigger or drop the bomb or to appear immoral to his friends.

In sum, the criticism from dirty hands does not suggest that the need to preserve one’s moral purity is the source of an obligation; it suggests that absolutists believe that clean hands are a sufficient stand-in for righteousness. And the criticism from dirty hands does not assume that one might sacrifice one’s moral integrity justifiably. It assumes that one might engage in indecent acts justifiably. Nagel fails even to begin to turn the criticism away.

The point is that it there is no sound argument for absolutist constraints upon violence in war. Absolutism remains just a theory with no sufficient basis. Therefore, we may turn to psychologism, in order to explain the fact that people hold to this theory. Otherwise, with no psychological explanation handy, one might suspect that the cause is indeed a sufficiently rational basis in the many thousands of pages of absolutist writings since Kant. But psychologism is not philosophy. The philosophical point is that the absolutist intuition that it is absolutely (i.e., indefeasibly) wrong to conduct strategic bombing of innocents or use weapons of mass destruction has no basis.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at what little argument Nagel offers for his absolutism: that one should do something to another only with the intention of treating him as a subject who will receive it. Meanwhile, consider this:

Your country is a totalitarian regime which seeks to extend brutal totalitarian hegemony across its hemisphere. It unprovokedly attacks another country and massacres its people, with no moral justification at all. The other country correctly determines that there is little hope of rescuing itself from your government’s brutal oppression unless it bombs your city, in effort to weaken the resolve of your country to continue its aggression. Do you object?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

An Absolutist Argument against Strategic Bombing of Non-Combatants

Thomas Nagel's 1971 article "War and Massacre" presents the absolutist view that there are certain acts in war which one must never do, no matter how bad the consequences of foregoing them may be. Take, for instance, refraining from bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as an example, if the consequence of this would have been an American land invasion of Japan resulting in hundreds of thousands of American deaths and hundreds of thousands of Japanese deaths.

Here is how Nagel argues for the position (in my paraphrase):
  1. Hostility should be directed at its true object: the people who provoke it.
  2. This is because of Nagel's principle that one should give others the respect they deserve by doing to them only those things that they can understand to be addressed to them as people.
Strategic bombing of non-combatants would therefore be always wrong because it misdirects one's hostility.

I don't think that this argument has much evidential force. Here are two problems with Nagel's view.

1. It doesn't in fact rule out the strategic bombing of non-combatants. We can indeed address the bombing to them as members of the society that attacks us, a society that can be brought to its knees by loss of non-combatant life. We needn't address our hostility to enemy non-combatants in order to bomb them. We need only address our bombing to them, and in doing so, assume that they can understand it as addressed to them.

Even if this is not so, and we cannot divorce bombing people from directing our hostility at them, then Nagel's principle can easily be used to prohibit the bombing of enemy military forces, as well as non-combatants. In any war one will that the find rank-and-file enemy soldiers include men who have little idea of the facts relevant to the moral standing of the war, men who do as they are told without the wherewithal to understand what the war is all about. Surely these men are not appropriate targets of our hostility, even as they raise their guns at us, if Nagel is to be interpreted in a strict sense.

If Nagel wants us to follow his principle, then very well. In bombing we say, "You do understand, don't you, that we drop bombs on you because you are a member of a society that is attacking ours and because bombing you will stop these attacks." This holds just as well for the enemy non-combatant as for the enemy soldier with whom we do not have a beef.

In short, Nagel's principle is too ambiguous to have much force. In fact, it smuggles in its own conclusion because it has force only if by "doing things they can understand to be addressed to them" we mean "...rightly addressed to them...." So, the principle is question-begging and the position is vacuous. As with any derivative of Kantianism, one can easily derive any morals one likes from it.

2. Suppose Nagel's argument doesn't suffer from those difficulties. Still, even if the non-combatants are not the appropriate object of hostility, it may be permissible to kill them. For the fact that stopping their country's military from pursuing its unprovoked attacks on other societies may suffice to override this consideration. Nagel never gives any argument to the contrary, other than to say that something is "wrong with the frame of mind" that disagrees with him on this point. He never gives any argument for his principle that one ought to do only those things to people that they can understand as directed at them. It could just as breezily be replied that something is wrong with the mind of the person that says that a million Japanese and Americans should be killed rather than bombs be dropped on, but that wouldn't make for a worthwhile philosophical argument, either.

On the other hand, the diagnosis of fear of dirty hands in the absolutist is worth looking at. Nagel raises and dismisses it without seeming to understand its force. We'll take a look at it soon.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lt. Michael Murphy

It's not easy to enter enemy fire intentionally. Lt. Murphy received the Medal of Honor posthumously for heroic acts that included performing this daunting feat.

I could accept the loss of both of my sons in circumstances relevantly similar those of Lt. Murphy's death, if I knew that this would be the unlucky result their growing up to be men of Lt. Murphy's caliber. So, I can accept that what happened to Lt. Murphy would apply universally. Therefore, I don't take it to be an injustice that my country sent Lt. Murphy on his final errand. I hope many American boys grow up to be like Lt. Murphy, my sons included, and I understand that, by random selection, some of those boys will die young as a result of their courage. I don't rail against any of this.

It strikes me that anyone who agrees with this line of reasoning would think that it goes without saying. On the other hand, there are plenty of Americans, some who are relatives of my sons, who would find this line of reasoning very difficult to accept. So, it doesn't go without saying, even if it should.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Some Terrain to Cover

We'll be investigating some more of the issues of morals in war. For now a bird's eye view of some of the terrain:
  • The definition of "terrorism." If the bombing of Hiroshima wasn't terrorism, then nothing is.
  • Nagel's article "War and Massacre." It draws a false dichotomy between utilitarianism and absolutism (Kantianism.) I wouldn't accept either. It also doesn't quite get the difficulty that the "dirty hands" argument poses for Nagel's absolutism.
  • You can filter out impermissible acts of war using Kant's test of universalizability: could you accept that everyone do X in circumstances like this? If so, X is permissible in your view. Nagel covers some of this ground, though too quickly.
In any case, next we'll pick up the thread left by the previous post.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Indecency of War

Let's take another look at the position that principle developed in the previous post is true: principle W for "war" because it is the essence of war from which this principle is derived.

There is in war a requirement to do what is indecent. The side that is justified in waging war is not only sometimes justified in but sometimes justified only in doing indecent acts of violence. This is what magnifies the horrors of war into something grotesque. Where morality requires acts of indecent violence it is grotesque.

Since a society has a right to repel the unjust attacks it receives from another, it has a right to do violence which causes casualties amongst enemy innocents whenever this violence is necessary to its defense. The horror of war is that this principle is too obvious to require argument. The morals of war sanction indecency, for it is indecent to incinerate enemy children, yet morality allows it.

But the matter is even worse. There is no morally relevant difference between the strategic killing of enemy innocents and the death of enemy innocents via collateral damage, as in the case of the bombing of a military base unavoidably killing nearby enemy civilians. The justification for the latter - call it collateral killing of innocents - is that it is necessary to defending oneself against the enemy's military. But sometimes this justification subsists remains in the case of the former (the strategic killing of innocents.) And if it be replied that the strategic killing is indecent, it may be pointed out that collateral killing is no less indecent, as the intentional incineration of thousands of innocent non-combatants is indecent in any case.

