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Monday, March 3

Notwithstanding all this civic engagement stuff I try to do, I'm actually a moral philosopher. I have an incomplete manuscript of several hundred pages on the story of Paolo and Francesca and what it means for moral theory. (See this webpage.) It occasionally bothers me that I have left so much material untouched for so long. Today I sensed a lull and took out chapter one. It's a mess, but I enjoyed starting to reorganize it.

Dante ended his life in the household of the lord of Ravenna, one Guido Novello da Polenta. Dante was Guido's close friend and courtier. Guido's aunt was Francesca do Rimini, one of the most famous damned souls in Dante's Inferno. So it's intriguing—although not profoundly important—to ask whether Dante was already close to Guido when he wrote about Francesca. I spent th

Thursday, March 6

My Dante book (in progress) is really an essay on the limitations of moral theory. But what is that? I'm playing with the following definition: Moral theories are collections of descriptive terms, each of which has a known moral valence. For example, "unjust" is a descriptive term with moral significance. We might argue that anything that is "unjust" is wrong—at least all else being equal. In that case, the moral valence of the term "unjust" is negative; calling something "unjust" pushes us toward rejecting that action (or institution, or character).

Knowing the moral valence of a descriptive term does not always tell us what to do, because a single act can be described in multiple ways. A given action may be "unjust" but also "loving." (For example, a parent might favor her own children over others.) In such cases, the negative moral valence of injustice is countered by the positive moral valence of love, and we have a difficult decision to make. In another kind of situation, an action may be "unjust" but also "necessary"; and if something is necessary, then we may have to ignore moral considerations altogether.

Few (if any) philosophers have ever believed that moral theories could be sufficient to determine action; we also need judgment to tell us which moral terms to apply in particular cases, and how to balance conflicting terms. Nevertheless, philosophers generally think it is useful to have a moral theory composed of terms with known moral valences.

A moral theory can simply be a list of such terms (this was W.D. Ross' view); but preferably it is an organized structure. For example, a theorist may argue that some moral terms underlie and explain others, or trump others, or negate others. The more the full list can be organized and/or shortened, the more the theory has achieved.

Friday, May 2

Here's a question prompted by a seminar discussion today. (The speaker was my colleague Robert Sprinkle.) Would it be possible to consider the moral status of a human fetus without analogizing it to something else? The standard way to think about the morality of abortion is to ask what fetuses are most like—babies, organisms (fairly simple ones at first), or tumors. We know that babies cannot be killed, that simple organisms can be killed for important reasons, and that tumors can be removed and destroyed without regret. So an analogy can help us to answer the fundamantal moral question about abortion. (It's not necessarily the end of the matter. Judith Jarvis Thomson, and many others, have argued that you may kill a fetus even if it is like a person, because it is inside another person.) But a fetus isn't something else; it's a fetus. So could you simply consider it and reach moral conclusions? One might reply: "There is no way of reasoning about this entity; there is nothing to say to oneself about its moral status—unless one compares it to another object whose moral status one already knows." But how do we know the moral status of (for example) human beings? Presumably, experience and reason have rightly driven us to the conclusion that human beings have a right to life. Similarly, most of us have decided that insects do not have rights. Couldn't we reach conclusions about the moral status of fetuses without analogizing them to anything else?

(Some religious readers may say: "Experience and reason are not the basis of our belief in human rights—we get this belief from divine revelation." But there is no explicit divine revelation about fetuses, so the question arises even for religious people: Could we think morally—and perhaps prayerfully—about fetuses, without analogizing them to other things?)

Tuesday, May 5

I looked at statistics for this site recently and was surprised to see that the most popular search terms that take people here include "Dante," "Paolo," "Francesca," and "Inferno." I am surprised because I think of myself as a civics, democracy, and political-reform guy; I have not contributed much to the study of Dante, and this website certainly doesn't offer much on the topic (beyond the one page about my ongoing Dante project). Today, however, I posted one of my published Dante articles, and I will add more soon—all in the interests of serving my audience.

In "Why Dante Damned Francesca da Rimini," I argue that there are two explanations for Dante's decision to place Francesca in Hell (even though her real-life nephew was his patron and benefactor). First, he may have sympathized with this fellow lover of poetry who tells her own sad story so movingly, but he realized that she had committed the mortal sin of adultery. Thus he damned her because his philosophical reason told him that she was guilty, and he wanted to suggest that moral reasoning is a safer guide than stories and the emotions that they provoke. For the same reason, the whole Divine Comedy moves from emotional, first-person, concrete narrative toward abstract universal truth as Dante ascends from Hell to Heaven.

