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Saturday, June 06, 2009


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Hi Bill,

Here is an idea that you will certainly disapprove of: can’t we retain ethical evaluation without the idea of responsibility at all? All we need for ethics, it seems to me, is the concept of blame (and praise, its opposite). I would define blame widely as locating a fault in something. Blame these rain clouds for spoiling our picnic. Blame the faulty electrical wiring for burning down the house. Blame the murderer for the crime he commits. Why is there any need to distinguish these types of blame by worrying about whether or not the agent “could have done otherwise?” As long as we recognize he did wrong, we are blaming him. I suspect you will say that the idea of wrongness without responsibility is incoherent, but I think a fuller account of my picture might show you how this is not actually the case.

Of course, the looming problem I will face in trying to develop a theory like that is the question of what distinguishes moral wrongness from the merely unfortunate. Giving an answer to this would be tricky but by no means impossible. I might start out by saying, for instance, that moral wrongness has something to do with rational coordination toward some communal flourishing. And if I could pull it off, I could side step the whole free will / determinism issue to develop my own account of moral realism.

I couldn't deliver this to your email because I mistyped it, so I'm posting it here. Delete it from the combox, but I thought I'd "email" it in this way.

This Feser business bothers me. You guys seem to be as angry as them. I can't figure out if it's the atheists who have incited the Christians or the Christians who annoyed the atheists (they've both annoyed me, at some time or another). There's a certain glibness in us, it seems to me -- I think it's our fault (my generation) -- but the conservatives play it as well as the liberals. That's what bothers me about (some of) Feser's writing -- it's glib, and angry for its glibness. (Today we know how to turn everything into a joke -- that's what politeness has become.) I think, in the end, that all these discussions ought to be very *boring* -- or at least they ought to be calm -- that the moment you become angry about something, you have made a kind of mistake. For instance, I still get angry about Derrida and literary theory -- but I shouldn't. I know that even Socrates gets angry in the Gorgias, but it's better to talk to everybody and, instead of getting angry, just to admit that you don't understand. Because you don't agree with them -- and if they were right, and they could explain themselves cogently, then you would have understood, wouldn't you? And I think that's why we get angry: we understand, and we can't understand how they don't understand -- so we assume, perhaps in the back of our minds, that they do, and that they disagree out of sheer perversity. I've been reading Epictetus, so I wrote this in that vein. I imagine as I say this that my voice sounds meek and reasonable. Have I deceived myself? (This is another of our differences -- I say, "Avoid politics at all costs -- save yourself, if you can -- and if the world is evil, then let it harm you." But then, I'm not so sure that it's the world that's evil and not myself -- I always get confused about who is striking out at whom. And then I think that politics always seems to lead to conviction, and that conviction, as I say, makes convicts of us all -- prisoners of our opinions, even if, or maybe especially if, they're true).

How should I handle disputes? Do I have any stake in the matter? If someone threatens me with pain, shall I bear it? If I were like a god who had no needs, then I would have no arguments -- since my will would never go against the facts. But I do have needs, and as long as I have needs, I'll have enemies. (Not least among these needs is the need to be correct -- the need to believe what's true.)

Two people disagree about what's true -- is this a cause for anger? Two people disagree about what's right -- is this a cause for blame? "My duty is to persuade -- to upbraid." Where have I come upon the truth? If it were my possession, then I could make a gift of it -- and this they call 'to teach'. But if I can't convince you that I'm right, whose fault is that?

And I'll add to that -- I'm gay or have been gay but can't decide if being gay's a choice. I am or have been many things -- an Orthodox Jew, a Marxist -- but the common arguments always seem to have their holes. And I know and I hope I'll keep changing my mind -- and that's what worries me, that when you find yourself in the grip of a conviction, you would rather die than change your mind (so that, if you change your mind, in a certain way, you will). "But our first duty is to the truth." Or our first duty is to see we're in the dark and see the dark we're in.

I meant for you to take that down -- I was hoping you would be moderating these :-(

There actually has been quite a lot written on this topic but you give no indication of actually having... you know... read any of it. What should we make of this?


"...but you give no indication of actually having... you know... read any of it. What should we make of this?"

If this sentence is about Bill and addressed to him, then if I were you I would be very cautious before betting on it (particularly the part about 'any of it'). I don't know whether you know Bill, but he is invariably careful, thorough, and well read. If he feels he needs further reading on the subject, then unlike many, he will actually go ahead and do so (as one of the recent posts explicitly indicates).
Also, instead of speculating about the reading exposure of this or that writer, perhaps you can address instead the content and let what you say determine the rest.


Okay. Well the most fundamental dispute on this issue is between Vihvelin and Fischer. Kadri Vihvelin has argued that Frankfurt's argument rests on a modal fallacy. John Martin Fischer defends Frankfurt.

You can pick up the debate here http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/canadian_journal_of_philosophy/v038/38.3.fischer.pdf You can find Vihvelin's reply in the same volume.

It seems to me that anyone who want's to talk about this seriously needs to position themselves with respect to this debate.


Thanks. The above gives yet another indication of how extremely limited in value most comments are. You will have noticed that no one addressed what I actually said in the post. And then there is the 'punk factor.' Fellows like that tomkow show up with nothing useful to contribute and don't seem to understand that blog posts are exploratory and first-draftish and often about topics on which the blogger is no expert. But I will say that when you called him on his incivility, he did provide a worthwhile link. So maybe he is less of an asshole than he first came across as being.

I have come to the conclusion after five years of almost daily blogging that comments are more trouble than they are worth. I'm gearing up to write another book, and so I really shouldn't be wasting time moderating and replying to comments. You, of course, are the shining exception. (There was a fellow 'Spur' who was active here before you showed up last year, and he was outstanding, but apart from you and him I haven't encountered any others who comment regularly, understand what I am up to, share enough basic assumptions, and comment helpfully -- which is not to say that less regular commenters such as Alan Rhoda and David Brightly haven't engaged me profitably.)

So over the last couple of weeks I have been thinking of closing the ComBox on all posts. If you want to discuss something, however, just send me an e-mail and I'll open the ComBox on the pertinent post or else post your e-mail in a separate entry.

Alex Leibowitz,

Are you confusing me with someone else? "This Feser business bothers me. You guys seem to be as angry as them." You guys?

I will leave your comments in place (where thy do not belong) as further proof of the pointlessness of allowing comments.

But I don't mean to make light of the serious questions you raise. It is just that I don't have time to discuss them. I myself maintain tha there is no place for polemics in philosophy proper. Feser's view, if I understand it, is a bit different. See Edward Feser on Philosophy and Polemics: http://maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com/posts/1172509629.shtml

If you want to discuss this, head over to Feser's sites.

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