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Monday, March 3
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 intriguingalthough not profoundly
importantto ask whether Dante was already close to Guido when he wrote about
Francesca. I spent th
Thursday, March 6
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 wrongat 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.
(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
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 likebabies, 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 statusunless
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 rightswe 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
morallyand perhaps prayerfullyabout 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 soonall
in the interests of serving my audience.
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.
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 husbandnot even their
nameswhich 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.
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."
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:
- 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
was systematically and profoundly influenced by Nietzsche's conclusions and methods
of writing. Thus he was a Nietzschean, if anyone deserves that title.
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
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
think that Jonathan Dancy, a British moral philosopher, has made an important
contribution with an argument that I would loosely paraphrase as follows. (See
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 knowor
we think we knowthe 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.
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 painthen 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
Friday, June 6
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
|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 assumptionsmaybe
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:
is a small set of coherent and true principles that can guide us.
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
is the only way to solve
I would say No if:
is not a small set of coherent and true principles.
- it is possible to
make judgments individually, and generalizations distort a complex reality
are preferable alternatives to ideology.
... 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
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?
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.
"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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.