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December 29, 2004

Posner and some distinctions

Gerald Dworkin: December 29, 2004

David takes on our fellow blogger Richard Posner for his moral skepticism. “The rhetorical punch of [Posner’s] diatribe comes in its penultimate sentence, which is of course a rhetorical question: "One can give reasons for them, but would they be anything more than rationalizations?"  Here Posner concedes that reasons can be given for our moral strictures against infanticide, animal cruelty, and so on; but he then poisons the well for anyone who would attempt to give those reasons, by tainting them wholesale and in advance with the label of "rationalization".  There is then no arguing with Posner, because any argument would give reasons, which would be nothing but more rationalization.”

There may be no arguing with Posner but, in the general spirit of our blog which is to at least try and argue with those with whom we disagree, let me try to interpret his claims in a way which leaves them open, in principle, to reasoned disagreement. It seems to me to be an empirical issue, perhaps a very difficult one to find evidence for, whether the typical reasons, arguments, considerations in favor, we (any of us) give for our moral opinions are the basis on which we hold, believe, accept them. 

We have to distinguish at least between the historical explanation of how we came to hold our moral convictions (which will at least in many cases be of the sort that Posner makes reference to—what our parents believed, who we liked to hang out with, our native culture, etc) and the reasons we now give to justify our beliefs, It can’t be simply a coincidence that most of the medical personnel in Istanbul that I once gave a lecture to about patient autonomy thought there was no such thing—that the family of the patient is the only unit that has the right to make decisions about the patient. 

Now the fact that I originally came to hold a belief because of certain historical considerations is compatible with my continuing to hold it for different, justificatory reasons. I might have reflected on the causes which led me to hold the belief, come to think they are insufficient, but continued to hold them on the basis of what I now believe to be good reasons. The question Posner raises is whether these reasons are (always, mostly) rationalizations, and the true explanation(s) for out continuing to hold these beliefs are the various, non-justificatory causes.

Analogy: I came to believe there were an infinite number of primes because a friend passed on this information to me when I was 11. But he also, I learned later, passed on lots of other things which were not true. But I now actually have a proof of this fact and so hold the belief now on that basis. The claim that my belief is just a rationalization requires showing one of two things. Either that such proofs are not themselves good reasons or that I would have continued to believe the claim even if I had no such proof.

Posner must believe one or both of the these things about moral beliefs. Either there are no good arguments for moral beliefs or that even if there are these do not explain why we hold them. 

Arguing about the first claim is a philosophical task. Nothing in Posner’s post is evidence for the radical claim that there are no better or worse reasons for accepting various moral positions.

Arguing about the second is a very complex empirical issue. Relevant evidence would include things like the following. After having shown someone that the justificatory arguments she presents for some conviction are faulty, and she concedes this, she continues to hold the belief. This is not by any means irrational. I find this to be true of many of my normative beliefs. Of course, I believe (hope) that a better argument can be found. But suppose I never discover one. Do I, must I, abandon the belief?

If people hold their beliefs on the basis or reasons, then reasoning should be the way to get them to change their beliefs. But we know that in many cases getting them to look at things differently, or to have a certain kind of experience, or allaying their anxiety, or appealing to their sympathy, or shaming them, will be the effective lever of change. Of course, one could tell a story linking these to arguments or reasons, but will this story be explanatory?

My own conjecture is that some substantial number of our moral convictions are (in fact) held for the kinds of reasons that Posner refers to. But this is compatible with there being good reasons that could justify holding them or abandoning them.

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Comments

Posted by: Bill

I agree with what Prof. Dworkin said, but think we could accept Posner's broad conclusions without supporting any of the more practical conclusions that he may associate with them.

Even if our justificatory reasons for our "moral beliefs" are not (often, ever?) the reasons we have for "holding" them, that does not mean that the practice of offering justificatory reasons (a) serves no useful function or (b) is not a legitimate social norm, the legitimacy of which cannot be inpugned merely by making a philosophical point (like Posner notably DOES make) about supposed their character as rationalizations.