But there is also another, subtler reason for his decision. Francesca loves poetry, but she reads it badly. Her speech is a tissue of quotations from ancient and medieval literature, but every one is inaccurate. In general, she takes difficult, complex texts and misreads them as simple cliches that justify her own behavior. Meanwhile, she says nothing about her lover or her husband—not even their names—which suggests that she cannot "read" them well or recall their stories. Her failure as a reader suggests that Dante was not necessarily against poetry and in favor of philosophical reason. Instead, perhaps he wanted to point out some specific moral pitfalls involved in careless reading.

Monday, May 19

Leo Strauss and his proteges, the "Straussians," are again in the news. Jeet Heer writes in the May 11 Boston Globe:

Odd as this may sound, we live in a world increasingly shaped by Leo Strauss, a controversial philosopher who died in 1973. Although generally unknown to the wider population, Strauss has been one of the two or three most important intellectual influences on the conservative worldview now ascendant in George W. Bush's Washington. Eager to get the lowdown on White House thinking, editors at the New York Times and Le Monde have had journalists pore over Strauss's work and trace his disciples' affiliations. The New Yorker has even found a contingent of Straussians doing intelligence work for the Pentagon .

In the International Herald Tribune, William Pfaff calls Strauss "the main intellectual influence on the neoconservatives," listing as Straussians: "Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Abram Shulsky of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, Richard Perle of the Pentagon advisory board, Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council, and the writers Robert Kagan and William Kristol."

In her 1988 book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, Shadia Drury argued that Strauss was not really a cultural conservative committed to natural law and transcendent truths; he was actually a nihilist who promoted conservatism as a golden lie for the masses. Some of John Gunnell's articles from the 1970s and 1980s had reached similar conclusions. In my 1995 book, Nietzsche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities, I sharpened this analysis somewhat by arguing that:

  1. Nietzsche was a duplicitous or esoteric author, teaching public doctrines (such as Will to Power and Eternal Return) that he did not believe, because he feared the impact of the nihilistic Truth; and
  2. Strauss was systematically and profoundly influenced by Nietzsche's conclusions and methods of writing. Thus he was a Nietzschean, if anyone deserves that title.

Then, in Something to Hide (1996), I published a comic novel about a conspiratorial group of nihilists/conservatives, loosely based on Leo Strauss. However, given the level of suspicion that Straussians now provoke in some quarters (e.g., among followers of Lyndon Larouche), I should say that I find the actual Straussians curious and sometimes interesting, but not dangerous or malevolent.

Here is the section from my 1995 book in which I assemble evidence for the hypothesis that Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom were Nietzscheans.

Monday, June 2

I think that Jonathan Dancy, a British moral philosopher, has made an important contribution with an argument that I would loosely paraphrase as follows. (See this webpage for his own statement.)

Although moral philosophy is highly diverse in its methods and conclusions, it almost always involves an effort to identify concepts or words that have consistent moral significance. For instance, when we examine a complex case of adultery, we may detect numerous features that are morally relevant: promise-breaking, deceit, self-indulgence, lust, pleasure, happiness, love, freedom, and self-fulfillment. We may not know how to judge the case, since its features push us in various directions. But we do know—or we think we know—the valence of each concept. Regardless of our overall judgment of an adultery story, the fact that it involves a broken promise makes it worse than it would otherwise be. The fact that it expresses freedom or increases happiness makes it better. And so on.

This kind of analysis has the advantage of allowing what Dancy calls "switching arguments." We form a strong opinion about the moral polarity of a concept that arises in well-understood cases, and then we apply (or "switch") it to new situations. So, for example, if we admire conventional marriage because it reflects long-term mutual commitment, then we ought to admire the same feature in gay relationships.

But what if moral concepts do not have the same valence or polarity in each case? What if they are not always good or bad (even "all else being equal"), but instead change their polarity depending on the context? Clearly, this is true of some concepts. Pleasure, for example, is often a good thing, but not if it comes from observing someone else's pain—then the presence of pleasure is actually bad, even if it has no impact on the sufferer. In my view, it is a mistake to isolate "pleasure" as a general moral concept, because one cannot tell whether it makes things better or worse, except by examining how it works in each context.

