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Thursday, November 04, 2010


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Hi Bill,

Thanks for the comments. I knew you would agree with the first part, but not the second.

First, I think there are value claims that cannot be rationally or empirically defended but are still true: “It is wrong to molest infants,” would be an example.” Would you call this a gratuitous assertion on my part? I am cocksure I am right about it, though there is no objective way to resolve a possible dispute with a pervert who has contrary ethical axioms that prioritize the value of his own pleasure over everything else. Is being dogmatic about this “dangerous and immature” as Berlin says?

You seem to accept the existence of a priori truths when it come to metaphysics. Do you deny their existence when it comes to ethics? If so, why?

I would not take Libertarian Jones to be an extremist in thinking his property rights trump the common good in this case. That could be a hard case. I would have to know a lot more about the details. But if he based his a case on absolute property rights, I would call him an extremist. Say an Earth smashing meteorite is headed for us, and Libertarian Jones is a reclusive genius inventor who has constructed a laser that could destroy it. But he is also a misanthrope or apocalyptic type and will not let the laser be used to prevent Armageddon. I would find Jones to be an unreasonable extremist, and though he might not accept appeals to reason or fact, I am still sure he has the wrong priorities. What is the basis for this judgment? Perhaps, the same reason I think the pervert is wrong about his priorities.

Why is life more valuable than death? What reason or facts can resolve this? I would still think it right to unflinchingly defend life from terrorists, say, rather than repose in Pyrrhonism.

Regarding Aristotle, yes virtues and values are different, but virtues are parasitic on values. A virtue as you say is a habit, but it is a habit that internalizes into practice a value. But instead of arguing this connection, I’ll just put my thought into the form of an anology with virtues. Someone may not be a full blown coward (analogue to the extremist), but they may still show an excessive amount of fear in a situation. I know a person whose fear of bees is a little excessive, in my judgment. I doubt very much I could convince them with facts about bees, and rational argument that they are too fearful of bees, but I think I am still justified in my judgment. Similarly, why couldn’t I judge with some validity that some people support policies that seem to excessively prioritize security over liberty? On your picture it seems (and correct me if I am wrong), there is a world full of different values that people can prioritize and weigh differently and no configuration of priorities or weight is objectively better than any other since reason and empirical facts cannot decide the matter definitively. That picture seems wrong, since values have to be connected to human flourishing, and I am sure you would agree that some configurations contribute to this while others discourage and crush it. If that is so, and we are intelligent, informed, experienced (older?) reasonable people, why surrender to Pyrrhonism, rather than trust our judgments on what the better configurations are?

How do we know which configurations are better when reason and facts cannot resolve the matter? Sorry I can’t give an answer to that right now. Practical wisdom? A “good ear” for balance?

This morning I looked at our discussion and found one more point that should be made. You said,

"The essence of the pluralistic position is that once all the bad arguments on both sides are set aside, one arrives at a set of 'good' arguments which, however, do not resolve the issue for an impartial observer."

I don't think that is the essence of the pluralistic position. Pluralists like W.D. Ross and even Berlin would agree with me that some prioritizations are objectively better even if reason cannot justify them. W.D.Ross prioritizes the pro tanto obligations of preserving human life over keeping promises, if you have to pull the proverbial drowning child out of the pond and miss a promised lunch date. In "Two Concepts of Liberty" Berlin argues there is a "frontier of freedom" that can never be crossed. These a priori or natural law principles include the prohibition of torture, of making children betray their parents in a political cause, of genocide for the greater good, etc. So a better definition of pluralism would be the view whereby the ethical universe contains a variety of values which sometimes conflict and in SOME of those conflicts it is not possible to give rationally warranted prioritizations. How large this latter set is, is open to debate, but as I argue in my prior reply I don't think that in close calls, we must always call it a wash.

As for your second comment, you didn't read me very carefully. After using the term 'pluralistic position,' I then went on to explain what I meant by it. I was referring to my pluralistic metaphilosophical position; how others use the term is their business.


You choose as your example, "It is wrong to molest infants." But almost everyone agrees about that. The contentiousness and divisiveness of our politics concerns things like 'Same-sex marriage should not be allowed.'

