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Wednesday, May 04, 2011


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Thanks for the post, Dr. Vallicella, and for the email, Mr. Koepp.

Mr. Koepp, your claim that "[w]hile [you're] not a pacifist, [you] think it's something to which [you] ought to aspire" caught my eye. How can you aspire to a doctrine? Does belief take effort? If you want to be a pacifist and think aspiring to it noble why not just adhere to the position and be done with it? Please explain if and where I'm getting you wrong.

For those interested, G. E. M. Anscombe has some very interesting critical remarks on such aspirational-but-not-committed sentiments as you seem to express in this essay.


Leo -
What I aspire to is pacifism in my behavior. Perhaps I lack commitment, or am merely a hypocrite, but I haven't found a solution to the problem of my own weakness of will. Also, and perhaps as a symptom of that weakness, my belief that pacifism is something to which one should aspire is itself tempered and tentative. I'm more inclined to think I should be pacific in the face of threats to myself than that I should be pacific when others are threatened. I don't think that we should only aspire to things that we are able to achieve. Trying, and failing to be perfect is better than not trying at all.


I clicked on your link and found the high praise. I am deeply grateful. But now I have to live up to it!


"I don't think that we should only aspire to things that we are able to achieve." I agree if you are referring to abilities that we now possess. Some of these abilities can be extended and new abilities can be developed. But I cannot see how we ought to aspire to what will not ever be able to do, or cannot ever be able to do.

I agree with Kant that ethics is for creatures constructed of crooked timber. Such creatures cannot, by their natures, be "perfectly straight," yet they are capable of conceiving of the perfectly straight and, having formed this conception, aspiring to it in their actions. In their hearts, if they are self-aware, they must know that they cannot do more than "approximate" the straight, but it is the necessary standard relative to which approximation is judged. While ethics is about a kind of practical reason, concerned with the choice of ends and the means to those ends, it also involves (I think necessarily) idealizations which cannot, in this crooked world, be realizations.

Dr. Vallicella,

I'm gratified that you would deign to visit my humble weblog! Unless you were planning on some significant change in your blogging style, I don't think you'll have to worry about living up to anything I mentioned.

With regard to the issue here at hand, I must express my agreement with Mr. Koepp: it is rational to suppose that we should aspire to some things that are impossible, for...

1. We ought always to fully pay our debts.
2. Some of our debts cannot be repaid fully (using "cannot" to exclude both first and second potencies).
3. We ought to aspire to doing what we ought to do.
4. Therefore, some debts are such that we cannot repay them and ought to aspire to paying them.
5. Therefore, not everything we ought to do are we able to do.

I know that you'll dispute (2), or perhaps (1), but my point is that it is not mysterious or indefensible to suppose that some acts or habits should be aspired to without admitting of possible attainment. After all, my three premises look plausible, even if they are not certainly true.

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