Monday, July 25, 2011
Adherents of Mises (sometimes peculiarly closer to Rothbard and anarchism than to Mises himself) often claim that Hayek represents an entirely different strand in the Austrian tradition, go beyond the legitimate Böhm-Bawerk/Wieser separation and argue that Hayek is a covert social democrat. Such interpretations are true to the extent that Hayek explicitly opposes the minimal state. But they appear thoroughly absurd if one analyzes Hayek’s economic policy oeuvre, his opposition to the ideal of social justice and his personal political involvement. Another gem from Hayek as Ordo-Liberal [pdf].
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Just sayin’, the people he killed were probably cultural marxist pieces of shit and it’s good that they’re dead. An act of state is an act of war, I doubt if a single one of the people he killed were innocent. If they voted for anything but the abolition of the state, they’re guilty. I’m not saying to kill all statists, but I don’t cry over their deaths nor should one hesitate to do so if it was necessary. Ryan Faulk aka FringeElements, seemingly expressing sympathy for the Oslo shooter. Here’s the whole thread. As if to displace an extreme statement with an insane one, he goes on to say “if i had to choose between 100 random humans and 100 random dogs dying, I’d choose to kill the humans.”
Saturday, July 23, 2011
While it would be an exaggeration, it would not be altogether untrue to say that the interpretation of the fundamental principle of liberalism as absence of state activity (rather than as a policy which deliberately adopts competition, the market, and prices as its ordering principle and uses the legal framework enforced by the state in order to make competition as effective and beneficial as possible – and to supplement it where, and only where, it cannot be made effective) is as much responsible for the decline of competition as the active support which governments have given directly and indirectly to the growth of monopoly. F.A. Hayek, “Free” Enterprise and Competitive Order (Presentation in April 1947 at the founding meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society), reprinted in: Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, pp. 107-118. Found in the superb paper Hayek as Ordo-Liberal by Stefan Kolev [pdf]. Yes, it is one sentence.
Friday, July 22, 2011 Wednesday, July 20, 2011

See my last post for the script.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

1984 - Anticlerical Masterpiece


"A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened.”

 -The Prevention of Literature, George Orwell, 1946


1984 is not another Animal Farm, another one-for-one allegory contre Stalin. There are a number of other major influences and themes that can be considered independently, from nationalism, utopianism, futurology, and the relationship between truth and power.

But what I believe is missing from this standard summary are the strong anti-clerical motifs that run through the novel.  

The Spanish Civil war was in Orwell’s own words a watershed moment in his political evolution, during which he took common cause with an anti-clerical Marxist militia. Even Catholic literary critic Leroy Spinner notes the “radical anti-Catholic shift [in his writing] during the Spanish Civil War.”

Yet calling 1984 anti-clerical might seem a little farfetched. After all, Oceania is supposed to be a godless country where religious practice of any kind is illegal, which is itself another direct analogy to atheistic Soviet Communism. And indeed, Stalin persecuted Christians of every stripe, particularly Roman Catholics. The key distinction is that in 1984 the state itself becomes the object of worship. Not all religions are banned, just all but one. It is the culmination of a secular-theocracy.

So even with Fascism defeated and discredited, Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism couldn’t help but be a blend of clerical fascism and hysterical communism, in part I believe to multiply Communism’s hypocrisy even further by relating the Soviet system to the Catholic fascists they mutually despised from the days in Catalonia.

Thus as I’ll show Oceania is modeled under a kind of theocratic Catholic Stalinism.

To start, the Inner Party is at once sacrilegious and absolutely puritanical. Sexual repression is taken so far as to attempt to eliminate the orgasm itself. Marriage is an exclusionary institution explicitly for the purpose of procreation. The sex instinct requires such complete suppression to the point that Winston reflects on how sexual pleasure was itself an act of rebellion, as a foreshadow to the pastoral love making him and Julia eventually have. And all this ideology is indoctrinated into the Proles during daily 2-minute-Hate services that resemble the worst kind of religious hysteria. Fulke Greville’s famous reductio ad absurdum of original sin “created sick – commanded to be well” is unmistakably the concept that Winston is referring to when he notes that “Your worst enemy” in Oceania, “was your own nervous system”.

