Tuesday, December 28, 2004
On Moral Skepticism
You might complain that I have put the skeptic in a box, and this is true. I've interpreted the skeptic as someone who believes that we act on reasons, and accepts that there is something to the notion of the best reasons. Both of these, of course, are things about which there is room to be skeptical – or at any rate to claim to be skeptical. Once I've got everything on the table I think it will be clear why I'm reluctant to take such a thoroughgoing skepticism about reasons very seriously. In the meantime, let me just say that I've put the skeptic in the same box as the rest of us.
Another legitimate complaint calls attention to the fact that my thesis is compatible with the possibility that morality might require all sorts of seemingly disagreeable things, so long as those things accord with our best reasons. An example will help press the point, so here's one. Suppose that it turned out that we have better reason to betray our friends at every opportunity than we have to do anything else. It would then follow from my thesis that it is moral to betray one's friends. But that can't be right, can it? If it turned out that this is what we had best reason to do then we'd say that morality required us to act against our best reasons.
And this is the skeptic's point, right? The skeptic wants to say that it is more reasonable to be immoral than to be moral, and challenges us to prove him wrong. An argument that does nothing more than establish the link by definitial fiat may provide a formal answer to the skeptic, but it won't do anything to legitimate our substantive moral judgments. More concretely, it won't do anything to show that we ought not to betray our friends at every opportunity.
Some philosophers have thought that what we need in order to answer the skeptic is a deep account of 'best reasons', an account that precludes the possibility that things like the systematic betrayal of one's friends will turn out to be justified. The idea is that if we can get such an account then the link between our pretheoretical moral judgments (some of them, anyway) and our best reasons will be formal but not merely formal. This, anyhow, is a way to understand the contemporary rationalist project of trying to show that morality is built into rationality itself.
One version of this project proceeds by looking closely at certain non-moral concepts to which we are deeply committed and attempting to provide an analysis of those concepts which shows that they have moral implications. An example of this approach is provided by Thomas Nagel's argument from resentment. According to Nagel, resentment arises when others have failed to take your interests into account. Insofar as we are committed to the possibility that we can resent the actions of others, then, we are committed to the notion that others should take our own interests into account. In order to remain consistent, however, we must then admit that we should also take the interests of others into account, and this is enough of a foundation to support morality. Or so Nagel argues.
Even granting the rest of Nagel's analysis, there seems to be a gap here. Namely, Nagel hasn't said why it is that we must be rationally consistent. Similar criticisms, of course, apply to any argument which purports to show that the penalty for immorality is rational inconsistency.
A second strain of the project attempts to close this gap by linking rational consistency to agency in a fundamental way. This approach is best exemplified by the work of Christine Korsgaard and receives its most complete treatment in her Locke Lectures. There, Korsgaard argues that we constitute ourselves as agents by acting on reasons, and that the requirement of consistency is built into this procedure. So, on Korsgaard's account, the need for rational consistency is founded on a deeper need, the need to constitute ourselves as agents.
Korsgaard's picture is one in which our agency is constantly under threat, but in an odd way. If we fail to act with rational consistency, and so fail to be agents, we'll still be able to walk the dog, plan our day, and, generally, do everything that agents do. Except, Korsgaard, tells us, we won't really be doing anything, because only agents do things. And this might leave us with the same feeling of dissatisfaction as Nagel's account. We might wonder, that is, why it is that we should care whether or not we are agents.
At the end of the day, projects like those of Nagel and Korsgaard seem worth pursuing because the skeptic's challenge has been taken seriously. The skeptic has said that it might turn out that our best reasons don't support our moral commitments, and a way has been sought to guarantee that this won't happen.
A different kind of moral apologetic is possible. For we might also have said to the skeptic that this isn't how things turned out. People have done a lot of thinking and arguing about what we have best reason to do, and the result of those activities is the amalgam of rules, principles, and procedures that we understand as common sense morality.
That's not to say that common sense morality is flawless. Often we are told to do something simply because it is the right thing to do. But this is only enough, if it ever is, in those cases where we already agree with the judgment being offered. There, the injunction serves to remind us of the course that we understand ourselves to have best reason to pursue. When we disagree, though, we look for further reasons. And when we find them and reach a decision about what is to be done we say, as shorthand, that we did it because it was the right thing to do.
Now, suppose that I have set myself on a course of action and believe myself to be acting on reasons, moral reasons, which support that action. My reasons might be challenged directly or skeptically. If they are challenged directly then, as I said at the beginning, this is no threat to the thesis that moral reasons bind us in virtue of the fact that they are the best reasons we know. At worst I might have been mistaken about what I have best reason to do. What of a skeptical challenge?
