apolliana: (Default)
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle gives an allegedly circular account of what makes an action virtuous:

(1) An action is virtuous if it is the one that the virtuous person would do.

and

(2) The virtuous person is one whose actions bespeak the right amount of all the good qualities of character.

This, as it is, is not circular. The alleged circularity lies in the interdefinition of 'virtuous person' and 'good action': the good actions are those the virtuous person would do, and the virtuous person is the one who does good actions.

The latter circularity need not be a problem for a moral theory, unless we want a moral theory that defines what is morally good in non-normative terms (i.e., in the way that utilitarianism aims to do). But it also bespeaks the objection most commonly made to Aristotle's ethical theory, as well as to similar theories: that we must already know what is virtuous according to the moral theory in question in order to be able to apply this moral theory. That is, it doesn't define virtue in such a way that an amoralist, or a skeptic about normativity, could understand it.

One worry about Aristotle's moral theory is that it takes a great deal of not simply intellectual but social and emotional perceptiveness to see that x might be too much bravery, or might be boorish, etc. And clearly not everyone is capable of perceiving these differences. The theory cannot equip a virtue-blind (or mean-blind) person to suddenly see virtue, or the mean.

That said, its non-reductiveness might be part of the--in my limited teaching experience, huge--appeal of this theory. ("Why has ethics even continued? Did Mill and Kant not read Aristotle?" they asked. "Yes, I'm sure they did," I replied.) It does not try to reduce rightness to pleasure or to the non-logically self-contradictory. Yet it does explain what makes right actions right: they express 'mean' character traits (which are themselves virtuous). 'The mean' is actually a very clever way of giving concreteness to--if not quantifying--the normative element in virtue without eliminating it.
apolliana: (Default)
I really need to find or make a questionnaire measuring specifically moral disgust, as only 2 of the items on this one could conceivably be read as moral (the two with the highest ratings--bestiality and incest; though incest is harder to explain).

Sample size: 15.
Highest score: 22
Lowest score: 4.
Average 13.

Part I
(Number who said they were disgusted by the thing described.)
(1.) 4 messy food
(2.) 12 cockroaches
(3.) 7 phlegm
(4.) 14 bestiality
(5.) 3 preserved hand
(6.) 3 walking through graveyard
(7.) 2 public toilet seats
(8.) 11 soup stirred with washed flyswatter
(9.) 4 monkey meat
(10.) 5 rat
(11.) 9 vomit
(12.) 3 gayness
(13) 7 glass eye removal
(14.) 3 touching dead body
(15.) 7 sick cook
(16.) 7 death in hotel room you’re staying in

Total possible: 15.

Part II
(Total disgustingness points--0-2--for each, summed)
(17.) 13 ketchup in ice cream
(18.) 18 maggots
(19.) 11 pee smell
(20.) 16 30/80 relationship
(21.) 4 fishing hook in finger
(22.) 12 picking up dead cat
(23.) 2 unintentional drink sharing
(24.) 4 poo-shaped chocolate
(25.) 18 spoiled milk
(26.) 13 stepping on worm
(27.) 19 unflushed public toilet
(28.) 28 incest
(29.) 15 seeing exposed intestines
(30.) 7 touching someone’s ashes
(31.) 23 infrequently changed underwear
(32.) 6 blowing up condom

Total possible: 30

Sleeping with old people: just slightly less disgusting than maggots. Brilliant.

I continue to not understand the high ratings for #31. Cannot get myself to care how often anyone else changes their underwear.
apolliana: (Default)
I ran across this post the week before last, on the avoidance of responsibility enabled by self-deprecation. And immediately I thought of Richard Moran's analysis of weakness of will, and other failures to take the deliberative stance.

From the blog post:

"Call it the "I'm such an asshole" speech or call it strategic self-deprecation, the end goal is always the same: deflect women's anger.....

"These guys figure that if they say truly awful things about themselves, they'll force their partners to cease the search for legitimate discussion and turn to the more traditionally feminine role of soothing male anxiety."

(Aside: the author assumes this is particularly something men do with women, and it may be, though I don't see why it has to be. The many commenters suggesting that appearance-based self-deprecation functions in the same way are wrong, however. Though feeling excessively miserable about one's appearance might deflect anger, it does not do so in the same way as claiming one's character is rotten does. Unlike the latter, the former does not attempt to make it look as if actively managing one's life is an impossibility for the person exhibiting it. Thinking you look like crap is not a character flaw for which one is failing to take responsibility by treating it as an incontrovertible fact.)

Here's Fred Vincy & Mary Garth:

Fred: “I wouldn’t have hurt you so for the world, Mary,” he said at last. You can
never forgive me.
Mary: “What does it matter whether I forgave you? said Mary, passionately.
“Would that make it any better for my mother to lose the money she has
been earning by lessons for four years, that she might send Alfred to Mr.
Hanmer’s? Should you think all that pleasant enough if I forgave you?”
Fred: “Say what you like, Mary. I deserve it all.”
Mary: “I don’t want to say anything,” said Mary, more quietly; “my anger is of no
use” (Middlemarch, Ch. 25).


One might notice a slight difference: namely, that Fred seems to be encouraging Mary's anger rather than trying to defuse it. But the goal--to avoid actually figuring out what to do about the mess he's gotten himself into--is also present in the cases the blogger describes. Anger is superfluous, after all; it's goal is to get the person who's messed up to take a more active stance in dealing with what they've done. If it's not going to accomplish that, it's pointless, as wise Mary Garth can see.