Christopher Hitchens in God is Not Great bolsters the anti-Christian origin of Orwell’s focus, which:

came to him early in life, when he was enclosed in a hermetic school run by Christian sadists in which it was not possible to know when you had broken the rules. Whenever you did, and however many precautions you took, the sin of which you were unaware could always be made to find you out.

God is not Great, pg. 232

This is the essence of thought crime, the inevitable heresy of mental autonomy. Thinking a thought opposed to the Party was more than just an error, it was akin to blasphemy.

 Denying the holy-spirit, lusting after another woman, coveting your neighbours property, or falling short of impossible standard of compulsory love. Thought Crime in Oceania, and in Monotheism alike, is the first and original crime. All other offences are derived from it. Parsing through the mentions of good work found within the bible, the unforgivable sin, the sin which precipitates your eternal damnation, remains an act of free thought. For Winston, of course, the punishment for his iconoclasm is the Hellish Room 101, a torture chamber capable of delivering on your worst nightmares and operated by a nihilistic Suit.

The character of the God of monotheism permeates Big Brother and the inner party, through and through, up to and including both God and Big Brother’s potential non-existence.

Big Brother is omnipresent and omniscient. The telescreens make it so the thought police are everywhere and know everything possible to know at the moment it happens

Big Brother is all powerful. He can’t lift mountains or walk on water, but with propaganda and coercion he can make you believe he can and otherwise bend you to his will.

Big Brother is infallible. By means of propaganda and the Ministry of Truth Big Brother can be made never wrong.

Of course the Catholic Church changes its dogmas and articles of faith at its historical convenience, and like Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth the Church either pretends it never changed at all or apologizes on the ad hoc basis that the actioners of past theory and practice were never authentic follows of Christ in the first place. Notice here by the way of our theocratic context the new significance contained in the term Ministry. The renowned Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was once warned via an old Russian proverb not to dwell on the past Marxist atrocities or lose an eye. Solzhenitsyn replied by completing the proverb: “forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.” There is a parallel sense in which both The Church and Big Brother practice this kind of extortion to blind proles and adherents to everything but their version of events.

Case in point:

It’s described as early April, and the 6th day of the Hate Week. “After the processions, the speeches, the shouting, the singing, the banners, the posters, the films, the waxworks, the rolling of drums and squealing of trumpets,” A “Rumpelstiltskin figure, contorted with hatred” comes on stage to begin the liturgy. If it isn’t clear to you by now, Hate Week is a direct analogy to Holy Week in Catholic tradition, the 6th day of which is of course Good Friday. The “Rumpelstiltskin figure” is ranting about the war, and, through an act of what Orwell called Transferred Nationalism, he changes the name of the enemy he’s ranting against in mid sentence. The crowd barely reacts. He blames the inconsistency on the agents of the elusive Emmanuel Goldstein, the Devil scapegoat to Big Brother’s party angels.

 The Bolsheviks were a very Jewish bunch, so the implicit anti-Semitism in blaming everything negative on Goldstein doesn’t reflect the Soviets (beyond the analogy to, but rather represents a quintessentially Catholic example of Orwell’s notion of Negative Nationalism. His 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism is perhaps the most relevant of his non-fiction for formally outlining many of the concepts that would become central themes in 1984, which he began writing earlier in the same year. In it he explains Negative Nationalism as the variety of nationalist hysteria that manifests with public opposition against some abstract scare-object, such as the Jews in general or Emmanuel Goldstein in particular.

In the same essay he wrote that:

“antisemitism comes more naturally to people of Conservative tendency, who suspect Jews of weakening national morale and diluting the national culture. Neo-Tories and political Catholics are always liable to succumb to antisemitism, at least intermittently.”