While the principle that a society sometimes has a right to do acts of violence to enemy innocents doesn't require argument, arguments may be found. I mentioned one in the previous post: the argument from the falsity of pacifism, as it were. The idea is that any war will be such that the deaths of enemy innocents will be inextricably woven into the chain of events known as "defending oneself against that enemy." Therefore, if self-defense is permissible and this is not empty talk, inflicting death upon enemy innocents is permissible. There is another argument, but let's leave that for another post.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

War Justifies its Own Horrors

War is a matter of “it’s us or them.” Leaving the option of surrender to conquest out of consideration, each side must decide whether it is to be the one to perish. The horror of war is what flows from each side’s taking the obvious decision to fight: vast numbers of killings, maiming, starvation, and other attendant miseries. Borrowing from Hobbes’s description, we can say that war is “nasty” because it relentlessly poses the question of whether one will choose to perish or choose to fight dirty. By “dirty,” I do not mean inflicting more than the amount of harm necessary to repel the enemy. Rather, I mean doing what is ordinarily done in war: horrific quantities of slaughter of innocents as a necessary means of repelling the opponent.

So, war being dirty and horrible, a brutal principle W makes itself distastefully evident whenever the justice of this horror is contemplated:
W: If side A is justified in waging war against side B, then A is justified in slaughtering vast numbers of B combatants and non-combatants, to the extent that A reasonably considers this to be necessary to conquer B without incurring vastly many more casualties than A will by committing the slaughter.
In other words, if A is justified in waging war against B, then A is also justified in killing many enemy innocents, as long as this is necessary to winning the war. This is why the bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were justified horrors. W goes to the essence of war’s horror. War is peculiarly horrible precisely because there is no way of avoiding the perpetration of its horrors via moral reasoning. Moral reasoning bids one commit them. Unlike the Portuguese earthquake of 1755, for instance, war is a horror which morality requires that one intentionally bring about. The horror is not just in the death and suffering. It is also in the fact that morality is this way.

The justification for W is Hobbesian. A nation is not morally obligated to let itself be slaughtered by an enemy just because repelling the enemy’s attacks will cause the deaths of enemy innocents. If one has a right to defend oneself against an enemy during war, the prospect of enemy innocents doesn’t override that right. W follows from this premise. As for the premise, I take it to be non-controversial. There are pacifists who might reject it, but pacifism isn’t plausible enough to be worth arguing over. The premise follows from the fact that pacifism is false.

There are more topics here. Who is responsible for the slaughter of innocents in war according to principle W? Does principle W make any distinction between collateral damage and intentional, strategic slaughter of innocents? Let’s address those next.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Posts Coming

A bit busy at the moment. Posts continuing our Kekes series (Art of Life II) and our series on verificationism coming soon. A foreshadowing:

What would count as evidence that inductive reasoning does not provide justification for belief? What sort of evidence would that be? I mean, Hume's my favorite philosopher, but something is amiss in the problem of induction.

Imagine having to sacrifice something of enormous, but not the highest value to you for something of highest value to you. This would involve first having the wherewithal to make the evaluations of degree and the character to act in accordance with them. It is a test that shows whether you have good character. Without the test, and few of us are ever confronted with it, one never knows one's character. This is why passing such an abhorrent test can be immensely satisfying.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Illegal Immigration and Culture

Yesterday the federal government here in the U.S. began to take steps to let the 15 million illegal aliens living here stay. They way the government intends to accomplish this is by passing more laws on how the illegal aliens are supposed to go about immigrating. The new laws are more easygoing on the illegal aliens than existing laws.

The existing laws are hardly enforced at all. They already govern the way in which non-Americans are to go about immigrating. Millions ignore them with impunity and simply come right over from Mexico and elsewhere. Therefore, passing new laws with no sign of enhancing law enforcement does nothing to address the problem except make the government appear inept. That the new laws are more easygoing on the illegal aliens than the old shows that the government is caving in to illegal immigration by officially announcing that it has no intention of enforcing the existing, tougher laws.

Culture is exceedingly important. America has had a culture until now that has served it very well. Now we are going about changing our culture to make it more like Mexican culture, as we allow immigration rates to stay at a culturally indigestible level. We are also deciding that our culture does not need to have a rule of law to protect it.

All this is as it should be. It is time for American culture to perish. It is fat and sick. When a culture grows fat, wealthy, and slovenly, it is meet that it commit suicide. It's too bad, I suppose, but it is unavoidable and natural. When you have a good culture and life is difficult, you cherish and protect that culture. When you are fat and wealthy, you grow lazy and non-chalant. There is no use raging against this natural way of things. It is time for us to go.

Besides, there will be another great culture sometime in the future, now that Western culture is fading. It hasn't appeared yet, but it will. It will use Western culture (500 bc - 2000 ad) as its classical forerunner. And it will invent anew.

UPDATE: It's a fallacy to complain about a solution to a practical problem without proposing an alternative solution. Here's an alternative: a bill allocating an additional $1 billion each year to the enforcement employment laws prohibiting the employment of illegal aliens.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Richard Replies Readily

He has an interesting post here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Richard on my Verificationism

Richard takes up my verificationism here. He proposes that it's principle V (scroll down a bit below here) is wrong because it's too strong. He says I require

he requires that the base facts themselves be epistemically accessible, at least in the limited sense that we can envisage possible evidence for and against them. But while this starts in the right place, I think the added restriction goes too far. We should merely require that the base facts be comprehensible, in the sense that someone could understand the difference between scenarios where they do or do not obtain.

However, it seems to me that "understanding" requires epistemic content. If you understand what a z is, then you are able to explain to someone who doesn't understand, and that explanation entails saying how to recognize when there is a z. "I understand what a z is, but I just can't tell when I've got one, that's all." That sentence is suspect, in my view. Consider:

A: "A square without corners or sides? I don't get it. How do you tell when you've got one?"
B: "Well, it can fit into a square hole, but not into a round hole of its size."
A: "But how can you tell that it can or can't fit?"
B: "Dunno. But you do understand me, right?"


C: "A zombie? I don't get it. How do you tell when you've got one?"
D: "Well, he acts like a conscious person, and with all the brain states, only he has no consciousness."
C: "Eh? How would you know that he isn't conscious? Even he can't tell."

I'm still suspicious of things masquerading as "understanding" that are nothing of the kind. I think the mind is very big and complicated and that in its spaces it can play tricks on itself that it itself cannot very well detect. It can seem to itself to understand undetectable ethers, undetectable separate universes, undetectable lacks of consciousness, etc., all the while understanding none of these things.

Richard needs to say what is the difference between "comprehensible" and "suspiciously incomprehensible" other than a feeling of "I've got it!" I don't trust that feeling. I need epistemic, evidential terms.

Two side points:

1. As for Richard's worry that his view of moral facts supervening on base facts is "slippery", I say don't worry, Richard. What needs to be added to actions (say, of your Hitler) is that they are performed in a society of people with dispositions to disapprove of those actions (sentiments of a certain kind). You have to include the subjective base facts about sentiment, as Hume suggested. On a planet of cruel nasties who kill for fun, but where no one has a nature such that he is ever even slightly disposed to have concern for others' welfare, none of the nasty things done is wrong. I'll pursue it this week on Philosoblog.

2. Please keep in mind that in order for a term to be meaningful on V, it only need be the case that one can say what the evidence for the term's correct application would be. One needn't actually be in possession of that evidence. You don't have to have evidence that there is a presently-causally-isolated universe for that term to be meaningful. You only need to have the physics (or whatever) that would at least roughly give an idea of what such evidence would be. Similarly for brains-in-vats (in a comment thread a few posts below.)

UPDATE: I wonder whether Richard's view entails that one can understand an incoherent term (such as "square with only three sides"). After all, "I know what it means, I understand it, but I just don't see how it could be rendered coherent" sounds Richardesque. I suppose he might say that the incoherence precludes comprehension. But that seems arbitrary. Why won't he also allow that evidential vacuity precludes comprehension, as well? Again I say that the mind is large and its imagination powerful. It can imagine a logically impossible thing (especially if it's in a sort of dreamy state: try it, you can do it. Or if the contradiction is buried deep enough, you can accomplish the task in a clear-headed state.) It can mistake this for comprehension. It can imagine the correct application of an evidentiallly vacuous term (e.g., "zombie") and mistake this for comprehension, too. How can Richard distinguish these two, such that in the latter case there is in fact no mistake?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Richard Requests Reasons

Richard requests (in a comment thread below) reasons for my acceptance of verificationism. The audacity! Well, I made a half-hearted gesture in their general direction in a previous post, but let's begin to lay them out a bit more carefully.