And this is an instance of the broader problem Moran sees with adopting the 'empirical'--or 3rd personal--stance in situations in which a commitment, deliberation, or other effort of the will is called for. These things are active, not passive. They determine one's will; and insofar as they do so they must be seen as possibly subject to change. Even if one admits with Frankfurt that some features of one's will are unchangeable, as features of one's will they must be able to be affirmed as such, rather than simply self-defeatingly proclaimed. Saying "I'm terrible, awful, and rotten" is not the same as saying "I'm terrible, awful and rotten; and that's all I want to be." For all the wantonness that it indicates, in the latter, at least, the will is active.
apolliana: (Default)
At the start of my ethics course, in the hopes of rousing students from their relativistic slumbers, I've been assigning a paper evaluating Bernard Williams's argument against relativism. Briefly, it is that the 3 tenets below are inconsistent. In particular, (1) conflicts with (3) because while (1) defines 'right' only within a given societal context, (3) uses 'wrong' (an analogue of 'right') in a trans-societal sense. Therefore relativism cannot consistently imply a universal policy of tolerance/non-interference.

1. 'Right' means 'right for a given soclety.'
2. 'Right for a given society' means 'right in a functionalist sense.'
3. It is wrong to interfere with the values of another society

I've said before that I think the problem of how to define 'society' is a red herring. Let's read 'society' in an indeterminately limited way, roughly similar to 'idiolect.'

A student pointed out recently that according to Williams's argument, it's hard to know what position the relativist (who wants to remain so) can take when interacting with other societies. She cannot say "it's WRONG to interfere"; but nor can she say "it's RIGHT to interfere." She has to remain neutral on tolerance--and it's hard to see what that could amount to. The relativist would seem to have a position based on the possibility of alternate value systems that she can never interact with in any way.

This is either a far more serious problem with relativism than the first, or a flaw in Williams's argument. But a map of the possible positions helps to clarify things.

The argument seems to leave us with three options:

(a) Keep relativism (1), and reject tolerance (3). Relativistic engagement.
(b) Keep tolerance (3), and reject relativism (1). Dogmatic disengagement.
(c) Reject relativism (1) and tolerance (3). Dogmatic engagement.

Option a
If we take this option, we'll have many different definitions of 'right' without the command to be tolerant of them. In practice, this might entail that when Society A meets Society B, they (i) fight, or (ii) converse productively. When they converse, they de facto belong to the same society, there being no private language and all that.

This is the way around Williams's conclusion that first sprung to my mind.

Option b
If we reject relativism but keep tolerance, our motivation for tolerance would be purely practical, which I suspect in reality it often is.

Option c
We all know what option c entails. I'd rather not think about it.

In reality people often adopt these positions successively, for the situations they suit--which is eminently pragmatic. In any case, I think the apparent absurdity of the fact that either a pro- or con- position on claim (3) conflicts with (1) is resolvable.
apolliana: (Default)
“Suppose someone told of a thing of a certain kind, and of certain things that had happened to it; and, when asked where that thing had been, and when the events he recounted had occurred, said, not that he did not know, but that they did not belong at all to our spatio-temporal system, that they did not take place at any distance from here or at any distance of time from now. Then we should say, and take him to be saying, that the events in question had not really occurred, that the thing in question did not really exist” (Strawson, Individuals, 29).


This passage raises questions about what it is we understand when we understand fiction. We follow a story, we understand that something happened, and at what location in the world of the story it happened; but the relationship between that world and the actual physical world may be loose. Perhaps so long as we have a time and place, whatever their relation to the actual world is, that fulfills Strawson's criterion. Perhaps what we do in entertaining fiction is akin to building on a temporary annex to our idea of the universe.

I suspect we do something similar in other contexts. In fact, I think a similar move is indispensable to our cognitive lives in societies.

Closed systems are abundant in philosophy. Carnap's sciences form their own systems, built upon axioms that are not themselves subject to the kind of examination they make possible; the cultures of cultural relativism are closed systems--each with its own ways of defining or cashing out normative terms; our conceptual scheme, for Strawson, seems to form such a system, insofar as he thinks skeptics are incapable of questioning it without also relying on it in so doing. Any argument that a position is self-undermining indicates that the self-undermining position's proponent is trying to break out of a closed system and failing.

In the cultural relativism case, in which 'right' is defined only for individual societies, there is no way of saying that anything is trans-culturally right or wrong. This, Bernard Williams argues, shows that cultural relativism is incoherent, as 'right' is used in a trans-cultural way in arguing to the conclusion that, since 'right' is only defined for individual cultures, it is wrong to interfere with another culture's actions expressing their values.

The response I'm inclined to give here is that there must be a way of arriving at an overarching definition of 'right' (which, of course, undermines relativism). And surely this is what we do when we talk to each other; we might cause someone else, or be caused, to revise our own values. That there is a trans-cultural way of understanding moral concepts is presupposed by the fact that we can talk to people with different values. Those trans-cultural understandings might be acts of the imagination, applied to our own concepts (and to human experience), looking for some way of bridging the gap. We might be noncommittal about the objective definitions of normative terms, but hold working theories. To do this is to leave the system of values, based upon a definitions of normative terms, open--open to revision of those definitions upon 'evidence' supplied by conversations and other evidence provided by witnessing, say, the effects of values, policies, or laws.

I doubt that such acts of the imagination provide an escape from skepticism. About that, I believe Strawson is correct. I concede, for example, that the skeptic about other minds presupposes their existence in imagining his or her own experiences as missing for other people. This is not to say there's nothing it is to imagine that others do not have experiences: we can imagine this. But if one tries to put together a coherent world around the conceit, it either ceases to exemplify the philosophical problem of other minds, or falls apart, turning in on itself like Castrovalva.

Certain regions of our concepts are, as it were, on the front-lines receiving assaults from experience, normative concepts and spatio-temporal locations for stories heard first among them.

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