This should be enough to persuade you that the anti-clerical theme of 1984 is real, and deserves mentioning if not in itself then at least for the purpose of unifying the themes of nationalism, anti-Semitism, sexual repression, compulsory love and doublethink. Yet Orwell’s contempt for political Catholicism in 1984 is never mentioned in the classroom, and can’t be found in the usual references from Wikipedia to Sparknotes. If you try Googling Orwell, 1984, and Catholicism you’re more likely to be taken to Catholic websites dubiously claiming 1984 as their own, than to a critic drawing the parallels I have.

Despite being one of the most analysed books of the 20th century, according to Lawrence Dugan there are only two critics who have paid attention to Orwell’s anti-Catholic views in 1984.

The first, John Rodden, finds a mocking anti-Catholic sentiment in much of Orwell’s work. Even though he notes how “he frequently renounced ‘Romanism’ as the ecclesiastical equivalent of Stalinism,” and how “it is startling to see, piecing together scattered journalistic references, how often the lines of Orwell’s thought on Catholicism, Communism and anti-Semitism ran on parallel tracks” Rodden doesn’t have much to say about how this inspires 1984 specifically, and mostly comments on how mistaken Catholics are for declaring that Orwell was on their side. The second, Leroy Spiller, published a paper in a Catholic journal in order to caution again that exact temptation.

According to Dugan, “Orwell saw Catholicism as a reactionary force working against left-wing movements in the world,” that “religion in general was politics pretending to be something else,” and that the power and universal reach of the Church put it “in direct competition with the Communist Party, a similar organization in his eyes.”

Yet even with all his comparative politics in mind, it doesn’t fundamentally explain why so much of 1984’s subtext is anti-clerical. Totalitarianism might resemble theocracy, but the issue of Catholicism’s collusion with Fascism had long past.

The final clue may be the book’s title itself. The critical blogger David Allen Green has hypothesized that 1984 was a direct assault on the work of conservative Roman Catholic novelist, G.K. Chesterton, a man Orwell at once loathed and obsessed over. In 1904 Chesterton wrote a work of speculative fiction set in London in the year 1984 called The Napoleon of Notting Hill, where almost nothing about London has changed from technology to class structure.

In the story-framing preface, known better than the book itself, Chesterton defended his conservatism by mocking the progressive and revolutionary views of Modernist and Leftist authors, whose prophecies of progressed failed. Orwell directly attacked Chesterton’s conservative beliefs in 1946, by writing:

“It is not very difficult to see that this idea is rooted in the fear of progress. If there is nothing new under the sun, if the past in some shape or another always returns, then the future when it comes will be something familiar.”

As I’ve already mentioned, Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism is virtually an outline for the themes he develops in 1984, and it’s in the same essay that he writes the following:

“Ten or twenty years ago, the form of nationalism most corresponding to Communism today was political Catholicism. Its most outstanding exponent - though he was perhaps an extreme case rather than a typical one - was G. K. Chesterton.”

David Allen Green’s analysis ends by pointing out The Napoleon of Notting Hill and 1984’s striking similarities and contrasts, while leaving the question of Orwell’s naming rationale open in the absence of direct evidence.

But to the extent that all literary criticism bends towards the circumstantial, it’s evident to me that G.K. Chesterton and Orwell’s militant anti-clericalism in 1984 are connected. And that far from being simply a journalist cum novelist whose superficial allegories are decipherable at a glance, George Orwell’s 1984 is a rich and multi-faceted work of political fiction for which a full interpretation has yet to come.

For what it’s worth, my guess is that with 1984 Orwell sought to refute Chesterton’s cynicism about revolutionary prophecies by writing one of the most prophetic books of all time, at least as far as the Soviet Union was concerned. For Orwell foresaw the theocratic forms Totalitarianism would naturally come to emulate.

Friday, July 15, 2011

All that Hume holds is that our passions are part of whatever mental state is revealed by our taking something as mattering to us. Far from implying that there are no reasons for anything or that nothing matters this is the only plausible account of why we think that there are reasons for things, and find that things do matter. Hume never bars himself from using the word ‘reasonable’ as a term of praise, and indeed peppers all his works with it, talking happily of reasonable precautions, demands, policies, traits and feelings.