Now if George Bush were to intone, in his second-grader sort of way, 'Marriage is between a man and a woman,' that would come close to a gratuitous assertion absent some rational justification which I doubt Bush would be capable of providing (without help from others). A well-meaning leftist could legitimately ask: Why not same-sex marriage? What justifies discriminating against same-sex couples?

The conservative has an answer that the leftist won't accept because of his different values. Therein lies the problem. You are of course free to be a dogmatist and insist you are right despite your inability to support your position.

My concern is with how we can lessen tensions and avoid unnecessary strife in our politics given that disagreement runs deep and cannot be objectively resolved in a manner satisfactory to all dfisputants given objectively irresolvable value differences.

One part of my solution is less government. The bigger the government the more to fight over. Another part is federalism. But of course these two issues are themselves deeply and hotly contested.

Bill, I used the extreme molestation example because you said I cannot justify dimissing the libertarian extremist (whom almost everyone disagrees with, too) as unreasonable, since there is no empirical fact he fails to take account of, or rule of logic he flouts. I deny that your fork exhausts the criteria for reasonableness, and feel justified dismissing your libertarian extremist as unreasonable on the same a priori grounds I would dismiss the priorities of the child molestor. And I don't think this is being dogmatic.

You say about the issue of same sex marriage, etc.,"disagreement runs deep and cannot be objectively resolved in a manner satisfactory to all disputants given objectively irresolvable value differences."

Are you saying 1) there is no fact to the matter, or objective hierarchy, and therefore the issue is irresolvable? Or 2)there could be a fact to the matter, but there is no way for people to figure it out?

I would ask for evidence for either claim. Whether people should own slaves, or whether women should have political equality were hotly contested issues of wide disagreement that we seem to have resolved in a way that is objectively certain.

Three possibilities:

A. There seem to be easy cases where there is a clearly discernable objective hierarchy and solution. (My molestation example)

B. There might be hard cases where values objectively conflict and are therefore irresolvable with respect to how they are prioritized. (Federalism could be a solution to this, and perhaps we should flinch in how vigorously we cheer on our team.)

C. There also might be cases where there is an objective hierarchy, but it is a close call and difficult to discern, and takes careful moral thinking to come to an objectively correct solution - and for which there is a lot of disagreement, presently. Would federalism and flinching be the right solution here or should these battles be vigorously fought out until they are resolved for all of us? Are slavery and women's rights lik this?

How do you know in any given disagreement whether it is a case under B or C? Your version of pluralism seems to put all disagreements under B.

Thanks for the discussion, Tony. You are asking the right questions.

>>Are you saying 1) there is no fact to the matter, or objective hierarchy, and therefore the issue is irresolvable? Or 2)there could be a fact to the matter, but there is no way for people to figure it out?<<

The latter. The interminability and intractability of the various debates is evidence, though not conclusive. *Justice demands forcible redistribution of wealth.* *It is not the case that justice demands forcible redistribution of wealth.* I am assuming that exactly one of these propositions is true, and indeed objectively true. The problem, however, is not merely to rationally justify one's choice, but to do this in a way that convinces all competent interlocutors. If I cannot do this then I have very good reason to doubt my commitment to one or the other of the propositions.

More tommorrow.

Just a brief preemptive comment.

What about "whether women should have the right to vote?"

A lot of competent people opposed suffrage for women and were not convinced by the arguments. Should the supporters of suffrage have doubted their committment to suffrage, perhaps prolonging the injustice against women?

I am convinced that certain instances of partial birth abortion for certain reasons is immoral. I am pretty sure there are competent people who would disagree with me given they think a fetus at any stage is not a person. Of course, I have a bit of a general skepticism about the judgments I make based on my status as an imperfect being with imperfect faculties, but I am not going to additionaly question my judgment based on the fact they disagree, though I would be happy if they questioned their judgment.

In truly hard cases, I would hedge my certainty. But your example is a little vague or "murky." Do you mean whether it is just to redistribute any wealth? I have already said I am certain that absolutists in property rights are extreme and should be rejected outright and I am not hedging on that. I might think it is more just to redistribute wealth for certain causes than others, but I am not going to agree that I have to be skeptical about my judgment on a case unless I hear the details.

Okay, time for sleep.

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