In a recent Philosopher's Stone essay, Paul Boghossian corrects Stanley Fish on the subject of moral relativism: there is no morally relativistic ground between nihilism and the embrace of moral absolutes -- one must choose. Saying "x is wrong" is a normative statement, while saying "x is wrong relative to moral code y" is a descriptive statement without normative force; believing the second statement doesn't require believing the first. (Note that the attempt to naturalize morality -- as in the projects of Harris and possibly Churchland -- run into problems for precisely this reason; there seems to be no alchemy that turns descriptive statements (including scientific observations) into normative ones).
Fish's response? It amounts (after a bizarre conflation of skepticism and relativism) to something like the following syllogism:
- Paul Boghossian corrected me on a philosophical matter, and I have no rebuttal.
- But: Nothing concerning which I have been corrected can actually matter.
- Therefore: Philosophy doesn't matter.
Quid erat demonstrandum. Let's take a moment to appreciate the chutzpah of someone who's way out of an argument is to say "well, all arguments of this sort don't matter anyway." It takes picking up one's toys and going home to a whole new level. One tries to pick up everyone else's toys as well.
To be fair, Fish actually argues for the conclusion, whatever his face-saving motivations. The argument is that whether I believe there are such a thing as moral absolutes -- and more generally, how I answer philosophical questions in general -- don't matter in the real world; which is to say, they don't affect my decisions or my behavior.
Fish conveniently defines "matter" in the narrowest possible terms, a typical gambit for critiques of philosophy as an impractical waste of time. When playing this game, making a decision about whether to take a job (the example Fish actually uses without irony) are suddenly the only sorts of things that "matter." Apparently if I can't use philosophy to get rich, chop vegetables, mop up the occasional spill, and keep my beer cold at Red Sox games, then I must have succumbed to the wrong vocational infomercial.
But then, do theoretical beliefs about the status of moral absolutes affect our behavior? Of course they do. In his crushing rebuttal to Fish's piece, Boghossian quotes comment 93 by David Velleman:
Fish's examples of "real life" are not the ones to which relativism would matter. Consider instead how we (Westerners) deal with cultures that practice female genital mutilation. We could say, "Well, what's right for us isn't necessarily right for them, and it's meaningless to ask which of us is 'really' right." Or we could say, "If we're right (as we think), then they must be wrong, and we should try to convince them." Or we can say, "Both of us are right in the context of our own cultures, but some cultures are superior to others." And so on. In the first case, we don't even try to talk to them. In the second case, we try to engage them in moral argument. In the third, we expose them to our way of life and count on them to change. These are real-life alternatives, and in today's world, the choice among them matters a great deal.
It is rationally inconceivable that one's meta-ethical attitudes about moral correctness and truth won't influence one's first-order views about how to deal with cultures that practice female genital mutilation. Indeed, it is precisely because they were expected to have such influence -- because they were expected to foster greater tolerance for those with whom one might disagree -- that people were attracted to moral relativism in the first place.
Fish's confusion continues in a follow-up that doesn't address Boghossian's rebuttal. Thoughts from Leiter readers here.
Bizarrely, this discussion leaves out entirely the Philosophy 101 idea that philosophy not only matters to living, but matters a lot! As in, "the un-partially-examined life is not worth living." Which is to say, theoretical wisdom is important both a) as an end in itself (perfect happiness, according to Aristotle, consists in contemplation); and b) because of its relationship to practical wisdom (as in, being prone to and good at reasoning about things might lead to better moral decisions and different behaviors). Shouldn't someone arguing the thesis "philosophy doesn't matter" take on this opposing, inaugural view?
Whether or not one thinks that the life of the mind is the best sort of life, certainly it's inconceivable that philosophizing doesn't have profound impacts -- for better or worse -- on character, and so on subsequent choices and behaviors. In fact, we are modified but absolutely every activity in which we engage (whether philosophical reflection leads to privileged sorts of modifications is a further question). And the set of all such accrued modifications (what I'm calling "character") plays a critical role in determining future behaviors.