By "verificationism," I don't mean the old-fashioned philosophy of the early 20th Century. I only mean V:

V: If S knows what S means by an X, then S has an idea of what S would take as evidence that the X correctly described a given object and what S would take as evidence that the X incorrectly described another given object.

I don't have an elaborate theory of meaning as the old positivists did. I don't reduce evidence to phenomenal states as they did. I simply offer necessary conditions of meaning in V.

Reasons for V:

1. Imagine that someone uses a word (a noun, verb or adjective) and you inquire as to its meaning. Upon being told, you nod and inquire as to how to recognize when the word was correctly applied to an object - you request circumstances of warranted assertability. Your interlocutor then shrugs and admits that there isn't any such way, that there aren't any such circumstances. Do you not become the least bit suspicious? Do you smell a rat, a poseur, or at best a deluded person who doesn't realize that he isn't saying anything? If you answered yes, then you have at least a toe in my camp.
So, reason 1 says that if a person has no idea how to tell whether what he's saying is true, then he doesn't know what he's saying and doesn't mean anything by it. He thinks he does, but then the mind is a subtle and devious thing, isn't it.

2. Knowing the meaning of a word typically enables one to use it warrantedly. Circumstances in which this is not so are unusual and usually correctable by consultation and rehearsal with people who do know how to use it warrantedly. When we find a word that everyone concerned admits cannot be used warrantedly, we have an anomaly. Here we have a choice: expand our conception of meaning to include the slovenly item, or move it into the category of potentially meaningless terms. As an analytical philosopher, I need a reason to wax vague about meaning. There being no reason here other than people's feeling that the term has meaning, I opt for the debunking.

3. When in particular cases, such as "zombie," we have components of a definition that militate epistemically against each other, I cry foul. Consciousness being private, and its evidence being behavioral, zombies are things that one is by definition not entitled to have even the slightest bit of evidence for. (This reminds me of the guy selling a snake oil remedy. When I asked how I would know it worked, he said that it was only a "subtle" cure, meaning one that I couldn't know of. For such a cure I will pay very, very little indeed.)

By the way, Richard's is a philosophy blog with archives from which the philosophy enthusiast can profit.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Kekes's Art of Life I

The Art of Life is about the meaning of life. Kekes even leaves nihilistic suicide on the table as an option for a short passage in the preface. But the thesis he explains is that there is an art to upholding the two components of a good life: satisfaction and moral acceptability. Satisfaction is the having of both the right ideals and the habitual dispositions to achieve them, as well as particular projects to which one is well suited (careers, in the broad sense of that term.) The art lies in selecting a good way amongst reasonable alternative ways of life, and that depends upon one's particular character and situation, creativity and imagination. There are only a few rules and not complete guidance from them. Yet, the art isn't the same as randomness or arbitrariness. There are bad reasons for selecting a way of life, as well as good reasons, and the latter evaluate well the promptings of creativity and imagination, whereas the former do not.

Thus does the book begin well: with what is only slightly controversial at most, and rather seemingly on target, as well as interesting. Good philosophy begins with the trivial and moves toward the interestingly true. Also, good lives are supposed to be morally acceptable. As a younger man I might have questioned that; why couldn't Stalin's life count as good? The answer is that it is possible in theory, though whether an evil sociopath has ever had a good life in fact, I doubt. But it is the exception that proves the rule: you have to be an odd specimen of human nature to achieve such a thing. Moreover, even thought it is possible for a man's psychology to be devoid of moral components, it is unlikely that what remains will function well enough because what remains is of such a nature that it functions well only with the moral component on board. Could there be a monster so malformed that by chance his amoral nature can function and thrive in a sort of happiness? Perhaps, but it is nothing for the rest of us to contemplate, for whom happiness is not a separate endeavor from morality.

We'll see what role morality plays in the good life for Kekes as we move through the book. For today, let's finish with a look at the first chapter. It treats of unconditional commitments. The good life requires these. They include career, family, religion, etc. and may in principle be whatever is appropriate for you, but you must have them. I suppose morality is the one that trumps the others, as if morality requires that you sacrifice all of your other commitments, I suppose that you are obliged to do so. But, that trump aside, Kekes speaks of the others as "unconditional." Putatively unconditional commitments may conflict, at which time one determines which is the actually unconditional one. Here Kekes gives the examples of Montaigne and Thomas More. Montaigne sacrificed clean hands to do what he could for his community as an eminent lawyer. More sacrificed his life (and by that the father of his young child, as well) rather than break his commitment to moral and religious sanctions against divorce. These men exemplify self-direction, a self-control one needs if one is to recognize and adhere to an array of values in their order of importance (a hierarchy the levels of which Kekes calls "unconditional," "defeasible" and, lastly, "loose" commitments.) One must know when to peel off and let go of the important in favor of the more important.

By the way, most of us never experience tests of such our self-direction as severe as those of Montaigne and More. But I will say that the test comes with a blessing: it lets you know that you are self-directed, a fact which may remain uncovered for most of us. Untested metal is lies shrouded in mystery. One doesn't know what one is made of. To discover it by trial results in a profoundly gratifying experience, which, as we have seen, and as Kekes quotes, Wharton's Countess Olenska describes in this way:

I WAS lonely; I WAS afraid. But the emptiness and the darkness are gone; when I turn back into myself now I'm like a child going at night into a room where there's always a light.

This is where you can see that you are a person of moral depth. It is a relief. You could always have supposed as much, but never known it without the test.

Kekes also explains that tradition offers a selection of formats in which we may compose our lives. It is not that traditional lives are the opposite of self-directed ones. On the contrary, tradition is a body of discoveries of ways of life that are fulfilling to people of various sorts of character. The self-directed life uses this body and creates a life best suited to a particular person: the one who lives it. It enables one to find desirable unconditional, defeasible and loose commitments and array one's life suitably with them. As an achievement of a cultural heritage, self-direction is distinct from liberal autonomy, existentialist authenticity, or other new philosophies, all of which are either not achievements or not cultural.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Stand-Up? Sit-Down?

It's stand-up. You've heard of "fisking" and "round-ups." I'd call this stand-up. This was sit-down.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Analytical Philosophy and Analysis

My thesis is self-serving, as I find that the stances I take in philosophy are often analyses that other philosophers dismiss out of hand as incredible on their faces. (On the other hand, which philosopher doesn't face the same predicament? So perhaps I am serving all today!) My thesis is that all interesting results in analytical philosophy, in a strict sense of that term, will seem untrue to most philosophers.

I take it that analytical definitions are the goal of analytical philosophy in the strict sense (the loose sense being philosophy that aims at uncovering the truth of philosophical issues by rigor of argument and clarity of terms.) If interesting, any viable analytical definition is by bound to appear to be incorrect or uninteresting. It is the expansion on, the unpacking of the sense of a term in order to draw out implications for philosophical issues to which it is relevant. If the analysis seemed correct it wouldn't have been interesting. It would have been a common-sense or lexical definition of the term. It just so happens that many terms relevant to philosophy have a large semantic space that is not transparent even after several passes and examinations and that after further scrutiny is found to have multiple compartments, as well as quite a few nooks and crannies. An analytical definition comes up with a summary description of this space and an identity of it with its packaging term: of definiens with definiendum. Due to the volume of space and the distance covered by the identity, any true analysis will seem false to most philosophers. They'll need to follow the sound argument in order to convince themselves. Otherwise the analysis would not be interesting, as, ex hypothesi, it is.