Philosophers have always been eager to reject some potential moral concepts as ambiguous and unreliable; but they have wanted to retain at least a few terms as guides to judgment. Thus, for instance, Kant drops "pleasure" and "happiness" from the moral lexicon, but "duty" remains. It would be revolutionary to assert, as Dancy does, that "every consideration is capable of having its practical polarity reversed by changes in context." Dancy believes that no concepts, reasons, or values have the same moral polarity in all circumstances. Whether a feature of an act or situation is good or bad always depends on the context, on the way that the feature interacts with other factors that are also present in the concrete situation. To shake our confidence that some important moral concepts have consistent polarities, Dancy provides many examples in which the expected moral significance of a concept is reversed by the context. For example, truth-telling is generally good. But willingly telling the truth to a Gestapo agent, even about some trivial matter such as the time of day, would be regrettable. Returning a borrowed item is usually good-but not if you learn that it was stolen, in which case it is wrong to give it back to the thief.

Friday, June 6

Is it good to be ideological? This seems to be an important question, since ideologies are what many people use to engage in political and civic life, yet there are good reasons to be against ideology.

First of all, What is ideology? I think we are "ideological" to the degree that our concrete judgments are determined by a set of assumptions that cohere or grow from a common root. Thus:

degree of ideology =

(range of judgments generated by a set of assumptions) x (coherence of the set)

number of items in the set of assumptions

For example, Ayn Randians have a very small set of assumptions—maybe just one. Their belief that individual freedom is the only moral value generates a very wide range of judgments, not only about politics and economics, but also about religion, the virtues, and aesthetics. For them, a good novel must be about an iconclastic genius, because individual creativity and freedom are all that matters. So Ayn Randians are highly ideological.

Classical liberals are somewhat less ideological, according to this theory, because the range of judgments supported by their initial assumptions is narrower. For instance, they may say that liberalism only tells us how to organize a state; it says nothing about what makes a good novel, or whether God exists, or what are the best personal virtues.

So is it good to be highly ideological? I would say Yes if:

  • there is a small set of coherent and true principles that can guide us.
  • everyone is inevitably ideological, in which case an overt ideology is more honest than a hidden one.
  • the alternatives are unpalatable (e.g., we must make no judgments at all, or we can only decide randomly).
  • ideology gives us roughly correct answers while lowering the cost of political participation, thereby allowing poor and poorly educated people to participate
  • ideology is the only way to solve "voting cycles"

I would say No if:

  • there is not a small set of coherent and true principles.
  • it is possible to make judgments individually, and generalizations distort a complex reality
  • there are preferable alternatives to ideology.

Wednesday, July 23

... Most moral philosophers appeal to intuitions as the test of an argument's validity. At the same time, they presume that our moral judgments should conform to clear, general rules or principles. An important function of modern moral philosophy is to improve our intuitions by making them more clear, general, and consistent.

This methodology can be attacked on two fronts. From one side, those who admire the rich, complex, and ambiguous vocabulary that has evolved within our culture over time may resist the effort to reform traditional moral reasoning in this particular way.

As J.L. Austin wrote: "Our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and all the connexions they have found worth marking, in the lifetime of many generations." Thus there is a lot of wisdom contained in the vague and morally indeterminate vocabulary that ordinary language gives us. Words like "love" introduce complex and not entirely predictable penumbra of allusions, implications, and connotations. Barely conscious images of concrete events from history, literature, and our personal lives may flit through our heads when someone uses words. Everyone may recall a somewhat different set of such images, sometimes with contrary moral implications. This array of sometimes inconsistent references is problematic if we prize clarity. Hence moral theorists attempt to excise overly vague terms or to stipulate clear meanings. But the complexity and vagueness of words is beneficial (rather than problematic) if human beings have embodied in their language real family resemblances and real ambiguities. There really are curries, and it would reduce our understanding of food to ban the word "curry" for vagueness or to define it arbitrarily. Likewise, there really is "love," and it would impoverish our grasp of moral issues to try to reason without this concept or to define it in such a way that it shed its complex and ambiguous connotations, some of which derive from profound works of poetry, drama, and fiction.