Perhaps Fish would say that he means strictly that one's philosophical beliefs don't directly affect one's behavior and decisions by entering directly into some chain of reasoning (and would grant that philosophical activity affects character and so, indirectly, behavior). But then "philosophy doesn't matter" is a poor way to state such a thesis, and these would be arbitrarily narrow requirements for a belief's mattering.
As for the relevance of philosophical beliefs, are we really to believe that the guy who became enamored of Derrida (and affiliated positions) isn't living a different sort of life -- outside and inside the classroom -- than if he'd become obsessed with Bertrand Russell? (Granting the choice had something to do with character in the first place, it will reinforce character in turn). Certainly our beliefs -- no matter how theoretical -- belong to, reflect, and shape a large set of conditions that determine our behaviors.
(See also Boghossian's unfortunately titled but well-argued book Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism).
David Buchanan says
One must choose either nihilism or absolutism? My first instinct is to cheer for those who oppose Rorty’s relativism but there seems to be something important missing from Boghossian’s argument. I mean, why does the normative statement have more “power” than the descriptive statement? The difference could be construed as one of scope so that saying “x is wrong in context y” would be compared to the claim that “x is wrong in any context”. On that view, the normative claim isn’t actually different in kind. It’s just more ambitious in its claim.
It seems that Boghossian is resting too much of his case on the distinction between facts and values but the line between them is not so stark. Isn’t it entirely reasonable to admit that we value facts and values have some basis in fact? If not, then on what basis does the moral absolutist say “x is wrong”? How can one make such an unqualified statement without some kind of claim about the ultimate nature of objective reality – or some such thing?
These sorts of questions are interesting to me because William James, one of my intellectual heros, has been accused of relativism about a million times over the last century AND Rorty claims James as one of his main influences. I want to have a subtle view but maybe I’m just confused. I don’t think James was an absolutist, a nihilist or a relativist and it seems to me that none of those positions is acceptable. They’re very different from each other and yet all three of them are intellectually paralyzing.
Wes Alwan says
Hi David, everyone concedes that we value facts and values have a basis in fact, but that’s got nothing to do with the traditional fact/value distinction, which is stark. See my comments on Mark’s Harris post. When I say “normative force” I don’t mean there’s more power in normative statements; I just mean that normative statements have a prescriptive quality that descriptive one’s do not. (“He is doing x” merely describes what is; he “ought to do x” prescribes what should be). I love William James and I love pragmatism, but frankly I have to investigate it more before I can decide whether it succumbs to relativism; but I think relativism is a real problem for it. Future episodes!
Ethan Gach says
Great post Wes! I’ve been losing faith in Fish recently, who I usually appreciate on political matters, especially legal ones (his actual area of expertise).
The “Philosophy doesn’t matter” line is such a tired one.
If anything, a trek through philosophy will astound anyone by how much it actually does affect us, especially in terms of cultural values. Education is one area where one’s philosophy on the matter is extremely important and extremely apparent.
Wes Alwan says
Seth Paskin says
A reply by Boghossian:
Ryan Usher says
This post reminded me of the fantastic Dworking article, “Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It”. Dworkin argues for objectivity and truth in morality using a “companions in guilt” strategy that he generalizes to all of philosophy:
“…Since we do not think that philosophical opinions are caused by philosophical faces, we do not conclude from the diversity of philosophical views (which is more pronounced than moral disagreement) that no positive philosophical thesis is sound…”
He then asks us to consider the following, which could also be used to illustrate there’s no morally relativistic ground between moral realism/moral anti-realism:
“Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that we are forced to choose between the following two propositions:
1. Human beings have a special, though sometimes fallible, faculty of judgment that enables us to decide which moral claims to accept or reject, a capacity whose malfunctioning may sometimes result only in a moral misjudgment with no spillover impairment of any other cognitive activity.