To speak of "moral beliefs" is already to move up to a philosphical or at least somewhat removed discussion of how we try to get other people to say and do what we think and feel should be said and done.

If "moral skepticism" just means aversion to talk of "moral beliefs" and whether they're justified, I find myself sympathetic with Posner.

But this takes me absolutely no way whatsoever toward any conclusions about whether we should (to take a wild example) support everything going to the person who will pay the most for it ... as opposed to arguing about who needs it most and insisting that a judge decide without reference to the wealth maximization principle.

Posted by: Bill | Dec 29, 2004 7:50:23 PM


Posted by: Bill

Responding to the part of Judge Posner's original post that David V. quoted, George Smith made the following observation:

"It is not clear to me why an anthropology of man as a seminar discussant is any more or less metaphysical or debatable or problematic than your preferred belief that man is simply the satisfier of whatever preferences society and history has shaped him to have. Each involves a controversial choice.

That's what I hoped to get across with the last paragraph of my previous post. He puts it more articulately.

Posted by: Bill | Dec 29, 2004 8:54:45 PM


Posted by: christy

I caught news of your endeavour reading the Weekly Standard site. Picking up on Mr. Dworkin's theme, I agree moral beliefs result from combined subjective and objective assessment. One rationalizes subjective conclusions, sometimes strongly, sometimes weakly. The process is inescapable, so best we justify our beliefs with the evidence available. On other occasions, in areas of personal uncertainty, conservatives revert to older codes, which have stood the test of time. Liberals revert to prevailing thought. Having just read something of Susan Sontag's thought, you are welcome to it. At least older codes have survived legions of critics throughout the ages.

This applies to any belief, which, if I remember correctly, is a term derived from "beloved," again butressing its subjectivism. I found myself disagreeing that the 9/11 suicide bombers were cowards, but found myself at odds with friends who felt that anyone capable of such a dastardly deed could be justifiably called anything bad, and "coward" was the right name even if evidence stood in the way to justify its application. Had a US Marine rushed into a building to deliver an explosive that blew up himself and a building would have advanced his cause, killing many innocents, would he have been called a coward? I think not. So it isn't the act per se that determines the collective judgment, but rather the views of the collectivity and its side in the conflict.

More pertinent to your endeavour is the acceptance of moral beliefs, which are at odds with one's own. The difficulty is that your moral beliefs are incompatible with mine, just as the moral beliefs of Osama bin Laden are incompatible with those of the West.

I think in the end we might be compelled to fight this out as we did in the last election. You liberals are our domestic Osama just as we conservatives are yours. Perhaps there is a way out and I shall keep a weather eye cocked for opportunities for peace.

I stand ready to act as a rightist you leftists might get through to. I promise to proceed knowiingly in error. I hope there can be some reciprocity on this point.

Posted by: christy | Dec 29, 2004 9:06:25 PM


Posted by: christy

Sorry, small correction for a big mistake. The penultimate sentence should have read, I promise NOT to proceed knowingly in error. Sorry.

Posted by: christy | Dec 29, 2004 9:11:37 PM


Posted by: noah

I have about decided that the "left2right" project is doomed. I have waded through reams of epistemological discusion about justice, homophobia, patriotism, etc.
Interesting but no real meeting of minds that I can detect. The right complains about the manifest contempt that a segment of the left expresses toward our great nation and we hear back peons to Central Park! I haven't heard a single unequivocal denunciation of the lies of Micael Moore. As far as I am concerned that is the starting point.