In the little series on verification I will give you a definition of "right". In the twelve years of its existence, no one has ever told me he thought it seemed true to him. This is evidence that it is true. Just kidding! But you see my point. In fact, I hope someone will come up with a refutation of the definition. No one has yet.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Verification, Social Philosophy and Conservatism

The idea of the previous post is the following. Suppose your society has a set of values that are free of internal inconsistency (such as "All men have a right to liberty" and "blacks have no right to liberty") or error about the non-moral facts (such as, for example, "blacks are happier as slaves".) In other words, your society is committed to a set of values that are unassailable on grounds of coherence and fact. These are the values by which you and your compatriots prefer to live.

If the value set to which you are committed is wrong, then it will be appropriate for someone to require your society to change its values and adopt new ones, values which are not the ones by which its members prefer to live. In that case, the true values will have no appeal to members of your society, as the prospect of pursuing lives that violate one's preferred moral values is repugnant. In addition, no one has any idea what would count as evidence that they should nevertheless accept the new values. On the verificationist view of the matter, this is a notion of persuasion with no content. And the notion that a society should have to live by new values that it coherently and with full information finds repugnant is a notion that smells of tyranny and hasn't the slightest hint of moral enlightenment.

The verificationist result in social philosophy therefore is not only inherently interesting but also has interestingly conservative implications. It seems an important part of the core of conservatism that a society has a right to live as it prefers and can have no reason to pursue any so-called "progressive" paths that are not motivated by the values to which the society is already committed. As I said in the previous post, progressivism is a non-starter whenever it has no appeal to the premises already accepted by the society it criticizes. In other words, it is not worth debating progressives who do not have arguments couched in the antecedently-held values of the society under question. Their moral convictions have no content. More likely they are expressions of resentment or instruments for gaining power, as they have proven to be numerous times in the 20th Century.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Verificationism in Social Philosophy

This post continues our series in verificationism. If you're just jumping in and it's not clear to you, scroll down and start at the beginning.

Any society S has a set of values. Now consider whether S should reject that set and adopt a new set. Suppose that some members of S recommend a "progressive" attitude and the judgment that S should make progress to a new set. There is a way to fill in the details so that we can know without examining the progressives' arguments that they are unsound.

Suppose the following facts about S's values. First, they are a coherent set. This means that S's members can live lives and behave in ways that fulfill the values of the set without violating any. This assumes that where two values give contrary prescriptions in a specific case, there is an ordering of precedence that decides which of the two overrides. This is matter of common-sense practical rationality, in which one decides, for example, that the importance of avoiding nuisances is overridden by matters of life and death. By the same token, the values of liberty and security are coherent even though in certain cases they yield contrary prescriptions. And some values, such as liberty and security, are always more important than others, so the coherent set of values includes a hierarchy, as well as a pattern of decisions, like case law, that shows the ways in which values of comparable weight are applied in cases in which they diverge in prescription. In any event, we don't need a lecture about coherence in practical reasoning. Suppose S's value set can't be faulted for its degree of coherence.

Second, suppose that S's values are consistent with all non-moral facts. They don't place blame based upon errors about agency and responsibility for action. They don't assign statuses of S's members based upon false views about the differences in capacity to perform or to suffer amongst various kinds of members of S. They don't assign punishments for crimes based upon errors about whether punishment deters crime. They don't recommend ways of life based upon errors about which ways will make which people happy. Etc. S's values are free of error in their assumptions about the non-moral facts.

Therefore, S's set of values is the set that S prefers. By "prefers" I mean that S is devoted to its values and there is no inconsistency in them or non-moral fact that could be raised that would give S internal grounds to revise the set. By "internal grounds" I mean grounds to eject one value from the set on the basis of others more important or central to the structure of the set.

Given these two facts, S can have no reason to revise its values. This is the Humean view that there can be no external reason for S to revise the set. A corollary to this claim is that progressivism, if it is the claim that S should adopt a new set of values even though the old set is coherent and free of error about the non-moral facts, is always false.

The reason is verificationistic. There is nothing that would count as evidence that S's value set, as described above, was wrong (either immoral or otherwise practically irrational.) No one has any idea what would count as evidence that the progressivist's recommendation was the right one. "S prefers its values yet ought to reject them" is a claim for which no one has an idea what would count as evidence for it.

This counts not only for the progressivist but also for the theistic reactionary. The progressive usually recommends that the wealthy members of S give more goods than they already do to the poor members of S. Aside from attempts to demonstrate that this position rests upon a more coherent construal of S's own values than that embraced by S itself, there is never any evidence to be adduced for this progressive stance. Usually the progressive requires that members of S "just see" that their poor are treated unjustly or that they just understand that Kantian rationality or the Golden Rule requires this conclusion. The theistic reactionary claims that God requires the S change its values. There is never any evidence for this claim, and even if it were true, it would be irrelevant. "God prefers that S change its set of values" does not make it more likely that S should comply. We can usefully refer to God's recommendation when we think that He knows that our present values are in error about the non-moral facts of human nature or are incoherent. But if He wanted S to change its values even acknowledging that there were no such reason, then his preference would have no purchase. The theistic reactionary, after all, is the fellow who still subscribes to divine command theory, which was debunked long ago.

There is a lot more to say about this, such as that this view does not entail any vicious moral relativism. But the point here is that the verificationist approach to the matter gives this interesting result that progressivism and reactionary theism are non-starters.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Discernment, Resentment, and Anger

I have found the truth in a teaching that I once dismissed. This is the counsel that one should not despise people who would do wrong by you. I think it is unfortunately passed around as "Do not judge others," a formulation of it that on the face of it is obviously bad advice. There is an ambiguity at play. On one interpretation it is bad, even laughable advice, on another interpretation it is right.

It's worthless advice if it means that one should not distinguish between right and wrong, should not recognize evil and should not resist one's enemy's attacks. It is laughable if it means that one only "descends to his level" when one decides that an evildoer is evil and that one should resist, counter-attack, and punish them.

But it is good advice if it means that one should not harbor hatred, anger and resentment when discerning and opposing evil. On this interpretation, it means that one should maintain an equanimity - a steady, calm, cool, and self-directed spirit - when discriminating between right from wrong and acting according to this discrimination.

That this is good advice is not obvious. One might think that anger is appropriate when one confronts bad behavior and especially genuine evil. But anger and its kin, hatred and resentment, can disable the character. They are a wrench in the works when we harbor them. It may be appropriate for a bit of indignant anger to flare up in someone who confronts an evildoer; it may provide the adrenaline the warrior's muscles need in the moment. But if he is of the highest sort of character, the anger will pass as quickly as it came.

When you envision a person of the highest order of virtuous character, you can see that he is devoid of anger, hatred and resentment. Otherwise, he would not count as content with this world and his place in it; but he does. It's just a fact that a considerable disposition to these negative emotions is not mechanically compatible with a virtuous character. In abstract theory, yes, and that's why the advice seems wrong. But in fact, no, the two aren't compatible.

Nor does a man of virtue shrink from crushing an evildoer with decisive violence or from publicly exposing wrongdoers with clear and accurate declarations. The resentful man is more likely to be hamstrung by his hatred and unable to act as effectively. His character is crippled. The man of virtue enjoys a certain ease and flow of action. His resentful friend gnashes his teeth, nursing his rage instead of acting or speaking up. Or if he does speak up, he betrays a vicious resentment that puts his pronouncements, as correct as they may be, in a dubious light for his audience. Or he engages in an overkill of violence that betokens despair and not exemplary heroism.

So, if "judging" means condemning out of a deeply seated antipathy, then "Do not judge others."

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Note on Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

The point of The Age of Innocence is that one can either find a sort of salvation in accepting fate and duty or succumb to despair and resentment. The House of Mirth speaks of a closely allied theme. It's theme is the goal of creating a "republic of the soul," the orchestration of one's dispositions such that one isn't swept hither and thither by them, driven to extremes by compulsion and for lack of a central control. Whereas the former book's Countess Olenska acheives this harmony and control and Newland Archer does not, in the latter book Lawrence Selden enjoys the repose and Lily Bart fails to acheive it. In the latter case, however, the failure is much more grim in ramification than in the former case. At least Archer escapes with his life.