The thoroughgoing skeptic's claim isn't that I have reason to do something else, but that I have no reasons at all. To see how odd our dispute is, consider how the skeptic is to make his case. Whatever is said in support of the skeptical position will be a reason for it, except that if the skeptic is right then it won't. A pyrrhonnian might be satisfied, but the rest of us can rightly wonder whether this is a conversation worth having.
None of us is Buridan's ass and few of us are Hamlet. Action is not something we undertake only when compelled by the force of reason. Our lives are a flurry of action and we only rarely contemplate the reasons for those actions. When we do – and this is really all that I am claiming – we endorse those reasons which appear better to us rather than those which appear worse.
Monday, December 27, 2004
Update: Illinois 105, Longwood 79. Not as bad as expected.
Sunday, December 26, 2004
A linguistic argument
(1) Linguistic capacity precedes and causes self-consciousness, and so is the source of our ability to achieve reflective distance from our impulses.
(2) Language is inherently general.
Hence, (3) achieving reflective distance essentially involves conceiving oneself in general terms.
Korsgaard suggests this argument as the closing salvo of her critique of Thomas Nagel's account of reasons. Her fundamental objection to Nagel is that he assumes without argument that general reasons are the product of reflection. The linguistic argument is supposed to show how Nagel might try to close this gap by appealing to the foundational role that linguistic capacity plays in reflection.
Korsgaard's own discussion of the linguistic argument is brief and dismissive. She says that she is inclined to reject the first premise, but admits that she is, "somewhat at a loss about how to sort out such an issue."
For myself, I realize that the argument has some glaring flaws -- the second premise is far from clear and the inferential route from the premises to the conclusion is mysterious -- but I also think that the notions articulated in the first premise should be engaged rather than set aside. So here goes.
There are many questions to be asked about 1, but here is a place to start. What does it mean to say that linguistic capacity is the source of certain abilities? The right answer, at least as an interpretation of Korsgaard, begins something like this. It is agreed that acting on reasons, moral or otherwise, requires that we "achieve reflective distance from our impulses." Korsgaard and others have argued that we are capable of achieving such distance because we are self-conscious. But self-consciousness is itself a product of our linguistic capacity, so the kind of distance we can achieve will be determined by the operations of that capacity.
Given this elucidation, the premise would be rejected by Korsgaard for familiar reasons. Suppose that we were to discover that all of our moral judgments were caused by our linguistic situation and that this was the best explanation available for the various demands made on us by morality. We might then be in a position to ask whether we ought to follow those judgments, whether we ought to take them to be binding on us. If so, then the mere fact that these judgments derive from our linguistic capacity wouldn't be enough -- it wouldn't explain why we endorsed the judgments. If not, if the circle is so tight that we are incapable of doubting the judgments issued in accordance with our linguistic capacity, then we lack a capacity for self-reflection and fail to be agents. In either case the appeal to linguistic capacity doesn't appear to provide a foundation for reflective endorsement.
There is, however, another way of understanding the link between linguistic capacity, self-consciousness, and our capacity to achieve reflective distance. The first step is to see that the priority of linguistic capacity means that all consciousness of self will be a linguistic consciousness of self. Another way of putting this is to say that there is a kind of distance from impulses built into any consciousness, and that this distance is constituted by the fact that consciousness is linguistic while impulses are not. Thus, the conscious consideration of an impulse requires that it first be framed linguistically, and (here comes the second premise) in doing so one imputes to it a degree of generality.
It may not be clear how this interpretation differs from the previous elucidation, so let me make things explicit. The point of departure lies in the fact that the second interpretation makes a claim about the contents of consciousness rather than merely about its causal origins. The claim is that consciousness is inherently linguistic consciousness and is, as such, bound as much by the limits of language as by any facts in the external world.
On this interpretation, much of the weight of the argument falls on the second premise. And even before contemplating questions of whether language really is general in the way required, and how one might argue that it was, one sees that familiar Korsgaardian objections lurk. For supposing that the second premise is true we face the same dilemma that ocurred with the causal elucidation of the first premise. Either the generality of language leaves room for reflection on reasons or it doesn't. If it does then generality isn't doing the refletive work and if it doesn't then we aren't agents. Either way we haven't arrived at a foundation for reflective endorsement.
This is enough to reject the second premise and the linguistic argument, but not enough to discredit the present line of thought. Rather than trying to formulate a revised argument, let me hazard a speculative comment that may illuminate the way forward. Korsgaard's demand is that normative commitment be grounded without being determined. What this means in practice is that the normative commitment must be chosen and that the choice must be one which an agent could not fail to make. In Korsgaard's Kantian hands this devolves into a commitment to one's own rational nature. She seems to understand the linguistic argument as a perversion of this thought, as imputing a commitment to a rational order which is outside the self and, hence, destructive of agency. If the advocate of the linguistic argument is to evade this charge then the first premise above cannot be asserted as a step on the road towards a ground for normative commitment. Instead, the point should be that linguistic consciousness has built into it just those procedures required to bootstrap us into ethical agency.