Posted by: noah | Dec 29, 2004 9:25:07 PM


Posted by: Antti

Excellent! I think it will be very useful for this discussion to distinguish between two kinds of moral skepticism, as Prof. Dworkin does. If I may, I'd like to give them names. Motivational skepticism would be the idea that we are never motivated by good reasons (the kind of considerations that actually favour doing something). In fact, there's two varieties of this: one is that we're not motivated by what really are good reasons, and another that we're not motivated by what we take to be good reasons. The second is really quite implausible. A weaker version of both would say that we're only rarely so motivated. Normative skepticism, then, is the view that there are no (genuine) good reasons. These two kinds seem to be conflated in the Posner post, or perhaps normative skepticism is supposed to follow from motivational skepticism (it doesn't).

Now, I'd just like to add that even a person who never engages in any moral reasoning can have good reasons for her moral beliefs. Even if I only believe that torture is wrong on authority and am utterly incapable of discursively justifying this, there is still a good reason for me to believe so and refrain from torturing, assuming that torture really is wrong (it is). (I don't know if we should rule out the possibility that I could be irrational in such a situation. If I held a sufficient number of beliefs that implied that torture wasn't wrong and was aware of this, my belief wouldn't be justified from my perspective and hence would be irrational, though it would be objectively justified.) This is not intended as a criticism of Prof. Dworkin's view, but simply as a footnote to the effect that we've got even more kinds of reasons in the air here than one might have thought: the historical (motivational) reasons why we hold the views we do, the reasons we cite in justifying those views (if we're articulate enough), and the reasons we actually have to believe (or do) what we do (if they exist in a particular case). All three may fall apart.

Is motivational skepticism true? Well, I have in mind one counterexample. Actually quite a few more, but this one involves academic moral theory, the kind that is supposed to be definitely motivationally inert. I'm thinking about Peter Singer's work on famine and, in particular, animal liberation and vegetarianism. I'm certain that there are many people who have changed their behavior after reading or otherwise learning of his arguments; I've met some. Many of them would probably have had leanings to the same direction anyway, but that doesn't mean they would have acted the same had they not been convicted of the soundness of the arguments. So here we have a case of a work of academic moral philosophy changing people's minds and hearts through reasoning and making a difference to how they act, perhaps alerting them to presence of what really are good reasons.

Posted by: Antti | Dec 29, 2004 9:48:58 PM


Posted by: pedro

Noah, you might do well to read:

http://left2right.typepad.com/main/2004/12/sister_souljah_.html

Posted by: pedro | Dec 29, 2004 9:49:43 PM


Posted by: rtr

I think a severe conflation has ensued between Morality, moral Beliefs, Laws, and ethical Knowledge. It seems to me these different categories can be and are leading and lagging, mixing, reinforcing, informing, expanding, contracting ; in non-constant motion.

Realistically, it is not an either or proposition between reason and rationalization, between perfect certainty and seeming degrees of high to moderate correlation. I don’t think the moral ethicists would maintain that ALL (or even most) aspects of morality can be axiomatically established (at present). Neither did Posner posit ALL: he said “much or even most”. It’s likely that Philosophy has not been able to answer “What is justice?” nor is it likely that it has been able to answer “What is morality?”

Human beings are not omniscient. Knowledge is limited and imperfect. Rationalization is a cognitive process which need not imply perfect correlation or equal degrees of correlation. Regardless, only reason can be used to weigh whether the different morally codified enumerations only seem consistent, and to what degree, with or based on reason. Is reasonable doubt a rationalization or is it reasonable doubt? “Widely shared social goals” is hardly a well defined category. One could well ask of Posner are there any uncompelling reasons for the existence of the “tenets of the current American moral code”? Any yes’s would negate his conception of moral code.

“Rationalization” seems to have obtained a negative connotation in much the same way as “homophobic”. I say that because I’m not sure “rationalization” and “reason”, at least in common usage, are mutually exclusive dichotomies. The mathematical definition of rationalization is: the simplification of an expression or equation by eliminating radicals without changing the value of the expression or the roots of the equation.

Posner cannot maintain with certainty that *We* hold these moral beliefs when they are enforced by Law. Universal agreement is not implied across all enumerations. They did not magically spontaneously peacefully appear. Why do they change over time?