2. There is no moral objection to exterminating an ethnic group or enslaving a race or torturing a young child, just for fun, in front of its captive mother.
Which should we abandon?”
It’s rather cheeky but it’s a great read partially because of it. For example, his rejection of a ‘moral field hypothesis’ and it’s possible particle the ‘moron’.
Jay Jeffers says
I haven’t read that Dworkin article, but from the summary, I can’t say it advances the discussion (perhaps your admission of its being “cheeky” is a sign that we don’t disagree – not sure).
One half of me is afraid Dworkin is trying to gain too easy a victory; anyone involved in this kind of discussion is bound to be the kind of person who would object to the horror described in 2. But the question isn’t whether or not we would lodge such an objection in our personal lives, but what we reflectively think of the issue of whether there are facts of the matter that settle things between realists and skeptics in meta-ethics, or between moral people and sociopaths in everyday life.
The other part of me thinks Dworkin’s rhetorical strategy, whether he means it or not, would rely solely on the passions, when the issue is actually a fairly technical one. I mean, I really really really want to choose option 1, but if Dworkin’s options are on topic, then of course skeptics choose option 2, and that’s what the argument is about. Putting the argument in stark terms doesn’t teach skeptics like JL Mackie or relativists like Harman anything they didn’t already know. I mean, Mackie wouldn’t read Dworkin’s options and say, “Oh, wow. I really haven’t thought through this whole moral skepticism thing.”
If Dworkin’s article moves us to moral realism then we still have to explain ourselves. Like, whether we’re intuitionists, or moral naturalists, or what have you. And the devil is, of course, in those details.
I respect Dworkin, and I would hope a thinker of his stature would bring more to the table on this topic. You make me want to read the paper though so I can see how he deals with all this. And again, not sure if there’s a disagreement here between us – just thought I’d chime in.
Ryan Usher says
I believe the article addresses all of your worries and more. I beg you and anyone else not to think I have provided an at all adequate summary of what it covers with my two excerpts – it is, after all, a fairly lengthy piece; although I think his companions in guilt strategy that generalizes the problem to all of philosophy is nothing to be scoffed at, Mackie certainly wouldn’t as he came up with this kind of argumentative strategy in the first place.
I agree that if Dworkin is going to move us towards moral realism we still have explaining to do but I believe his primary goal in the article is to address skepticism, and to a lesser extent, anti-realism.
My only goal was to motivate interest in what I think is a great article. My meta-ethical views tend towards a kind of quasi-realism and the work of William Talbott in particular who believes we have a sensitivity to objective moral standards without causal interaction with them (which is how he answers the challenge of the naturalists). He was my professor in ethics/meta-ethics and maybe his notes (which I’ll type out here for you) would give you a better idea of what the Dworkin article addresses:
“Dworkin’s defense of objectivity in ethics
archimedean (external) vs. internal skepticism
Internal skepticism about morality: involves commitment to some moral truths (perhaps conditional or counterfactual).
I-propositions: Make moral judgments internal to a moral practice.
E-propositions: Express external metaphysical or philosophical opinions about the nature of internal moral judgments
Can we divide moral discourse into I-propositions and E-propositions?
The return of Harman:
Can moral properties cause moral beliefs?
What is the point of Dworkin’s moral field thesis (“morons”) example?
The key argument: That we must be “in touch with” moral properties (117). Compare William’s idea that for reflective moral knowledge, our moral beliefs must “track the truth”…
(after which he lays out Dworkin’s test of reflective equilibrium, the dichotomy in my previous comment, and his key move: the super-duper companions in guilt defense)
…”The archimedean employs his own autonomous philosophical capacity to declare that no intellectual capacity can sensibly be treated as autonomous…”
Jay Jeffers says
Thanks for the meaty reply!! I’m headed to bed so I’ve only skimmed it, but now I have something to look forward to. I hunted down Dworkin’s article and I’ll get into that too, when time permits.