Sunday, July 24, 2005
For what it's worth, the main difference between this and the comments I'd provide to one of my own students is that I (probably) wouldn't push my own views as much in comments to a student. Or maybe not. January Girl explicitly asked me to say how my views differed from hers, and if a student asked a similar question my comments would reflect that.
(A) It's not exactly clear what the arguments in the assignment are supposed to be. If there is a general form which the two arguments share, then it is something like the following:
1. With regard to subject S there is a diversity of opinion.
2. Hence, with regard to S there is no truth of the matter.
This argument is, at best, incomplete. In order to get from the premise to the conclusion, we need to fill in a suppressed premise. But what is the suppressed premise meant to be? Here are two possibilities:
3a. (suppressed) If there is a diversity of opinion with regard to any subject matter, then with regard to that subject there is no truth of the matter.
3b. (suppressed) If there is a diversity of opinion with regard to S, then with regard to S there is no truth of the matter.
Note that the truth of 3b will depend on the subject matter in question. So 3b might be true in both arguments, false in both, or false in one while true in the other.
(B) The strategy in the first paragraph of the response is to argue that, with regard to 'information about the nature of the universe' there is a fact of the matter which is entirely independent of our opinions. Such facts are said to constitute 'objective truth' and it is alleged that accepting the first argument represents a failure to recognize that the argument concerns a subject matter about which objective truth is available.
I have several reservations here. It seems to me the concepts of 'objective truth' and the 'natural universe' are themselves somewhat fuzzy. We can say that objective truth is just the sort of truth that facts about the natural universe have, but that leaves us with the problem of discerning which candidate facts are facts about the natural universe and which are facts about some other domain. In the present case, the obvious objection to your argument will be to deny that any matter about which we have opinions can be a matter about which we can know the objective truth. Put another way, this is to deny that our opinions are, in a strong sense, about the natural world.
It may well be that such an objection can be answered. The answer, however, will require a robust defense of the notion of the natural universe and, also, an account of how our sentences can be about anything at all. These are interesting philosophical questions, but it seems to me to be a mistake to think that our evaluation of the present argument depends upon the defense of controversial metaphysical theses. This leads me to think that there might be a strategy available for responding to the argument which doesn't appeal to such fundamental notions as the natural universe and objective truth.
(C) I'm somewhat troubled by the invocation of objective and subjective in the discussion of the second argument, but my reasons aren't too different from those articulated above, so I'll leave that aside.
The general strategy here is to treat aesthetic opinions as belonging to a particular sort of discourse. This discourse is such that there are rules for acceptable and unacceptable moves, which is to say justified and unjustified judgments, but isn't such that talk of truth and falsity is particularly useful. I worry a little bit that the description of aesthetic discourse treats aesthetic merit as merely success in meeting goals which are themselves beyond criticism (doesn't Tom Clancy have the wrong aesthetic goals?), but that worry doesn't implicate the underlying picture.
I think that this kind of strategy is basically right. What I want to call to your attention is that such a strategy doesn't rely on an appeal to any fundamental account of how things are. Instead, what you do is point to a well entrenched practice – the practice of making aesthetic judgments – and notice that this practice includes norms for distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate judgments. Moreover, this practice isn't merely well entrenched, it's well entrenched because it works well for certain projects that are important to us.
Now, what I would suggest is that something similar could also be said about the sorts of judgments discussed in the first argument. There is, as a matter of fact, a well-established practice of cosmological inquiry. This practice is not only entrenched, but also quite successful, providing both an ongoing research program and the resources to resolve numerous practical problems. Notably, this practice does not include the assumption that disagreement trumps truth, but, on the contrary, it is a practice which has developed norms for adjudicating between competing cosmological claims.
(D) I'm troubled by this discussion of competing standards of beauty. You're surely right that we can understand the rules for various standards and use that understanding to determine whether particular individuals do or do not meet a given standard. But does it follow from this that we must acknowledge as legitimate judgments that, for example, "super skinny, bleach-blonde, boob-jobbed, wall-eyed pop starlets flooding the big screen" are beautiful? To say that it does is to say that evaluative practices are themselves beyond the reach of rational criticism. In fact, though, it seems that each of the standards of beauty you mentioned are aesthetics that it's pretty easy to cite reasons to reject. In each case there is an ideal of feminine beauty which is not attainable by most women. At best the ideal can be approximated, and this only through the imposition of disciplines which are both unhealthy and intrusive. Moreover, each aesthetic seems to be driven by the idea that women are mere objects and are, as such, properly manipulated to fit to fit an aesthetic ideal, whatever it happens to be.
Obviously, not everyone is going to accept that line of reasoning. Be that as it may, the point is that it's the sort of thing we could argue rationally about and is, as such, well within the domain of rational criticism.
(E) This discussion of ethical disagreement may approach the point I was trying to make in D. The major stumbling block you're running into here, I think, is that you are tempted by the view that we can't really be committed by our evaluative judgments unless those judgments somehow match up to the way things really are (in some robust sense). The problem is that ethics seems to be like aesthetics (but not, allegedly, like science) in that there's no 'way things really are' for our judgments to match up to, and yet we want to say that we ought to be committed to our ethical judgments.
As suggested by what I wrote above in C, one way to handle this difficulty is to deny that there is any domain in which we can know that our judgments match up to 'the way things really are', at least not in any robust sense. Less ambitiously, one might argue that there is no domain in which our commitment actually depends on knowing that our judgments match up to 'the way things really are.' Instead, commitment is legitimate just in case a judgment survives the application of the appropriate evaluative norms.
The difficult question here is saying which evaluative norms are legitimate. So, for example, someone might object to what I said above about cosmology by asking why we should accept our contemporary cosmological practice rather than that of, say, Ptolemy. The beginning of the answer is to notice that we have no reason to suppose that Ptolemy would resist a heliocentric model of the solar system were he given access to contemporary astronomical information. In fact, we think that a fully informed Ptolemy ought to change his views. The point here is that the mere existence of a practice which differs from the one we accept doesn't constitute a threat to our practice. In order for there to be a threat, the competing practice must generate some kind of problem for us. Ptolemy's cosmology doesn't generate a problem for contemporary practice for the simple reason that contemporary practice developed, in part, as a response to shortcomings in the ptolemaic system.
The lesson here is that our commitment to an empirical belief doesn't require a demonstration that the empirical belief somehow corresponds to the way things are, robustly construed. It requires just that the belief be licensed by the appropriate norms and that we have no good reasons to reject those norms. Moreover, if empirical commitments can be explained in this way, then it would seem perverse to require something stronger for ethical and aesthetic commitments.
One final thought. There does seem to be more room for disagreement about ethical and aesthetic matters than about empirical matters. This is part of what explains the temptation to treat empirical matters as corresponding to some kind of objective reality. Let me suggest that part of what's going on here is that the ethical and aesthetic domains are much less well defined areas of inquiry than is the empirical. There may be a number of reasons for this, but one main reason, I think, is that aesthetics and ethics are concerned with balancing numerous incommensurable goods.