Lily Bart sees Selden's republic of the soul. It is palpable for her. She begins to create it in herself whenever he is near enough to her for her to observe his manner. But contact with another isn't enough to develop one's own virtue. The point is not that Lily doesn't develop virtue; it is that she could have done so. As does Archer in The Age of Innocence, Lily fails because she sees herself as mastered by fate, rather than as fate's equal.

In both books, Wharton wants the reader to see that virtue is crucial and failure to acheive it is failure to acheive a sort of salvation. The House of Mirth paints this picture more starkly than Archer's "mere gray speck of a man." Lily Bart loses everything.

Selden, for his part, fails, as well. Sometimes virtue requires action that would in most circumstances seem somehow rash or wide of the mean. Selden mistook passivity for equanimity at crucial moments where more forthright action would have made all the difference, both to himself and to Lily.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Verificationism and the Zombie II

There are some points that need clarification, so let's review:

1. Evidence that there is a zombie cannot be found in any possible world. Therefore, such evidence is a logical impossibility. I suppose this is because there is a contradiction buried in the notion of "zombie for whose existence there is evidence." Perhaps it is that consciousness is by definition private (which would likely be because to have experience of a particular instance of consciousness is to be that instance.) "Evidencethat object o is not conscious other than o's physical and functional states" is incoherent.

[An aside: "evidence that there is a zombie" refers to first-order evidence. There is a possible world in which an honest and very intelligent person tells you that there is a zombie. But his testimony is second-order evidence. The point is that he can't have his opinion from bonafide first-order evidence; there is none of that in any possible world.]

Perhaps the fact that the concept of zombie is not incoherent (self-contradictory) misleads one into thinking that zombies are logically possible. There is more to logical impossibility of a thing than contradiction in its concept. A term X will fail to refer in any possible world if it is meaningless. And X can be meaningless because either (a.) X is self-contradictory in definition or (b.) X pretends to refer to something for which it is self-contradictory to claim that there is evidence that X correctly refers to it. When a person claims that there is an X and, upon our asking him to describe circumstances of warranted assertability of this claim, admits that there could never in any circumstances be evidence for his claim, we may conclude that X is a meaningless term.

2.Concepts can be large and diffuse clusters of various component concepts and experiences. So, one might be able to imagine things that are not logically possible. The imagination is powerful and can even sally forth without due regard to logical possibility. A zombie, who acts conscious but is non-conscious, may be fantasized about. He may therefore seem compellingly possible. But this is no argument against the verificationist dismissal of zombies that I've given here. It is merely the claim that my dismissal of them seems wrong.

3. Since evidential states that indicate a zombie existed are not possible and "zombie" is idle chatter like "round square" or "square with no corners," consciousness logically supervenes upon physical and functional states. "Zombie" is not a meaningful term because zombies are not logically possible. Since this is so, it is clear that consciousness is certain physical and funtional states.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Verificationism and the Zombie I

Now, back to our zombie. Poor bastard! He has no idea what chocolate really tastes like. He prefers Belgian and seems to savor it upon his palate, but he in fact has no consciousness of its wonderful flavor. As passionately as he behaves toward his wife, he loves her not. Writhing in pain from a wound, he is blessedly spared the agony you and I feel in such a case. You see, he has all the physical, behavioral and neural states we do, but none of the actual consciousness. He isn't biologically possible in our world, since the biology here requires that these states give rise to corresponding conscious states. But he is possible in a world that we may imagine. For there is no contradictions in the concept of "zombie," and therefore we can clearly and distinctly perceive the difference between consciousness, on the one hand, and physical and functional states, on the other.

Or so it is said. But there is nothing that would count as evidence that someone was a zombie. Suppose you parachute in to the possible world in which zombies are said to exist. Proceed then, in your imagination, to chat up the first cordial person you meet. Ask him a battery of questions and he opines on love, salvation, satire, overcoming depression. Prick him, and he cries out. He finds your chocolate delicious. And so forth. Meanwhile, have you any evidence that your spouse is not a zombie in counterexample to the biological laws I alluded to? None at all.

No, the concept of zombie has built into it the stipulation that zombies are undetectable: no physical or behavioral examination can discover them. Therefore, there is by definition nothing that would count as evidence that your specimen was a zombie.

If verificationism is correct, then "zombie" is not a meaningful term. And if "zombie" is not a meaningful term, then mind and the corresponding physical and functional states are not distinct.

Here you may tollens my ponens, as Aaron Haspel has when I broached this argument in the past. As I recall, he stated, "So much the worse for verificationism."

But you will have to bite the bullet here. If you don't accept principle V (stated in the two previous posts), then you countenance terms as meaningful which are devoid of evidentiary content and whose definitions may even stipulate that the terms can in principle never be any justification for applying them to any object. If you maintain that only an incoherent definition may be cause for dismissing a term as meaningless, you will have to explain why incoherence is a graver sin than the lack of evidentiary content. If a person proposes a noun or adjective X and we rifle through the infinity of possible evidentiary circumstances together with him, under each of which he declares that there is no evidence that X applies to any object, then we may consign his term X to the flames

Of course it is meaningless to speak of people who are not people. But it is equally meaningless to make reference to the distinctness of things for which there could never be evidence that they were separated from one another. To say that "consciousness and the physical and functional states that correspond to it are distinct even though nothing could ever count as evidence that the latter existed without the former" is meaningless talk.

The mental space that a meaning takes up may be quite large. Meanings of terms are sometimes large clusters of concepts. The corresponding evidential criteria for the application of a term may be an equally large cluster. The artificial substitution of one element of the cluster with a new component does not always make for an obvious contradiction. Sometimes the contradiction must be ferreted out. Also, the substitution can create vacuity of meaning in another way: by depriving the term of the possibility of justified application in any conceivable circumstance. And both contradictions and evidentiarily vacuous terms may be imagined to be applicable; such is the power of the imagination. When sleepy, I can imagine a world in which there is a round square or an absolutely undetectable gnome. So, the power of the mind to imagine the zombie is no evidence that mind is non-physical.

This is the first result of verificationism as I have proposed it. "Zombie" is a meaningless term. But if consciousness is distinct from the physical and functional states that correspond to it, then "zombie" is a meaningful term. So, consciousness is not distinct from the physical and functional states that correspond to it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Verificationism in Philosophy of Mind

I'll give four examples in which the verificationism I've been discussing in the last two posts gives interesting and plausible results: philosophy of mind, metaethics, epistemology, and social/political philosophy. The gist of verificationism is V:

V: If S knows what S means by an X, then S has an idea of what S would take as evidence that the X correctly described a given object and what S would take as evidence that the X incorrectly described another given object.

Now, in philosophy of mind there is a celebrated and strange individual. He is quite a considerable personage, forcing hoards of materialists, who've rejected dualistic ontologies of mind and brain, to acknowledge the fellow's impossible possibility and shore up this contradiction either by conceding that materialism is false and dualism correct, or by some ornate contortions of theory, to devise a better-defended materialism which can afford acknowledge the brute as a merely a remote possibility of no genuine threat.

The poor fellow is the zombie.

Skip this paragraph if you know well what "zombie" means in philosophy of mind. Otherwise, consider. A zombie is a person just like us in physical and behavioral respects; he is not the groaning, groping monster of the horror movies. No, he acts just like everyone else. If you prick him, he cries. If you examine his actions throughout the day, he is indistinguishable in habit from any normal person you please. He seems to enjoy a pint and a laugh. He appears alarmed when told of some foreboding danger. But, you see, the poor zombie has no mental states. Or, more precisely, he is never conscious. He feels no pain or joy, he has never experienced any visual sensation, nor any sense of worry or eager anticipation. We might say that your spouse or the lady who works down the hall from you might very well be zombies. But as a matter of biological contingency, in our natural world zombies are physically impossible. For in this world, any animal of our exact physical description, down to the biochemical and neurological detail, is conscious. So, consider that the zombie dwells only in a logically possible world that we may imagine.