Here is a very rough indication of how such an account might go. Under the second interpretation, one of the implications of the fact of linguistic consciousness is that all of our thoughts about the world are descriptions. None of these descriptions constitute the last word, and some descriptions are always in competition with others. Getting around in the world requires that one adjudicate among descriptions, which requires applying standards for better and worse descriptions. Since there is no reaching beyond descriptions to the world, these standards can't be foundational in any straightforward way. Instead, the standards must be internal and, it seems, must have something to do with agreement among or compatibility with other descriptions. Details aside, the main point is that the operation of linguistic consciousness includes the application of normative standards which are not themselves grounded in anything beyond the contents of the agent's mind. Further argument would then seek to show that the notions of better and worse have enough normative content to provide the basis for recognizably moral reasoning.
Tuesday, December 07, 2004
A stupid idea
Obviously, I need to do better to beat out McDonalds. But not much better.
This weekend I decided to try my hand at tournaments. On Saturday I entered a $6 tournament with about 300 players. I finished 279th. Tried again Sunday with a slightly bigger $6 tourney - 350 entrants - and made it to 130th or so.
Tonight, $6 entry fee, 390 entrants, 5th place. And, damn, I had 9 outs for an ace high flush at the flop and would have been 2nd biggest stack if I'd hit it. Anyway, I won $90 which means that I'm up about $130 since Friday.
Just for the record, I'm a nerd. So, yes, I did some studying between each tournament attempt. The main thing I needed to do was slow down the betting strategy I've been using for limit poker (I adopted it about 3 months ago and, I've got to tell you, it has absolutely transformed my game).
Anyway, here's what I'm thinking.
PokerRoom, where I play, has two $0 entry tournaments every weekday and a $1 tournament every Saturday. I figure I can take a week or two during the break and play in all of those and then spend the time in between playing limit games to earn the entry fees for higher dollar tournaments. That'd allow me to play in something like 20 tournaments a week. If I won just one then I'd have an income comparable to what I earn as a teaching assistant.
And, hey, I'm not saying I didn't win some coin flips in tonight's tourney. I did. But I also lost a bunch of coin flips. The thing is, I didn't have much trouble winning back any money that I'd lost. Seriously, at the low dollar tournaments it's criminally easy to steal blinds. It's especially criminal after the blinds have escalated.
Here's the worry. I've noticed a weakness in my game that doesn't get exploited in the earlier rounds but which hurts me once the dead money has cashed out. I'm pretty confident that I can finish in the money fairly regularly, not so confident that I can win, place, or show. It's all about the balance between aggression and recklessness, and I'm not sure that I can navigate it well enough to improve my results.
Oh well. What else would I do during winter break? Work on my dissertation? Pah!
Sunday, December 05, 2004
- All higher levels of thinking are dependent on language.
- The structure of the language one habitually uses influences the manner in which one understands his environment. The picture of the universe shifts from tongue to tongue.
As to 1, Chase's formulation might seem to be worryingly tautological. The threatened difficulty has to do with how we make the distinction between 'higher levels of thinking' and other cognitive processes. Probably what we will appeal to are such things as reason, logic, mathematics, and so on. Since these are linguistic activities, it's really no surprise that they would be dependent on language. Whorf's point, though, has to do with the kind of connection that these activities have to the world. That is, it has to do with how strongly the world constrains the content of linguisic expressions. Whorf's method of supporting it was admirably empirical. For example, he sought to devise methodologies for mapping connections between ideas with the aim of showing that different linguistic commitments would yield different sets of connection, and therefore different chains of reasoning, and so different theories of the world. This strikes me as a reasonable and fruitful procedure, but it would show rather less than is claimed by Chase's formulation of the thesis.
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Hall of Fame ballot
So, anyway, without further ado and with links to their stats, here are the players on this year's ballot. First timers are marked with an asterisk.
- Jim Abbott*
- Bert Blyleven
- Wade Boggs*
- Tom Candiotti*
- Dave Concepcion
- Chili Davis*
- Andre Dawson
- Steve Garvey
- Rich Gossage
- Tommy John
- Mark Langston*
- Don Mattingly
- Jack McDowell*
- Willie McGee*
- Jeff Montgomery*
- Jack Morris
- Dale Murphy
- Otis Nixon*
- Dave Parker
- Tony Phillips*
- Jim Rice
- Ryne Sandberg
- Lee Smith
- Terry Steinbach*
- Darryl Strawberry*
- Bruce Sutter
- Alan Trammell