One only need change Posner’s use of “Morality” to “Moral Beliefs”; then he is absolutely indisputably correct as qualified by “much or most...seems“, an arbitrary non-defined set. But his formulation improperly equated “A” and “non-A”. Not to mention a tenet does not imply a reason either. Perhaps true Morality proper does entirely belong in the non-circumscribed area Posner left open with his use of “much or most”. It may be that Morality has not established deductive links with all moral beliefs at this point in time. That does not imply that it is not possible. That implies that hypothetical reasons would not necessarily be rationalizations. So if there is “anything more than” rationalizations, if a conception of a one-two step process from rationalization to reason is the correct conception, it does not imply that they are not reasons.

[Well there’s my "fair and balanced" ^_^ “socially left” arguing of the other side just to kill this bad Posner argument, by which is meant the two originally quoted Posner paragraphs, so that maybe we can go back to the more interesting aspects of the discussion, comparing a better formulated Posner position.]

So, I ask of the moral ethicists, is there a single instance of reason establishing a single enumeration of morality, a single enumeration of ethical knowledge? Show me the Morality.

Posted by: rtr | Dec 30, 2004 12:12:18 AM


Posted by: JeffS

Prof Dworkin,
1. Aren’t some psychological explanations for our moral beliefs also good reasons to continue holding them? The distinction between psychological explanations and justificatory reasons seems to obscure this possibility. That is, suppose we agreed with Judge Posner that our moral beliefs are intuitively grounded, but – crucially -- we renamed that intuition “moral reason” or “sympathy” or even “conscience.” Would a Posnerian-style reductionism still be as threatening, then, if it involved accusations like, “you only oppose torture because of your sympathy”? Probably not.
2. How about another rephrasing, while we’re at it: instead of rationalization = moral reasons, how about “rationalization” = the attempt to justify opinions generated by our conscience, or moral sense, with extra-ethical, non-intuitive, reasons. Like claiming our vegetarianism is supported by “science.” This seems a plausible reading, but it really takes the punch out of Posner’s reductionism. Wouldn't you be totally fine with the charge that your moral convictions are not really supported by a-moral considerations?
3. Why is accepting the intuitive/emotional source of our moral sense tantamount to moral skepticism? Just as plausibly, we could use reason to properly apply our moral sense. Eg. we oppose the random murder of civilians for political/strategic purposes, due to feeling bad for the civilians, and then we're taught that certain kinds of aerial bombing amounts to the same thing. So then, using "reason," we come to change our view and oppose such bombing, as well. Reason has been employed to properly present things to our moral (emotional) sense so it can be more clearly applied. On this interpretation, shouldn't we take Posner's point as entirely compatible with the way we take our ethical convictions seriously?

Posted by: JeffS | Dec 30, 2004 1:24:29 AM


Posted by: Steve

I'm a bit surprised that Mr. Posner's comments are even controversial (particularly here, on this site, by the site contributors). Stripped to its essence, I think Posner is simply saying that the basis of our moral beliefs are non-rational, and cannot be rationally justified (though reason is often used to attempt to justify them). It surprises me that this is referred to as a 'radical' position: this, it seems to me, is the essence of ethical relativism, which I had thought was virtually accepted as doctrine within the academy.
I think what's going on is that Posner is actually taking the ethical relativist seriously and showing him that his beliefs are damaging to himself.
To express it in stereotypical terms (just for clarity-not to insult): your average academic believes both 1) ethical relativism is true (which allows him to reject the prevailing ethical standards on gay rights/premarital sex/feminist rights/minority rights/etc/etc, because they are ARBITRARY), AND 2) your average academic is smarter than your average fundamentalist/conservative/nationalist/etc/etc (which allows him to rewrite ethical standards on gay rights/premarital sex/feminist rights/minority rights/etc/etc), and win the debate over the future of society's moral standards). Posner is simply saying that if 1) is true, 2) can't be. And that makes alot of PhD's nervous.

