Thursday, May 15, 2008

Aspiring to Objectivity

[Another post I'm working on reminded me of this note from last September that I never got around to posting...]

Is philosophy itself alienating? Excessive concern to achieve the 'view from nowhere' seems like an occupational hazard. Especially if one embraces an 'ideal agent'-type metaethic, this may lead to constantly second-guessing oneself: "would others ideally endorse this?" (Would I?) Perfection is too high a standard to try to live up to. But it's kind of hard to ignore if you spend all day thinking about it!

One worry is that many of our actual sentiments might not be expected to survive the idealization process. Yet ignoring or suppressing them may not be such a good idea. Someone in class today mentioned the 'bad squash loser' case: ideally, the loser should walk over to graciously congratulate the other player. But suppose that, due to his anger, were he to try he would more likely lash out violently. So he really should just walk away and cool off. That at least shows why we can't just ignore our contingent flaws. Is there a similarly clear argument against suppressing unwelcome emotions (e.g. if the squash loser were capable of distancing himself from his anger)? It seems a non-obvious empirical question what the consequences of this are likely to be. [I made a similar point in my recent post on the question whether to attempt to reshape a non-conforming child's gender preferences.]

A second worry arises from the concern for universal convergence. Many of our tastes may be thought idiosyncratic or merely 'subjective', but it would be unfortunate to devalue them for that reason alone. Perhaps we can resolve this by taking tastes as 'given', exempt from rational criticism, and recognize as universalizable the general desire to derive enjoyment from one's tastes (whatever they may be). Or, if such subjectivism is too extreme, at least allow for a plurality of standards of good taste.


  1. Excessive concern to achieve the 'view from nowhere' seems like an occupational hazard.

    Of course one should say that there are many veins of philosophy that don't attempt such a thing and think such a view bad. (Say the Heideggarians, the Levinasians, the Pragmatists etc.)

    BTW - any chance of allowing the blockquote tag in your comments? It makes quoting a little clearer and easier.

  2. ["any chance of allowing the blockquote tag in your comments?"

    Alas, that's a limitation of Blogger that I have no control over.]

  3. The idea that doing philosophy will lead to problems because practitioners try to hard to arrive at the truth made me laugh. If anything I think the issue is just the opposite. Academic philosophy creates a structural incentive to be insufficiently critical and arrive at the wrong answers.

    The fundamental problem is that a truly good answer to any problem isn't puzzling or deep it's just 'ohh that's how it works.' This is especially true in philosophy where the right answer is often that the question was conceptually confused, e.g., there is no problem of what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object since such an event is a contradictory assumption.

    For instance consider the debate between formalists and fictionalists about the nature of mathematics. Which of the following gets you more professional success: cleverly pointing out that arguments X,Y,Z advanced by fictionalists against formalists are invalid or noting their simply isn't any actual issue to begin with, i.e., there is no objective fact about the world that the two approaches can be said to disagree about.

    Or an even better example is much of the work in theory of meaning/reference (definite descriptions versus baptismal namings). Ultimately it seems to me the correct view is that the discourse is nonsensical. Once you start asking exactly what would be true about the world if one side was right versus the other it quickly becomes apparent that the argument is largely just confused.

    However, what philosophy rewards is the clever insight that makes people turn some problem over in their mind and potentially write a response. It rarely rewards the straightforward observation that there just isn't a puzzle here (a complex dissolution of the problem as a subtle kind of mistake is rewarded but dismissing a generation of work as resting on a simple confusion never is).

    I mean consider how mathematicians tend to act about former paradoxes. Things people in the 1600s anguished over (like what an infinitesmal was etc..) now provoke disbelief there was ever a problem (why didn't they just define things with epsilons and deltas?) while in philosophy it seems that old arguments rarely meet such commonplace ends.