The methods of modern philosophy can be attacked on another flank, too. Instead of saying that philosophers are too eager to improve our intuitions, we could say that they respect intuitions too much. For classical pagans and medieval Christians alike, the test of a moral judgment was not intuition; it was whether the judgment was consistent with the end or purpose of human life. However, modern moral philosophers deny that there is a knowable telos for human beings. Philosophers (as Alasdair MacIntyre argues) are therefore thrown back on intuition as the test of truth. Even moral realists, who believe that there is a moral truth independent of human knowledge, must still rely on our intuitions as the best evidence of truth. But this is something of a scandal, because no one thinks that intuitions are reliable. It is unlikely that we were built with internal meters that accurately measure morality.

Thursday, Oct 16

Ten to 15 years ago, when I first studied philosophy, the great divide was between the "analytic" and "continental" traditions. Some people wouldn't talk to colleagues in the opposite camp, and departments fell apart as a result. I think the conflict is dying down today, partly because of the waning significance of the French postmodern thinkers. They were the figures in the continental canon who provoked the deepest contempt from the analytic side. Many analytic philosophers can understand why one would study Hegel, Nietzsche, or Husserl, but not Derrida or Baudrillard.

The two groups are difficult to define. (One analytic colleague told me, in all seriousness, that "continental" means "unclear"—an example of an unhelpful definition.) In my view, analytic philosophers are those who treat science as the paradigm of knowledge. Science is cumulative, so studying its past is not particularly important for progress. Everyone admits that scientists have cultural biases, but science aims to be universal and uses techniques to overcome bias. Not all analytic philosophers are pro-science; some are skeptics, relativists, or political critics of organized science. However, they all see science as the paradigm of thinking, even if they criticize it. And some actually see philosophy as a branch of science (consisting of the most abstract parts of physics, math, and neurobiology).

In contrast, continental philosophers think that philosophy is an expression of a culture. Thus there is Greek philosophy, German philosophy, and post-modern philosophy, but philosophy per se is only an abtraction. As Richard Rorty said, philosophy is a kind of writing, similar to other written cultural products such as novels and plays. This does not mean that continental philosophers must always be relativists. Some discern a pattern in cultural history: for example, a story of progress (as in Hegel and Marx) or decline (as in Heidegger). Or they may believe that it's possible to advance a rational critique of a culture from within. But they see philosophy as more similar to fiction and literary criticism than to science.

This explains the prevailing difference in methodology. Analytic philosophers try to solve problems. They do think about others' work, especially recent articles that embody the latest thinking. But a perfect analytic argument would require no footnotes or quotations; it would be self-contained and persuasive, without any recourse to authority. By contrast, the typical continental philosopher tries to show what Famous Dead Philosopher X thought about an issue of his day. For continental philosophers, the history of the discipline is not merely of "antiquarian" interest, as it would be for an analytic philosopher. Rather, the deepest philosophical truths (if there are any to be known) are patterns in the history of thought.

Tuesday, Oct. 21

I was just refreshing my memory about the "capabilities approach" pioneered by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and others. (I have been asked to comment on a paper about "positive youth development," and I thought that Sen's ideas would be relevant and helpful.) The rough idea is that we ought to implement social policies that maximize people's capabilities. The important human capabilities can be listed, although theorists differ somewhat about what belongs on the list. Enhancing capabilities is better than maximizing a set of behaviors or goods, because people should be able to choose what to own and how to behave, within broad limits; and different things are valued in different cultures. Thus trying to maximize goods or behaviors is too prescriptive. Enhancing capabilities is also better than simply giving people what they say they want or need. People can want completely bad things, e.g., crack cocaine. Or they can want too much, as in the case of Hollywood actors who want to have six Hummers. Or they can want too little, which is a common problem among the world's very poor.

In contrast, capabilities are inherently good things, yet increasing one's capabilities does not restrict one's freedom. Furthermore, capabilities are defined loosely enough so that they are compatible with various forms of diversity. For instance, I would say that there is a capability of "raising children." Increasing this capability does not compel anyone to raise actual children. And people can choose to express it in diverse ways, from parenthood within a nuclear family, to participation in a peasant village where everyone raises all the kids, to working in a convent orphanage.