It’s not as if Parfit has an alternative account that is much help. In his view reasons play roughly the role of Plato’s Form of the Good, and are in many ways just as elusive. Reasons are not part of the natural, causally interlocking world. We do not perceive them or respond to them in anything like the way we gain sensory information about our physical environment. Parfit compares our knowledge of them to our knowledge of mathematics, forgetting Frege’s insight that numerals start life as adjectives describing the empirical magnitudes of collections, and forgetting as well that it is quite easy to describe why we might be interested in those magnitudes. But in Parfit’s account, reasons are kept within a tight circle of evaluative terms (good, right, obligation), linked up in eternal verities whose intelligible connection with anything outside the circle, such as actual human decision-making, has to be left utterly mysterious. Parfit frequently presents himself as having an ‘account’ of ethical truth, but since the account simply consists of restating value judgments in terms drawn from the tight little circle, it is not an account, and it is not unavailable to Humeans.

Blackburn defends Hume in his review of Derek Parfit’s On What Matters. Blackburn defended his expressivism against Parfit before, here:

"Parfit’s iterated ‘should’s do not get him so far. Their ‘direction of fit’ remains, in his eyes, entirely representational, and he can provide no necessary connection with any states of mind with the motivational direction. All he will be able to do, in tackling this question, is to produce more of what are, in his eyes, just representations of how things are. Naturally, he may plead and cajole that people make these cognitions practical. But it remains logically possible that nobody listens, in spite of their having, right across the board, the most perfect repertoire of moral judgments all of which they sincerely accept. And if nobody listens, then their motivations may be totally and blithely orthogonal to their cognitions. It is this possibility to which the critics with whom I am numbered rightly object.”
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Who is the ultimate entity, that he himself, may judge as to whether or not a characteristic is a flaw or not? And What sets the boundaries between a flaw and Perfection? Can’t any be either depending on the purpose and use of that trait? from a guy on my Facebook who completely by accident discovered Pragmatism 
Monday, July 11, 2011
Patricia S. Churchland, the philosopher and neuroscientist, is sitting at a cafe on the Upper West Side, explaining the vacuousness, as she sees it, of a vast swath of contemporary moral philosophy. “I have long been interested in the origins of values,” she says, the day after lecturing on that topic at the nearby American Museum of Natural History. “But I would read contemporary ethicists and just feel very unsatisfied. It was like I couldn’t see how to tether any of it to the hard and fast. I couldn’t see how it had anything to do with evolutionary biology, which it has to do, and I couldn’t see how to attach it to the brain.” from The Chronicle of Higher Education review. I absolutely agree that Moral Philosophy needs its baring in hard psychology, but that doesn’t make philosophy obsolete. A little knowledge isn’t as dangerous as a little philosophy, because without philosophy we wouldn’t know how to use what little knowledge we have.
Friday, July 8, 2011
In condemning monetary easing, right-wing opponents claim to be following the good old conservative tradition of supporting sound money and resisting the inflationary proclivities of Democrats and liberals. But how can claims of principled opposition to inflation be taken seriously when inflation, by every measure, is at its lowest ebb since the 1950s and early 1960s? With prices today barely higher than they were three years ago before the crash, scare talk about currency debasement and future hyperinflation reminds me of Ralph Hawtrey’s famous remark that opponents of leaving the gold standard during the Great Depression on the grounds that it would bring on a German-style hyperinflation were like those crying “fire, fire” in Noah’s flood. from David Glasner’s promising new blog on monetary economics, Uneasy Money
Thursday, July 7, 2011

Can moral judgments be true or false? Or is ethics, at bottom, a purely subjective matter, for individuals to choose, or perhaps relative to the culture of the society in which one lives? We might have just found out the answer.

Among philosophers, the view that moral judgments state objective truths has been out of fashion since the 1930’s, when logical positivists asserted that, because there seems to be no way of verifying the truth of moral judgments, they cannot be anything other than expressions of our feelings or attitudes. So, for example, when we say, “You ought not to hit that child,” all we are really doing is expressing our disapproval of your hitting the child, or encouraging you to stop hitting the child. There is no truth to the matter of whether or not it is wrong for you to hit the child.