Steve

Posted by: Steve | Dec 30, 2004 7:59:44 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Having weighed in probably too often on the first Posner thread and wondering whether a discussion of metaethics is really in keeping with the purported point of the blog (not that it isn’t interesting and worth discussing), let me make only one small point.

Mr. Dworkin’s math analogy, which he acknowledges is just that, is in at least one sense problematic. At the risk of offending the ethicists here, I think we have a much clearer understanding of what it is to do mathematics than we do of what it is to make moral judgments. If I contend, for example, that division by zero is a permissible operation or refuse to acknowledge that a proof by mathematical induction is dispositive, I’m no longer doing mathematics. I am permitted as a child to insist that there must be some way to divide by zero and I will some day figure it out. I will not be permitted that luxury in graduate school. At best, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, I’m playing chess without the queen.

What I mean is that there is a sense in which we feel comfortable saying that mathematics simply is what mathematicians do or say it is that doesn't hold when we examine normative discourse, beliefs or behavior. It simply won’t do to say that X is not making a legitimate move in the moral game unless X plays by the rules of ethicists. At the risk of resurrecting the corpse of logical positivism, we do have a better sense of the 'logic' of empirical propositions and of formal systems than we do of normative utterances, etc., which is one reason why there is so often more heat than light in these sorts of discussions.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 30, 2004 10:03:58 AM


Posted by: slarrow

Given Prof. Dworkin's example of the prime numbers, it makes me wonder if this whole kerfuffle about Posner is really an epistemological problem. It almost sounds like the question is: can we be moral without knowing why we hold the moral beliefs we do or whether indeed those are proper beliefs? I think Posner's answer to that is "yes" and that mustering a defense of one's principles that withstands rational enquiry is not required for one to legitimately exercise those moral principles in the public sphere.

I think Posner's major claim is that we ought not require that people have articulated reasons for pressing their political cases because, if we do enact such a standard, we run the risk of jettisoning important societal safeguards that don't meet that "rational test." I recall a discussion of "barbaric" punishment in a philosophy of law class that pointed out the difficulty of finding a principled means of determining whether a punishment was barbaric or not. Perhaps a professional philosopher can buckle down and devise a test (with which other philosophers will almost certainly disagree), but in the meantime, ought we to think we can't outlaw certain legal sanctions as barbaric merely because most of us go with our gut on that one?

With respect to Prof. Velleman, all the commotion about whether moral beliefs are justifiable through reason or are merely gut-level decisions with a veneer of rationalization was never Posner's point. His point was to say that certain parties were demanding that (a) political players must articulate in a rigorous manner all arguments for a political position and that (b) if those arguments rely heavily on religious interpretation, they are disqualified from the public sphere because to act on those reasons alone would violate the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. On his way to rejecting (2), he also rejects (1)--not so much because it thinks it impossible but because he doesn't consider it necessary. It's actually a generous statement by an avowed nonreligious person to create space for people to be religiously motivated in the public sphere.

Prof. Dworkin writes, "My own conjecture is that some substantial number of our moral convictions are (in fact) held for the kinds of reasons that Posner refers to. But this is compatible with there being good reasons that could justify holding them or abandoning them." I really don't see where he'd object to this statement. But I submit this is still in nature an epistemological question, and that wasn't Posner's point.

Posted by: slarrow | Dec 30, 2004 10:24:40 AM


Posted by: phred

Steve,

I liked your post; hopefully my response will make some sense.

I take it that Dworkin’s use of “radical” is not a claim that Posner’s proposition is terribly different from what a lot of people think; rather, it is a claim that Posner’s view eschews a great deal. That is, it is radical in scope, not company. So, atheism would be radical in this sense, though many people believe it.

But that said, relativism is hardly the mainstream – much less an article of doctrine – in university (and I’m not sure Posner is a relativist at all – at first blush he looks like a sort of expressivist, who would claim that moral statements are not strictly speaking true or false, just expressions of sentiment, like “boo!” or “yeah!”). In fact, I’d say some form of realism (i.e., the view that moral statements can be true or false) is most common, especially in philosophy departments. The stereotype you invoke does illustrate a conflict, but neither position is often held by academics, and almost certainly no person believes both.