So, there is no contradiction in the concept "zombie" in other words. Or so it is believed by materialists and dualists alike. This has lead materialists to feel themselves forced to show how consciousness and brain could be one and the same when in fact we can as clearly conceive of consciousness being stripped away from the brain as imagine an apple washed clean of its waxy coating. The zombie has a brain (and all the requisite behaviors) but he has no consciousness. So, they aren't the same thing. Or if they are, the materialist is bound to show how they are one and the same here while in the zombie's possible world they are not. And from there the ink is spilled by the gallon, filling the philosophy journals and books with the back and forth between the materialist and the dualist. You can practically specialize in zombies these days as a philosophy professor.

But I accept a form of materialism that is orthogonal to this tirade, as well as unpopular, old-fashioned and hopelessly benighted by the illusion that verificationism is not dead. Won't you join me? Verificationism is not dead. Go reread V. Now this:

What would you take as evidence that there was a zombie? Nothing would count as evidence. Zombie is an empty concept. It is hand-waving at its core. Therefore, the supposed threat to materialism is groundless. It's no threat at all. We'll make all this clear in the next post. We also need to understand more about concepts and terms, such that they can be meaningless and yet appear to everyone to have a perfectly clear meaning.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


In the last post I suggested a verification principle. It is a component of a variety of verificationism that I would like to propose as quite sound. This old term is applied to the philosophy of the logical positivists, the early 20th Century philosophers who identified the meaning of a term with epistemic conditions under which the term is used. These philosophers were extreme empiricists, by which I mean that not only did they believe that all knowledge is based upon experience (moderate empiricism), but also that objects of which there could be no experience were not to be acknowledged to exist.

The sort of verificationism I propose leaves all of that behind. The meaning of "experiment" or "democracy" isn't a phenomenal feel or even reducible to several phenomenal feels. Even the meaning of "yellow" isn't. And if the meaning of "yellow" isn't the experience of yellow, more abstract and complex terms are also irreducible to experiential states. In addition, I don't rule out that God exists but cannot be experienced by us. In particular, I think that universals (such as "spherical" and "true" and "organic") exist, even though no one can experience them. No, the verificationism I have in mind doesn't rule any of that out.

It's just that I think that there are philosophical concepts and problems that don't mean anything and that therefore inappropriately occupy the philosophical mind. The verificationism I have in mind simply serves to make us a bit stricter about which concepts pass as meaningful. It doesn't replace conceptual incontinence with the extreme austerity of the old logical positivists.

Just consider a philosopher philosophizing about something. Suppose he proposed that something Z existed, or he asked you to suppose that there was a Z. Suppose also that you asked him what he meant by Z, and he told you but it didn't make much sense to you. You might then ask him what would count as evidence that there was such a thing as a Z. If he shrugged and admitted that he had no idea, this should tell you that he didn't have any concept of a Z.

We'll apply this verificationism soon. Also, Kekes on The Art of Life is coming soon.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Verification Principle

Consider a kind of sentence X

X: Any assertion that a thing has a certain property or is of a certain kind (or lacks that property or is not of that kind.)

In other words, X is the application of an adjective to describe a thing or the use of a noun to categorize a thing (or to deny that the adjective correctly describes it or to deny that the noun correctly categorizes it.) "The action was right" and "Joe is a zombie" are examples.

I propose the following verification principle, which has the form "if p, then q":

V: If S knows what S means by an X, then S has an idea of what S would take as evidence that the X correctly described a given object and what S would take as evidence that the X incorrectly described another given object.

In other words, if you assert something meaningfully by an X, then you have an idea of what would count as evidence that what you've said was false, and what would count as evidence that what you've said is true. I also accept that if S has an idea..., then S knows what S means by X. So, the verification principle could be made bidirectional (p iff q) if you like. However, I am only interested in the first direction: "if p, then q." You'll see why as we go along. What's important is whether terms and assertions have meaning, not (in the other direction) whether we can determine that someone has no evidence for an utterance on the grounds that he doesn't know what he means by it.

Also, I have nothing to say about whether the evidence is analytic or empirical in nature. It doesn't matter. It's a 21st Century verificationism, if you like, without the logical positivism that bedeviled its grandparent almost a century ago. Let's just not talk about logical positivists and their verification principle. Objections to it are relevant only if they are objections to V.

Here is an argument for V. Suppose S asserts that X. Suppose also that we ask S what would count as evidence that X was true and what would count as evidence that X and what would count as evidence that not-X. If S falls silent, shrugs, says "I have no idea," then we begin to wonder whether S has no idea what he's said when he said X. In fact, if a thorough probe showed that S really had no idea of what would count as evidence, then we would be justified in concluding that S had no idea what he meant by X.

Is V analytic? Yes. It's analytic philosophy, in which we analyze concepts to produce interesting tautologies. Oddly, the analytic-synthetic distinction is fuzzy, however, and V is ever slightly empirical in its derivation. In analytical philosophy, we notice which terms (such as "evidence") we would apply in imagined situations, in order to adduce evidence for statements about what we mean by other terms, such as "meaning." This imagining flushes out meaning and therefore helps construct analyses.

I intend to use V to argue for interesting results in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaethics. So, it is important to know whether V is true. Are there any problems with V?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence: The Perdition of Newland Archer

This is the story of the self-destruction of a man. "Destruction" is seemingly wildly too strong a term, as Archer's life is, after a fashion, "exemplary" (to use Kekes's term.) But this is precisely the point. Fate deals him a good hand, albeit one with a painful trial in it. Yet, Archer lacks the spiritual resilience to get past the trial.

Archer is talented, bright, inquisitive and imaginative, as well as loyal to whom he ought to be. But there is an arrangement of these components of character that would enable him to remain true to his most important values and that he fails to find. He fails to find it because he allows himself to plunge into rage, despair and self-contempt.

Few of us are put to the test: to sacrifice what, above all other things, one wants second-most for what one wants most. Here lies the possibility of perdition and the chance to realize salvation. Archer must choose: He may through betrayal bring shame and disruption to the society to whom he is rightly loyal and also break his new wife's heart. Or he may forego a life with the woman to whom he is ideally suited: Ellen Olenska. he chooses the former, and Olenska, as desirous of him as he is of her, leads him to it. But Archer rails against this fate. He allows the disappointment to grow into rage and despair. These push him near to madness as his internal "demons" drive him to revoke his choice, a move he is prevented from making by Olenska's retreat to Europe and his wife's announcement of her first pregnancy. Thereafter, he fails to be the kind of "fellow he had dreamed of being," instead "inadequate: a mere gray speck of a man." His irrational resentment of fate drives him needlessly to abandon his third-most important value: his delight in adventuresome travel, inquiry and interesting discussion.

Olenska, by contrast, is saved. She endures the fate, foregoing the life with the man ideally suited to her. But she does this with a grace of character and a steady and clear-eyed contact with her conscience, the faculty that in Archer deteriorates under the oppression of resentment. Olenska is able to cut through the layers of resentment and find the settled resolution to her fate as her "equal," rather than the "master" fate becomes for Archer. Upon making the difficult choice fate forces upon her, where Archer finds rage and chasms of despair within himself, Olenska finds abiding self-love. She explains to him:

I WAS lonely; I WAS afraid. But the emptiness and the darkness are gone; when I turn back into myself now I'm like a child going at night into a room where there's always a light.