Applying the capabilities approach to adolescent development would mean saying that we want (and will help) teenagers to develop a list of capabilities, such as: providing for themselves financially; loving others; expressing themselves creatively; developing spiritually; understanding nature; raising the next generation; and participating politically.

Monday, Oct. 27

We're just back from a family weekend in Lancaster, PA—Amish country. It's dispiriting to watch real Amish people walk or trot in waggons past huge Amish-themed tourist attractions. (One store is actually called "Amish Stuff Inc.") Extreme simplicity seems to attract the worst form of consumerism.

The Amish raise a philosophical dilemma that has often been written about. If you believe in freedom, this must include freedom of religion, which means the ability to raise your own children within your faith. Central to most religions are detailed rules or traditions concerning the rearing of children. However, if you believe in freedom, then you must believe in the right of individuals to choose their own values and commitments. Parents can interfere profoundly with such freedom. Indeed, all parents necessarily do. Anyone who grows up in a family is constrained by the legacy of family beliefs and values. (Even those who rebel have been influenced.) However, the tension between parental freedom and children's liberty is especially sharp and clear in cases like the Amish, who prefer to be as isolated as possible from the rest of the world. In particular, they prefer their children to "drop out" of school in late childhood.

This means, on the one hand, that Amish kids lack the skills and breadth of experience necessary to understand or pursue a wide range of alternative forms of life. A book that I skimmed in Pennsylvania claimed that it was "nonsense" to complain about the limits that Amish children face, for those who leave the faith can always find work locally as farm hands. To me, this proves the point.

On the other hand, if we bring children up in a "liberal" way, so as to maximize their ability to make free choices, then they cannot become Amish. Amish culture would be entirely different if most of its members spent their childhood and adolescence in mainstream society. Being Amish means being intentionally naive; it means not knowing much about the corrupt modern world. It means living with a small group of people who all came from the same background, very few of whom leave the fold. And it means valuing communal solidarity more than choice. Thus, if we insist on children's freedom of choice, then we can't let the Amish raise their kids as they want. Not only would this reduce the freedom of each adult generation; it would erase an alternative culture whose existence broadens all of our horizons.

I'm still seeing powerful mental images of Amish farmers walking behind their horse-drawn plows past huge outlet stores. The stores represent "choice" in its most extreme form: millions of affordable items for your house, stomach, and wardrobe. But how much choice do you have if you don't realize that choice is itself an option, and incompatible with some of the best ways of living?

Bill Humphries replies:

You've hit on the hard question for a modern, technical society as to the conflict between religious freedom and other freedoms. I think America has always been willing to put religious freedoms above others, and I think we've been rarely benefited from it*. And the whole experience of the Enlightenment and Modernity has deprecated religion as useful enterprise.

You said:

"Being Amish means being intentionally naive; it means not knowing much about the corrupt modern world. It means living with a small group of people who all came from the same background, very few of whom leave the fold. And it means valuing communal solidarity more than choice. Thus, if we insist on children's freedom of choice, then we can't let the Amish raise their kids as they want. Not only would this reduce the freedom of each adult generation; it would erase an alternative culture whose existence broadens all of our horizons."

So then, what's Amish culture done for me lately? Other than providing a marketing niche for photographers at art fairs (which I suppose gives me some infinitesimal gain to my well-being since I can now choose between them, the guy who photographs doors in France, and the lady who photographs wind-blown heaths.)

It seems we're asking those Amish kids to take a big dive in order that we can have some quaint. Can't we get that through the study of the Amish as an historical artifact rather than permitting to deny their children the benefits of modernity?

To me, it doesn't seem like a good trade at all. And haven't the Amish's modes of production been superannuated? Playing at being Amish may be okay as a hobby, but we don't normally allow someone's hobby as a free pass to oppress another group. (Although I can see the Congress granting Rupert Murdoch an exemption from the Thirteenth amendment so he can have slaves to row his galleons.)

* Not specifying a 'state' religion has kept us from murdering one another in greater numbers.

Wednesday, Nov. 5

I think that Renaissance humanist philosophy is often misunderstood; and this mistake matters to me because I favor a revival of the real methods of the humanists. The standard view is that Renaissance humanists taught original doctrines, especially the "dignity of man" that was the theme of Marsilio Ficino's famous oration. They are thought to be "humanists" because they believed in the centrality of human beings as opposed to God.