Regarding your first claim: _Cultural_ relativism – the view that ethical norms are true just in virtue of what a culture thinks – would force one to embrace, not reject, majoritarianism. Second, even a relativism that holds that ethical propositions are somehow relative to an individual (or perhaps that ethical talk is just a big mistake, much as how religious talk would be if it there were no God) wouldn’t allow one to reject majoritiarianism on the grounds of arbitrariness, for arbitrariness is action without reasons, and surely this sort of relativist would have to reject the idea that reasons can be brought to bear on ethics. After all, how could such a relativist say that one ought to base moral beliefs on reasons – for that is itself a moral claim.

Regarding the second: People who think that the majority is wrong (on gay rights, on slavery, on torture, on whatever) would of course be silly to think that they are right, or are likely to prevail, on the grounds of being smarter (I’m dubious that academics think they’re any smarter per se than persons of similar accomplishment in other fields, but we’d have to do a proper survey to find out). They think that good _reasons_ can be proffered for one view rather than another, and the absence of good, morally-relevant reasons for making moral distinctions (e.g., between homo- and heterosexuals) is wrong, and such distinctions therefore ought not be made. Certainly that was the case regarding slavery 150 years ago, or civil rights 60 years ago, or women’s suffrage, or for requiring religious minorities say Christian prayers or the Pledge of Allegiance in schools 60 years ago (or to use a conservative case: perhaps it was true of freedom to contract for wages and hours 80 years ago, as in _Lochner_; dates approximate). Of course, this leaves open what the proper mechanism is (and what the proper limits are) for enacting change against the wishes of the majority; but that’s a different matter from the truth of a particular ethical statement.

Posted by: phred | Dec 30, 2004 10:37:00 AM


Posted by: JeffS

Re. Steve’s point:
I couldn’t speak for any academics, but as far as I can tell (as Jason Stanley reminded us in the Posner thread), most academic philosophers – as opposed to other academics -- are not relativists, even if they are to the Left.

Moreover, among non-philosophers, most relativists in the academy subscribe to a different kind of relativism from Posner’s. Posner believes that, as he puts it, there are no “mind-independent” moral universals – no objective reasons to believe something is moral or immoral. The average relativist in the academy, by contrast, seems to believe that people from different cultures could have different, incompatible, but equally good justifications for their divergent beliefs; that is, moral pluralism, rather than relativism. Now, you may say this “moral pluralism,” if you think it through all the way, implies ultimately the same vulgar, free-for-all relativism of Posner. But I don’t think its proponents have thought it through that far. Maybe an academic could speak to that.
JS

Posted by: JeffS | Dec 30, 2004 10:44:35 AM


Posted by: Leon

I think phred's great post above should be read by all. I wanted to accentuate a specific point that he comes close to making.

Ethical relativism does not compel one to cultural relativism. Ethical relativism argues that moral values do not derive from 1) God, or 2) some other mysterious source that provides human-independent absolute values in the world.

But acknowledging that ethics are not derived from an absolute, human-independent source, does not imply the conclusion that "all cultures are equal", or "there are no good reasons to make ethical judgements". In fact there may be many good reasons to deem some practices "good" and others "evil"; they're just reasons based upon human experience, not universal absolutes.

I see conservatives frequently using "ethical relativism" synonymously with "cultural relativism". I think this is mistaken, and I hope this assuages some fears about what ethical relativism maintains.

Posted by: Leon | Dec 30, 2004 11:06:51 AM


Posted by: phred

Leon,
Thanks for the recommend, and thanks for the clarification. I have a question for you, though (and I'm beyond my expertise here, so bear with me). You state that ethical relativists argue that moral values don't derive from God or other human-independent sources. That seems right. But does it go the other way? That is, does the fact (if it is a fact) that moral values don't derive from God or other human independent sources entail ethical relativism? I would have thought no; a constructivist (who thinks that moral claims are true in virtue of what people (or ideal observers, or what-have-you) would believe these, too. As would the sort of realist who thinks that moral propositions are true just because of certain facts about humans themselves.