Just so. The difficult trial causes the painful emotions. But if you remain quiet and do not rage against them, they disperse. Archer, on the other hand, welcomes "fuel for his own [anger]." For Archer, the trial "is beyond human enduring--that's all." But Olenska instructs, "Oh, don't say that; when I'm enduring it!"

While most of us don't face a trial of the severity that Archer and Olenska did, still it remains possible to experience the salvation Olenska did and to avoid the deleterious effects of resentment of fate that beset Archer. Perdition and salvation are attainable even for less interesting characters. Olenska shows that it is a matter of paying attention to one's loyalty to one's "unconditional commitments" (as Kekes calls them) at precisely the moments when adversity strikes and offers us fuel for anger or despair. There is a peaceful contemplation, a serenity just short of meditation, that is possible for anyone who has, although not faced the trial, nevertheless managed to choose, arrange, and adhere to a set of unconditional and conditional commitments that we would call important constituents of a good life. The good life is a moral and practical matter, whereas the avoidance of perdition and the acceptance of salvation within it is a spiritual one. If even an exemplary life can be deeply damaged by resentment, then Archer and Olenska's lives serve as a universal lesson.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Maverick Philosopher Offers Salvation Today

Bill Vallicella gives a helpful analysis of salvation today. He's uncovered a different area of the terrain from what I've been preoccuppied with, and I'm sure there's more to be said. For example, Bill puts his finger on the difference between mystical Asian varieties of salvation and Judeo-Christian varieties. Here Bill has it right that the question is, Who is saved? Also, he mentions anti-religious salvation-deniers, which brings up the issue of the epistemic status of claims to salvation. I find the idea that there are no cases of salvation highly implausible, but only if I get to define "salvation" as I have been doing.

UPDATE: Bill offers criticism of my posts on salvation. He says my concept is thin beer and:

We must not so rig our terminology as to foreclose on the possibility of genuine salvation, salvation as it has been understood in the major religions. I'm not saying that there is salvation in this further, genuine sense. I am saying that we ought not, by a hasty terminological decision, to foreclose on its possibility.

I agree. I want to avoid illicit semantic maneuvers. What I'm trying to do is an explanatory reduction or an empirical reduction, not a definitional one. I do not want to foreclose possibilities but only to explain after possibilities have been pursued. For that reason I cannot take my case for salvation naturalized to be conclusive.
Salvation II

In the previous post I gave a description of salvation in psychological and moral terms. According to it, salvation is an achievement of deep and genuine patience accomplished through a calming of the mind and a contemplation of the fact that the frustration, resentment, and anger with which it frequently reacts to the course of mundane events are: (a.) inappropriate, given the fact that on the whole life and the world are very good and (b.) unnecessary, given the fact that the mind can replace resentment and the others with patience. The multiplicity of short- and medium-term goals and low- and mid-priority values that give order to our lives consume so much of our time and demand so much careful attention that, since coming anywhere near fulfilling all of them completely is impossible, we must handle frequent failure. Without having a proper perspective on these failures, frustration, resentment, and anger arise and even snowball themselves into fully-fledged unhappiness. Salvation replaces the discontent with patience and contentedness even amidst the daily failures that will continue to batter the mind.

This description of salvation being purely psychological and moral, what we have here is salvation naturalized. The claim is that salvation can be fully described in non-religious and non-theistic terms: terms that are all descriptions of the profane and devoid of the slightest allusion to the sacred. This is not a definitional naturalism. I don't say that religious definitions of salvation are by definition incorrect. Rather, I mean that either they are not obviously superior to the naturalistic definition of salvation or, at worst, they may be eliminated from our description of salvation as unnecessary.

Religious definitions of salvation will have a fourth component that the naturalistic definition (#1-3) lacks:

4. The events of #1-3 are caused by the sacred or God. Deep and genuine patience is the presence of this sacred being in one's mind, heart or soul. His power or care enables one to handle mundane disappointments with calmness. Salvation is an awakening of faith in a certain supernatural being.

The naturalistic view of salvation simply leaves out #4. It says that #4 may perhaps be true, but there is no reason to think so on the evidence we have at the moment. As a description of salvation, the naturalistic one is not obviously or even probably incomplete on the facts as we know them. Cases of genuine salvation may be frequently described in supernatural terms, but it is not obvious that they are supernatural events. The theist ( who accepts #1-4 as a description of salvation) and the naturalistic atheist who subscribes to the description of salvation I've given in #1-3 have different senses of the term, but they apply it to the same event.

There are both atheists and theists who have experienced salvation. They have different metaphysical claims about what happened to them. The theist will say, "God saved us both," and the atheist will reply, "No deity was involved." So, whether I've succeeded in naturalizing salvation stands as an open question here. (On the other hand, if the theist admits that #1-3 are a complete definition of "salvation," while #4 is merely an additional description of salvation that is not by definition correct, then we could say that the salvation naturalized presented here is definitional.)

Salvation III will discuss the salvation and perdition of Edith Wharton's characters Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer, respectively. The Age of Innocence shows up early in John Kekes's The Art of Life, so the novel will serve as a segue from this series on philosophy of religion to our series on Kekes's book. (By the way, Scorsese's movie is no substitute for the book in this connection. The fine movie leaves out certain glimpses of Olenska's salvation and Archer's perdition.)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Salvation I

There are various sorts of sublime transformations of one's psychology, I suppose. The sort I have in mind involves three things:

1. The redirection of one's attention from the flow of thoughts (reasoning, desires and emotions) that usually fill the mind as it occupies itself with its countless concerns.

2. The resulting recognition that until now one has been inadvertently subject to that flow of thoughts such that the perspective of complete immersion in it has kept one from noticing that this world and one's existence in it are vastly better than nothingness.

3. The resulting beginning of deep and genuine patience: the recognition that upon re-immersion of the mind into the flow of mundane thoughts, one need not be subject to the frustration, resentment and anger that they so often inflict but may instead rest assured by one's allegiance to the values one cherishes.

I'd like to develop the idea that these together describe salvation. #3 requires a little more explanation. One's external perspective on the flow of thoughts - the extraction of the mind from the flow and awareness that that flow is no longer present while yet one's mind is still present, makes it obvious and simple that one is not a reed adrift in that flow but rather a container and controller of it. From this external perspective, one may consider the proposition that subjecting oneself to the flow of thoughts and coping with it only by doing things that will maximize the agreeable thoughts and minimize the frustration, resentment, and anger is a strategy that cannot but fail to result in happiness since frustrations and resentments will continue to sting forever, abated only marginally by one’s efforts. One must also recognize that one’s own allegiance to cherished values and action in accord with them is a strategy likely to create a happy life, and that in view of this recognition, the events that formerly would have caused frustrations and the like are not able to do so anymore. This is not a merely cognitive change. It is a psychological reorganization in which the disposition to react to adversity with resentment is all but eradicated.

This salvation is not an emotionally powerful event. On the contrary, although it is likely accompanied by a profound sense of peace, it is chiefly the development of an aloofness, a tendency not to generate certain emotions (frustration, resentment and anger.) The reason it counts as salvation is that #1-3 describe a psychological transformation in which the basic facts of the existence of this world and one’s existence in it are recognized as enormously good, while the emotive reactions that are a primary cause of unhappiness are almost entirely left behind. I don't see much to argue about in that point. The controversy lies in the religious or theistic person’s likely contention that #1-3 are an incomplete description of salvation.

More on this later in Salvation II.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


There is a closer connection between evil and nihilism than is obvious. Evil is serious harm that makes it less likely that its sufferer will lead a good life (this being the Kekesian definition of evil.) We are subject to impulses to obtain pleasure. To refrain from submitting to them requires that one see that there is a good life to be made from a structure of character and habit that requires foregoing any opportunities to experience pleasure. Nihilism is a belief that causes a person to lie to himself, saying that such a good life is not really good or not really possible. Prudent self-interest being thus undermined, only the moral stricture against harming other people is left to prevent one's fulfilling the impulse to do evil. This stricture is not strong enough in many cases to prevent the action. In any case, one is quite vulnerable to the urge to take pleasure by harming oneself (alcohol abuse, cigarette smoking, and slothful habits being examples.) So, since it is not obvious that one can have a genuinely good life, nihilism lurks. But it lurks unobviously. The origin of some wrongdoing in nihilism is therefore also unobvious.