Although this view of ethics has often been challenged, many of the objections have come from religious thinkers who appealed to God’s commands. Such arguments have limited appeal in the largely secular world of Western philosophy. Other defenses of objective truth in ethics made no appeal to religion, but could make little headway against the prevailing philosophical mood.

Last month, however, saw a major philosophical event: the publication of Derek Parfit’s long-awaited book On What Matters. Until now, Parfit, who is Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, had written only one book, Reasons and Persons, which appeared in 1984, to great acclaim. Parfit’s entirely secular arguments, and the comprehensive way in which he tackles alternative positions, have, for the first time in decades, put those who reject objectivism in ethics on the defensive.

From Peter Singers review. I haven’t read a single page of the book yet, however based on what I’ve read of it, it sounds less like Parfit has really found a meta-ethical foundation for right and wrong so much as he takes certain moral premises as self-evident and writes normative ethics from there on.

My view is out of the logical positivist tradition that Singer mentions, in that I see moral statements as at root expressive judgments and not truth-apt proprositions. Ethics and Morality are not the same thing, however. Morality is non-cognitive, arising from our sense of right and the very way we precieve intentional interaction and causality. Ethics, on the other hand, is the higher order practical reasoning undergirdled by our morality. Complex normative theories like rule-consequentionism are fine as a type of conditionally-supervening moral representation, but don’t truly bridge the gap between facts and values. Normative ethics is a kind of living tool-kit for practical morality.

I’ll see about reading Parfit in his own words when I get back to my school library.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011
I have a daughter who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that she chooses her drugs wisely, but a life without drugs is neither foreseeable, nor, I think, desirable. Someday, I hope she enjoys a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If my daughter drinks alcohol as an adult, as she probably will, I will encourage her to do it safely. If she chooses to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation. Tobacco should be shunned, of course, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer her away from it. Needless to say, if I knew my daughter would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if she does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience. from Sam Harris’ essay on using drugs to find new meaning in life.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Elaborating on Non-cognitivism. Scroll down to my last post for the script.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Non-cognitivism elaborated

I define Non-cognitivism as the meta-ethical position that morality begins with projections of innate attitudes or dispositions, as opposed to an identification of some kind of real property or standard created by god or derived from reason.

We have an innate sense of right and wrong designed by evolution via natural selection for living harmoniously in a social context with scarce resources. I take this to be a relatively uncontroversial claim, within established science. But it has dramatic philosophical implications. Most importantly, it’s absurd to think of these innate dispositions as being in any sense true or false, and in that sense they’re non-real, even though it feels that way. When we say theft is wrong the structure of the sentence suggests that “wrongness” is something inside theft, a part of its being, Wrong is something Theft IS, and thus remains so regardless of anything else. Yet metaphysically this is untenable. The wrongness of theft is something we project onto it by our sentiments. This doesn’t make theft any less wrong. It just means we can’t accurately talk about it with the same positivistic language of truth and falsehood, however much our brains and language tempt us to.

This is basically a summary of my last video on morality titled Why Non-cognitivism is Correct. There I argued that the 2 theses that are the starting premises of non-cognitivism are demonstrably the case: namely, that moral propositions aren’t factual, and that we derive our moral beliefs from our innate moral sense.

In this essay I’ll answer some of the better questions I’ve received on that video. 

Don’t you agree that there is a difference between subjective preference and universal morality?”

Definitely: Morals aren’t fashions, grammar rules or a preference for vanilla over chocolate. They’re deeply embedded feelings and involve concepts of responsibility, intention, etc. There are huge differences in the way we feel moral obligations must be met by all and isn’t at all aided by moral realism or factualism.

A sociopath who says ‘not harming is good but I don’t want to be good, I want to harm’ could be expressing his sincere moral attitude (boo! harm) which is superseded by his libido or other immediate preferences. I’ve woken up many mornings believing it would be “good” for me to get up and be productive for my household, spend meaningful time with my family etc., but instead rolled over and spent the day on my laptop. The problem with the word ‘attitude’ is that it gets equivocated with preference, belief, desire and so on. Psychologists who propose a moral faculty located in the brain provide a sui generis source for specifically moral attitudes, reflected in the unique deontic modality of moral expressions. That’s just a fancy way of saying that unlike mere preferences, moral attitudes are specifically expressed as obligations. Expressing my preference for Vanilla has no implicit imperative that you prefer it too.