So, I guess I want to further clarify ethical relativism. Certainly there is one sense in which cultural relativism is true: different cultures have different ethical beliefs (at least at the very specific level - how much skin to expose, whether it's okay to have sex with person's of different classes, races, genders). This is an empirical question and would appear to be uncontroversial. This need not have any bearing on the truth of particular ethical propositions; cultures can be wrong, even if the above is true.

But what exactly is left for relativism to be? Some say that ethics is just "subjective," meaning that it's just opinion (which is I guess the crude form of expressivism and Posner's view? Someone please help me here!). There is error-theory (the idea that ethics talk is all a mistake, as religious talk would be if there were no God). Am I missing something? If they are not being accused of the strong form of cultural relativism (that ethical propositions are true just in virtue of what one's culture thinks, and that any one is as good as any other), what are academics accused of when people call them "relativists"?

Thanks again.

Posted by: phred | Dec 30, 2004 11:41:34 AM


Posted by: TroyP

Judge Posner's comments make me sad. It is just not pragmatic to have pragmatic judges.

Richard Rorty identifies a liberal as a person who thinks cruelty is the worst thing we do. I define myself as a conservative because I think that being cowardly is the worst thing we do.

In other words, if a crowd is beating a flag-burner, a person who does not risk life and limb to aid the person to safety is worse than the persons beating the flag burner.

My primary concern with Judge Posner's position is his preferencing of democracy, institutions and contract over life and liberty. His comments about the constitution and slavery seem to suggest that life and liberty are not inalienable if the constitution alienates them.

And he certainly doesn't think that these inalienable rights are endowed by a creator because one does not exist for him.

Speaking pragmatically, these are not the comments of a Judge I trust to pull a flag-burning butt from the fire.

Does no one else read Plato and think that democracy lawfully but unjustly put Socrates to death?

Is no one else wholeheartedly republican in believing that the just and proper function of representative government is to temper the passions of the mob and the corruption of the rich?

I will console myself, (pragmatically, of course) with the thought that Judge Posner's attack on citing foreign courts is really a rationalization for the wholesome and traditional belief in the decadence of Europe.


Posted by: TroyP | Dec 30, 2004 11:45:56 AM


Posted by: Don Herzog

Those feeling bookish enough to investigate how skeptical Posner actually is about moral argument -- very -- can look at this book.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Dec 30, 2004 12:29:57 PM


Posted by: Don Herzog

Sorry, can't seem to manage the link thing with comments. It's The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory (Harvard University Press, 1999).

Posted by: Don Herzog | Dec 30, 2004 12:32:08 PM


Posted by: Keith Burgess-Jackson

With respect to morality, I think all Judge Posner is saying is that, if you want to persuade someone, rationally, as opposed to displaying the grounds for your own beliefs, you must begin with premises he or she accepts. Argumentation, to be effective, must be ad hominem (to the person) in the nonfallacious Lockean sense. If you reject one of my premises, then I must back up and argue for it, which means making another argument the premises of which you accept. And so on. See my essay "How to Argue" for details. There's a link to it on my blog, AnalPhilosopher. The essay is not available right now because my university is upgrading its computers. It should be available later today or tomorrow.

Posted by: Keith Burgess-Jackson | Dec 30, 2004 12:44:22 PM


Posted by: phred

troyp,

I don’t quite follow the way you've divided the landscape. First, Rorty’s characterization of a liberal seems a bit strange, at least as a definition of liberal. Liberals (small ‘l’) have beliefs about how we ought to order society, specifically with regards individual liberties and liberty-rights and the role of the state; Conservatives (big “c”) and conservatives can be this kind of liberal with no contradiction.