The gist of the matter is that people sometimes do evil because they think it doesn't really matter - that nothing really matters and that immediately obtained pleasures are the best option. This is why people of religious faith are likely to see those without it as teetering on the brink of nihilism and sin. They think that in a society that lacks it the center will not hold and all hell will break loose. The unobviousness of the mechanism by which nihilism effects these results impairs debate over this point, to say the least. Both sides are prone to misunderstand and disparage the other.

Faith is the result of a psychological transformation in which the efficacy of nihilism is broken because there is a religious experience of the possibility of a genuinely good life. The first component of this experience is metaphysical. It is that the creation of this world is purposive and good. The second component is much more intimately psychological. It is the unlinking of the mind from mundane frustrations, resentments and anger. These are connected, in that the experience of the goodness of this world makes the resentments and the rest seem petty and ignorant. But one doesn't have to be so very metaphysically minded to accomplish the psychological component of faith through techniques of calming and mental release: meditation and prayer.

What of atheism, then? What is the disagreement over nihilism and goodness? The atheist can recognize that the fact that this world exists is good. He can also withdraw his mind from the mundane frustrations and cease to be subject to their return. Besides the disagreement over whether a God exists - an abstract and lifeless question akin to "How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?" and almost entirely to the side of the real disagreement between the atheist and the theist - there is a disagreement over one or the other of the following:

1. The correct description of this redemption: whether the theistic talk can be
eliminated from it.
2. Whether any redemption is necessary. In this case, the atheist who maintains
that it is not is either incorrect or an extraordinarily talented person who has
always by nature been in possession of redemption.

More on this later. Also, we will be returning to our series on John Kekes, and on the two issues in conservatism. As well, I will ask for your help in certain matters of philosophy of language and metaethics.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


I'll be away from computers until Thursday (4/5). When I get back, we'll continue our little series on religious talk, theory of conservatism, and the works of John Kekes (his The Art of Life up next.)

Friday, March 30, 2007

Our Creator

Feeling a bit nihilistic? Let's continue with this little series.

p: "You do have a purpose. God created this world, he is your creator, and he has a purpose for you in it."

The atheist who takes issue with this has an easy task of undermining it as a straightforwardly denotative claim. He may say that the fact that the creator intends that he take on certain purposes is of no concern to him. "The creator of the universe intends that I do X" does not entail that "doing X is worthwhile." Even if we add a supplementary premise that the creator is perfectly good and wise, the conclusion still does not follow. Moreover, there isn't the slightest bit of evidence that there is a God, so even if the argument were valid, it has a premise which is as about as unwarranted as the belief in ghosts. Robots are under no moral obligation to obey their creator's commands. Etc.

But somehow one suspects that something has been overlooked in such a treatment of the theistic boilerplate p. If we respond to boilerplate with critical boilerplate, when in fact momentous and profound principles are at issue, something is amiss.

What has gone overlooked is the connotation of p. It is difficult to imagine someone stating that p and not meaning by it the connotations that the existence of this world is unfathomably good, that the rough suitability of human nature to thrive in this world is an opportunity to be grateful for, and that there are paths to happiness given by our having been made to be creatures of such a kind. And p is a beautiful way of expressing these things. A tale of a supremely good and wise being's creation of this world and all of these circumstances is a fitting allegory.

On all of these things the atheist can agree. He can also agree that expressing the anti-nihilistic vision that these statements and p attempt to convey is not simply a matter of stating blandly that life is acceptable and happiness is possible. The bland statements too often fail to convince the nihilist, fail to give him to see what he needs to see in order to find his nihilism unfounded. Rather, a cognitive adjustment is required in which one is able to let the torrential flow of trivial thoughts taper off and subside. They too easily subject one to the temptation to frustration, anger and resentment, all of which are vectors pointing straight toward nihilism: the temptation to sin.

More later.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Romans 12.2

People who share a common experience and commonly ascribe to certain descriptions of it can discuss it, even though there may be a lurking ambiguity or outright disagreement about it owing to their disagreeing over its complete description. For example, if I believe tomatoes are vegetables and you take them to be fruits, we may still discuss tomatoes because we agree about many of their other properties and are in harmony over many of our experiences of tomatoes. We may cross swords over their genus and even, as the cognitive infects the gustatory, disagree on whether they taste like fruits or like vegetables.

A similar consonance mixed with equivocation can be found in conversations about God, though exceedingly rarely. Consider this passage from the Bible that speaks of salvation and moral transformation through God.

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12.2)

It is possible for an atheist to see this as sound advice and to agree with the theist that there is more truth in it than falsehood. The God-talk language game is one that the atheist can play, as well as the theist. He can play with conviction and not just as though it were a mere play that he tacitly dismisses is as devoid of truth-bearing statements. In particular, it is possible for an atheist to find value in Romans 12.2 the following lesson:

It is a good idea to do the following:
1. Keep one's mind from being immersed in the river of mundane thoughts in which it is almost constantly swept away and which so frequently subject it to resentments and frustration.

2. Reflect on the facts that the existence of this world is unfathomably better than nothingness and that one’s having this life in this world is unfathomably better than not having it.

3. Realize that the state of patience and eager acceptance of this world that results from 1 and 2 makes one better able to respond to any situation with greater wisdom, strength and courage.

These practical principles are not a translation of Romans 12.2. This is not a reduction. But it is an atheist’s recognition of the profundity and value of the scripture.

Of course, there is much more to the story.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


"God" has a connotation in the sentence "There is a God." It is an evocative sentence which does much more than attempt to refer to a thing of a certain description. It entails that the fact that there is this world, rather than nothing, is very good, and that the situation in which we find ourselves makes living in this world well worthwhile and the lives we have in it things to be deeply grateful for. When the priest kisses the cross or the Jew reads the creation story, this connotation is never far away from these signs.

As an attempt at a reduction of religious language to naturalistic language, this gloss on "There is a God" fails, however. This connotation of "There is a God" is, when the theist utters it, not "what he means." He means to refer to a supernatural person who created this universe. So there is no reduction of "God" to the goodness of the fact of this existence or the appropriateness of being glad for it.

Yet there is more to this story, as we'll see in the next post.
Religious Talk

One Wittgensteinian view of religious language (language about God and salvation) is that it shouldn't be considered incorrect or without real referent but rather a different sort of language game or usage altogether from the one which is committed to truth, real referents, consistency of meaning, clarity to reasoning players of the game, and standards of evidence. I've long thought this a plausible interpretation of religious language. The fatal flaw of this theory is that too many players of the religious-language game simply mean their talk to be truthful and to refer to real supernatural things, such as God, and to supernatural events, such as salvation. Yet there is something so compelling to me about the idea that if you dismiss religious language on the grounds that it does not refer to anything real, you miss something truthful about religious language.

I've made a little progress in figuring out what is missed. There are certain components of some religious experience that produce non-trivial truths. People who have had these experiences can discuss them with religious language. The discussions successfully convey truths. It may be that people who have not had these experiences can be caused to have them by hearing religious language. And all this can be so even if, as I think is the case, there is no God or other supernatural objects or events. I'll show you what I mean in the next few posts.

In this connection, I fondly remember Professor Ramon Lemos (1928-2006). He took every opportunity to point out that there are truths that you can "just see," self-evident truths, his favorite example being the truth that orange is more like red than it is like green.

UPDATE: By odd coincidence, Bill Vallicella posted on this topic today. Go read the whole thing.