In fact, Ficino was neither original (in the context of medieval thought) nor especially influential. But Renaissance humanism did introduce a revolutionary change. Medieval scholastic philosophy had involved a particular style of writing. In the Middle Ages, philosophical works were third-person treatises: systematic, abstract, theoretical, and very logically sophisticated compared to anything written in the Renaissance. They included concrete examples, but always extracted from their original contexts to support abstract points. In contrast, Renaissance humanists meant by "philosophy" the dialogues, speeches, and moralistic biographies of ancient times, especially those written by Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and Plurarch. Plot and character featured prominently in these works. Humanist readers were mainly interested in philosophers (such as as Socrates or Diogenes) as role models, as men who had demonstrated virtues and eloquence in specific situations. The works they enjoyed were also full of irony: for example, Plato did not speak except through Socrates, for whom he probably had complex and ambiguous feelings.

In turn, Renaissance humanists wrote, not abstract treatises, but stories told by and about literary characters in concrete situations. Often these works were ironic. Utopia, the Praise of Folly, and the Prince are alike in that people have argued for centuries about whether their authors were serious or joking. Utopia and the Praise of Folly are narrated by fictional characters, distant from their authors. And Machiavelli wrote the Prince for a ruler who was likely to execute him if he spoke his mind. Its real meaning may be ironic.

Today, mainstream moral philosophy is "scholastic": sophisticated, aiming at systematic rigor and clarity, logical, abstract, and ahistorical. But there are also works that try to make philosophical progress by interpreting past works in all their literary complexity, ambiguity, and original context. I'm thinking of Alasdair McIntyre's After Virtue, Martha Nussbaum's Fragility of Goodness, Bernard Williams' Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, and Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. These authors have no common theme or message, but they treat philosophy as a particular kind of discipline. They place it among the humanities, not the sciences. In this respect they are "humanist" philosophers in the Renaissance tradition.

November 24

I see libertarianism and modern democratic Socialism as flawed for similar (or parallel) reasons:

  • Libertarians believe in markets, which they consider just and free as well as efficient. They see politics as a threat, because masses of people may decide to interfere with markets by taxing and spending or by regulating industry. To libertarians, such political interference is morally illegitimate as well as foolish. It means that some individuals are robbing others of freedom.
  • Democratic socialists believe in egalitarian politics: in one-person, one-vote. They don’t trust markets, because unregulated capital may exit a locality or country that chooses to impose high taxes or tight regulations. Even in the US, the bond market will fall if investors suspect that the federal government is going to borrow and spend, no matter how popular this policy may be. When investors “discipline” democracies by withdrawing their capital, socialists see a morally illegitimate constraint on the people’s will and interests.
  •  For what it’s worth, I think that markets and politics are both inevitable. There’s much that we do not know, and it’s always wise to remain skeptical and open to new possibilities, yet I doubt very much that we can ever escape from a few basic laws that govern the political and economic spheres. A study of politics tells us, for example, that great masses of people have power. They can be suppressed temporarily by dictators, but tyrants tend to meet grisly ends. They can be restrained by constitutions, but complex systems that frustrate popular will usually get changed. If politics is inevitable, then libertarians have no practical way to attain the minimal state they dream of, unless one day most of their fellow citizens come to share their values (which is highly unlikely). Meanwhile, markets are obdurate too. Even a popular, legitimate, democratic government cannot create a supply of goods unless consumer demand produces a high enough price to motivate producers. Thus, when markets “discipline” governments, this is not corrupt or illegitimate interference; it is reality coming into play.

    All this explains why every successful country in the modern world is a mixed economy, with a substantial public and private sector, majoritarian institutions and free markets. But the successful models differ in important respects, and there is room for debate about whether the US approach is better or worse than that of Germany, Sweden, Japan, or Canada. The criteria of excellence would include efficiency, sustainability, liberty, and quality of life (broadly defined) for the poorest as well as average residents.

    December 5

    In ethics, the words "universal," "general," and "particular" are used in three entirely different contexts. First, there is the issue of cultural difference. Some people say, "Morality is universal," meaning that the same rules or judgments ought to apply to members of any culture. Their opponents reply that at least some moral principles are particular to cultures (they only bind people who come from some backgrounds).