Reporting a preference is reporting just one source of motivation, when there are many. Ignoring the hierarchies of motivation leads to weird positions, such as the idea that all values are simply a demonstrated preference. This might work as an approximation when doing economics, say. But a correct meta-ethics has to be much deeper and less circular than that. It could be that it’s my immediate urge to punch someone, a reflex from having my honour insulted perhaps, but at the same time I have other preferences like not wanting to injure my hand, or an underlying moral inhibition against initiating violence. All these preferences and values co-exist, and it’s a serious bastardization of the way humans value to say that whatever I finally end up doing is ipso facto my top or only value.

Someone pointed out that a lot of human choice emerges co-cognitively, meaning that it’s neither completely pre-conscious, nor fully conscious or cerebral, but both at the same time. I’m not a neuroscientist, but my goal isn’t to defend a sharp dualism between the cognitive and non-cognitive. The distinction has much more to do with the difference between innate dispositions like moral indignation or our sense of conscience, and higher-order conscious thought extending from those dispositions. And it’s not just to do internal feelings. The way we perceive intentional causality and human agency are integral to morality, and non-cognitive. This is relevant for separating preference from morality, but is really related more with philosophy of the mind and externalism.

A preference, for example, is what you have when you’re picking what movie to go to. You end up deciding (quite cognitively) that you’ll go to see Bridesmaids, because you recall enjoying other Apatow productions, you like female comediennes and think it would appeal to your date, and is a comedy at a time when you’re looking for a mood boost. To a moral non-cognitivist this is a higher-order than, for example, the instantaneous revulsion one has towards murder, acts of paedophilia or feces.

The distinction between subjective preference, which can be amoral and selfish, and our innate sense of universal moral obligation, creates at best a semantic problem for non-cognitivism. It’s not very persuasive to a non-cog, however, to point out how incongruent our theory is to “ordinary language” when one of our central claims is that our mind and language use essentialist assumptions that makes talking about morality as non-real rather difficult; for instance, the word “wrong” as in immoral, is an exact homonym of “wrong” as in factually inaccurate. The ironic thing about how counter-intuitive Non-cognitivism may end up sounding is that in being counter-intuitive, we’re having our non-cognitive intuitions about the reality of moral properties indirectly demonstrated.

 “By ‘rape is wrong’ I DO mean that that is objectively and universally true. It describes what morality, quite apart from anyone’s impulses and emotions, really demands.”

All you mean is that the imperative is universal, not the moral idea itself. When you phrase it like you did, that morality is somehow independent of our minds, that it has an objective existence, you are implying an external reality to moral norms that requires a belief in a god, transcendentalism, or some other kooky metaphysics that I don’t believe is defensible.

Quasi-realists and error theorists can agree that moral properties aren’t real, but projected. I don’t understand how a projection can be in error, without appealing to some other standard that doesn’t exist. Perhaps the experience of ‘green’ could be in error, insofar as it doesn’t agree to the majorities experience of some object or what is considered to be the “green” wavelength - but that’s a peculiar sense of error that might apply to diagnosing colorblindness but isn’t strictly “erroneous” – it’s just a deviation from the norm.

Morality in non-cognitivism lacks an ultimate foundation, while at the same time asserting that no foundation is needed. The standard against which to measure moral claims are our own moral natures and not reality itself. In other words, the very point that morality is non-factual undermines the idea that an objective epistemic foundation is even necessary.

The problem with the word ‘objective’ is that is has several different meanings. On the one hand in science objective means a fact about the external realm independent of our biases and subjective perception. It’s absurd to think this is how morals exist. Because of the hierarchies of motivation we can say morality is independent of mere preference, but how on earth could it be independent of mind in totality? It requires that moral rules are somehow ingrained in space-time… and while this should sound crazy to any materialist, it is roughly what the majority of moral realists have been forced to believe through the ages.