    Admittedly there is a hint of bitterness in my attitude. It just really annoyed me to go to conference after conference and see that clever little questions about what happens in bizarre corner case Z were greatly appreciated (and often were papers that were presented) but no one seemed to ever want to pay attention to fundamental problems like, "is there any actual fact at issue in arguments over the correct evidence function or are we just arguing terminology?"

  4. Actually, meta-ontology is quite the hot topic these days (see, e.g., my summary of Yablo's Hempel lectures here). Many (myself included) are sympathetic to some form of deflationism of the sort you describe. But the issue isn't quite as clear-cut as you suggest; realists like Ted Sider and Kit Fine offer pressing counterarguments.

    But that's all by the by. For purposes of this post, I'm more concerned with the question whether striving for objectivity in practical reasoning (i.e. ethics) might be troublingly 'alienating'.

  5. Ughh, no no no that's not it at all. Meta-ontology is exactly the sort of answering the question by developing a positive theory that bothers me.

    Note the problem isn't that people don't believe in the particular points I was talking about. It's that there is an institutional bias toward positive theory.

    Perhaps a better way to express my point is in reference to the surprise quiz paradox. There is no real deep paradox here, all that's going on is a confusion of several possible definitions of the term surprise. The definitions being

    1) In fact the actual students experience surprise.

    2) If the quiz is given on day D then the formal statement Q(D) is not derivable in formal system F.

    3) If the quiz is given on day D then the formal system Q(D) is not derivable in formal system F OR F is inconsistant.

    I mean sure it seems odd but when you try to specify out explicitly what surprise means in an explicit fashion you just don't get a paradox. Nonetheless we still get papers with abstracts like the following.

    We examine a version of the surprise examination paradox using dy-
    namic epistemic logic. We claim that the difficulties in the puzzle arise from the
    assumption that announcements are in general successful: the hearer will come to
    believe that they are true. This principle fails in certain specific cases, and we show
    that the announcement in the surprise exam paradox is an example. In dynamic
    epistemic logic, announcements that are not successful can be informative anyway.
    This analysis explains how sentences that are true but cannot consistently be be-
    lieved, can be informative anyway, resolving many of the puzzling aspects of the

    I mean do you really doubt that writing the above article doesn't advance your philosophical career a whole lot more than merely saying, "Hey where's the paradox. I don't think you can generate any (new) paradoxes if you are sufficiently precise with your terminology." (Of course there are ways to define the terms to make the statement paradoxical by incorporating liar like behavior into the definition of surprise but that ceases to be interesting).

  6. Well, if you're going to assert things like, "Once you start asking exactly what would be true about the world if one side was right versus the other it quickly becomes apparent that the argument is largely just confused", philosophers are going to want to examine whether that's actually the right way to diagnose substantive vs. 'confused' debates, so meta-ontology (or meta-philosophy more generally) seems entirely unavoidable. (Unless, that is, you're asking that people uncritically accept your meta-philosophical claims. But that would hardly be reasonable, so I assume you're not really asking for that.)

    On the surprise examination paradox, I think you miss the point by trying to substitute some formal condition for knowability. Knowability means what can be known, not what's "derivable in a formal system". There isn't the slightest reason to think that all reasoning is formalizable, so your response would not advance one's philosophical career for the simple reason that it's not good philosophy.

    If you really can dissolve an old puzzle and show, successfully, that it rests on some basic error, then of course that's going to win you serious kudos and be good for your career. The existence of Wittgenstenians is a testiment to the desire of many philosophers to see tough questions dissolved, and logical positivism in its heyday no doubt benefited from this motivation too. The problem is not that philosophers are unreceptive to such moves, let alone "insufficiently critical"(!). It's just that philosophical questions often turn out to be harder to dissolve than complacent deflationists might like to think.

    But again, this isn't really anything to do with my original post. Perhaps you could write up a new one if you wish to continue the discussion?

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. TruePath - I've shifted your comment to a new post (excepting the 'surprise examination' section, which I've moved to here).


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