    Meanwhile, some people say, "Obligations are universal," meaning that we have the same duties to all human beings. For instance, perhaps we are required to maximize everyone’s happiness, to the best of our ability, not favoring some over others. Opponents of this kind of universalism reply that we have stronger obligations in particular people, such as our own children or compatriots. (See, for example, this good article by blogger and public intellectual Amitai Etzioni.)

    Finally, some people say, "What is right to do in a particular case is shown by the correct application of a general or universal moral rule." Their opponents reply that we can and should decide what to do by looking carefully at all the features of each particular case. They agree that there is a right or wrong thing to do in each circumstance; but general rules and principles are unreliable guides to action. Any rule or principle that makes one situation good may make another one bad.

    These three arguments are distinct analytically. If you take the "universalist" side in one debate, it does not follow that you must also take it in the others. One can, for example, believe that all people (regardless of culture) ought to be partial toward their own particular children. That view would combine two forms of universalism with one variety of particularism. Or one can believe that very abstract, general rules are never good guides to action, yet everyone from every culture should agree that this mother, in this particular set of circumstances, was right to feed her own child and to let a stranger go hungry. Or one can believe that we ought to treat everyone with precise equality, but only because we are members of a distinctly Western and modernist culture; there is an abstract rule of equal treatment that binds us but does not apply elsewhere.

    I think that the only illogical combination is resistance to universal rules plus commitment to impartiality, because impartiality seems best construed as a rule that applies in all cases ("treat everyone alike"). Particularism is consistent with partiality, if partiality just means that sometimes it's OK to discriminate.

    I suspect that there is a psychological tendency for some people to embrace universalism in all its forms, or else all forms of particularism; but there is no logical reason for this tendency. On the contrary, there may be some illogic involved. For example, some people favor partiality towards kin and countrymen, and they think but they can support this value by rejecting cultural universalism. That is a non sequitur, although probably a common one. (We see it in "Romantic" reactions against "Enlightenment" universalism.) Likewise, one might fear the nihilistic consequences of cultural relativism and therefore favor abstract, rule-based ethics, but this is another illogical move.

    My own view, in a nutshell, combines cultural universalism (everyone should agree in their assessment of any particular case, if they understand it fully); openness to partiality (sometimes it is right to discriminate in favor of certain people with whom one has special relationships); and "particularism" about ethical judgments (we can and should judge cases by closely examining their details, not by applying rules). 

    Wednesday, December 17

    I love Gareth B. Mathews' Philosophy & the Young Child (1980). It's full of dialogues in which kids between the ages of 4 and 10 explore profound issues of metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethics with an adult who's genuinely interested in their perspective. They supply fresh vision and curiosity; the adult provides some useful vocabulary and provocative questions. Mathews believes that it's hard to think straight about fundamental philosophical questions once you've been encumbered by a bunch of conventional theories--and once you've been told that most deep questions are really simple and obvious. For example, we're inclined to think that a kid is silly if she asks why she doesn't see double, since she has two eyes. Actually, this is not such an easy question to answer, but most of us are soon socialized to dismiss such matters as childish.

    Mathews skewers the great developmental psychologists, especially Piaget, who assumed that children first express naive views and then develop correct adult positions. Mathews points out that many of the "primitive" statements quoted by Piaget are actually more philosohically defensible than the adult positions he espouses without thinking twice. For instance, Piaget asserts that small children confuse "the data of the external world and those of the internal. Reality is impregnated with self and thought is conceived as belonging to the category of physical matter." When you grow up, according to Piaget, you realize that there are two separate domains: thought and matter. But Mathews quotes his own teacher, W.V.O. Quine (often called the greatest American philosopher), who told him, "Let's face it, Mathews. It's one world and it's a physical world." This is exactly the position that Piaget calls "primitive" and expects kids to drop as they "develop."

    Another treat in Mathews' book is his identification of a whole genre of children's literature: "philosophical whimsy." In some books that small children love, the plot is not driven forward by a practical problem or threat or a clash among characters. Rather, the protagonists face purely logical or epistemological puzzles. A simple example is Morris the Moose by B. Wiseman, in which Morris keeps trying to prove to other animals that they are moose like him. "My mother is a cow, so I'm a cow," says the cow. "You're a moose, so your mother was a moose," Morris replies. The whole book is about what makes a proof. This is a short and light-weight example, but the genre of philosophical whimsy also embraces Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, and the Wizard of Oz.