I agree that morality is what we should do irrespective of our subjective preferences, but that doesn’t prove an objective morality. The subject as I’ve already said is much more than his highest order preference.

On the other hand objective means “applying the same standards,” which I’d argue is a notion inherent in the moralities linguistic modality. Rawls’ idea of a veil of ignorance is in my opinion a perfectly acceptable normative argument. It’s the idea that we should choose a social order impartially, without knowledge of where we’ll be placed in the social order. Without endorsing Rawls here, it is still a type of rational objectivity that doesn’t pose a metaphysical conundrum.

“Pick: a) rape isn’t wrong, b) rape is only wrong sometimes, or you could even say that c) I can’t possibly know whether rape is right or wrong, even if I think I do.”

I would say none-of-the-above. Rape is wrong, because it hurts people. It’s more wrong than mere violence because sexuality is a precious and sensitive thing. You don’t have to posit a metaphysical reality to moral concepts to understand that argument. You only have to be human.

With C, it’s misstating non-factualism. It’s not that ‘rape is wrong’ is unknowable. It’s that knowledge is the wrong measuring stick. It just isn’t a fact in the same way 2+2=4 or that Ottawa is the capital of Canada. Rape is wrong is knowable, if by knowable you don’t mean conventional knowledge of reality, but that the expression is meaningful to you… it’s more about vividness than validity. You can empathize and understand that it’s wrong because it violates all sorts of moral intuitions as well as the irreproachable criteria established in normative ethics for wrongness, like harm causing or as a violation of consent.

“Or is it that my statement is about something that doesn’t exist, (namely, universally right and wrong)?”

It exists as a genuine moral attitude. When I say it doesn’t “exist” I’m only referring to a literal platonic or metaphysical existence, and not as a thought or feeling or affinity.

For example: funny jokes exist, but what makes a joke funny? Various theories of “normative humour” could say that it should involve some kind of word play, or subversion of expectations, but moving into meta-humour there’s no way to prove independent of people’s attitudes that a particular joke “has humour”. What does that mean, anyway, “has humour”? Is humour something that exists “out there” and would continue to exist without any humans around? Most reasonable people would say “of course not!”, but it doesn’t change the fact that we still judge what is and isn’t funny and can give coherent explanations behind our opinions that can persuade others who didn’t at first “get it”. It’s just that ‘humour’ becomes irreducible at its foundation. Epistemic justification necessarily abstracts beyond feelings, attitudes, and human nature in search of something independent and ultimate, but in this case human nature alone can account for the essence of humour.

You have a Dali masterpiece to your left, and a canvas with a shit smear to your right (the shit smear is incidental and isn’t a political statement, etc.). One is beautiful and one is repugnant. But you can’t show why your judgment is “true” in a positivistic sense. Nevertheless, there are patterns to our sense of right (and sense of beauty and sense of humour!) and from those patterns we can build tentative criteria to help judge murky choices, what ethicists call dilemmas. This is normative ethics. What non-cognitivism principally entails for normative ethics (specifically because of G.E. Moore’s open question argument) is that the normative standards we construct will and can never be absolute, and thus no moral proposition can be absolute. Our perceptions of moral essence, like beauty and humour, will change with time and context. Since we’re dealing with sentiments and not facts no final answer can ever be pinned down, no moral question fully closed, which means morality and ethics must progress through a discourse of moralsuasion. Much of the progress however is empirical, insofar as true knowledge shapes the way ethical standards get applied.

“Wouldn’t it be good if moral discourse were limited or solved?”

No. Of course not. The pushers of morality as a closable argument are invariably totalitarian sadists. I’m glad the moral zeitgeist evolves, or else we would never have stopped burning cats for entertainment, or cutting out tongues for slandering. And I hope the world evolves further to respect more and more sentient animals, first and foremost the poor people of the world, who we often forget are sentient too. Western civilization is the story of a great human moral progress out of barbarism, and that progress ends the moment you allow for the notion that an end exists.

Saturday, June 25, 2011