I take it, then, that your characterization of liberal and conservative is within the framework of political liberalism (to which most members of both parties subscribe, especially if one talks loosely enough to include most libertarians), and is an empirical claim about who happens to take up with the Liberals (big ‘l’ – meaning leftish political groupings). I don’t know about this, but it seems implausible. Some people are in such groups because of how they feel about organization of labor, or about what they think is rightfully theirs, or because of views of equality; i.e., because of notions of justice, not because of notions of cruelty. More important, though, I would venture that many Conservatives (big ‘c’ – meaning rightish political groupings) base their views precisely on notions of cruelty: many think that killing the human unborn during abortion is cruel, or that Saddam’s cruelty justified the Iraq war. Moreover, many Liberals (big ‘l’) base their views precisely on notions of cowardliness: failure to stand up to large financial corporations who want SS privatization, failure to open Cheney’s energy meeting minutes to public scrutiny, purging dissenting views from the administration, and Bush’s failure to hold press conferences / respond to press questions or spell out clear and stable justifications for big policies (Iraq, SS privatization) to many Liberals smack of cowardice in the face of scrutiny, or of being too weak (i.e., morally weak / cowardly) to fully defend policies.

Posted by: phred | Dec 30, 2004 12:58:15 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Herzog is correct, Posner is deeply skeptical about moral argument in any sense that would be acceptable to many here. The earlier thread tended to focus on whether Posner’s own blog statement was properly termed a diatribe (i.e., whether Mr. Velleman’s initial response to that quote was appropriate), whether Posner is a serious man who should be taken seriously (the answer is yes), etc. Mr. Velleman’s later comments (and, I dare add, my “fun and games” with Antti) began to analyze Posner’s statement, as this thread has continued to do.

I’m sure it’s quite possible to “argue with Posner.” Many have. In fact, he and Gary Becker have begun their own blog (http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/) in which what they are doing certainly qualifies to my mind as rational argument about normative topics. What his critics here would not be able to do, I am also quite confident, is to convince him of the errors of his views on the basis of what has so far been argued. Moreover, as I believe he would freely admit, his original blog entry was more of an assertion than an argument which could hardly be supposed to convince his critics.

Now the question occurs: are the critics of moral skepticism here sufficiently confident that their own positions are adequately supported by reasons and not “mere rationalizations” that they could in principle be persuaded by others’ reasons and reasoning that they were wrong and that, sadly enough, moral irrationalism or skepticism is the only, ahem, reasonable conclusion? (Sextus Empiricus, your table is ready now!)

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 30, 2004 1:24:07 PM


Posted by: slarrow

Sextus Empiricus! I haven't thought of that philosopher since my undergrad days when I wrote a research paper on the problem of the criterion! (The question still bugs me, frankly.)

And what a nice little question, D.A.! Asking these notable scholars whether they're prepared to be rationally convinced that irrationality is the way to go--how delightful! (There's really no logical contradiction there; it's just the irony of it that I find so appealing.)

Posted by: slarrow | Dec 30, 2004 1:50:20 PM


Posted by: Jay Cline

I take umbrage at Christy's notion that a U.S Marine would not be considered a coward had he blown up himself and innocents. Not only would I cast him in the same light as those on 9/11, but I would hope and pray that he would rot in hell next to Timothy McVeigh. U.S. Marines do NOT target civilians. That is part of the Marine code of morality. Ergo, the argument is not pertinent.

Posted by: Jay Cline | Dec 30, 2004 2:12:36 PM


Posted by: TroyP

phred,

Following Rorty, who claims that it is storytelling rather than argument that changes people's morality (personal or political) and who also believes in creating "We" communities of those who are motivated by similar stories, I am not making an empirical claim, but rather trying to choose up new teams.

Being a 19th century liberal but not a 20th century Liberal and believing that a fetish has been made of democracy and equality and cruelty and community, at the expense of individual liberty and universalism and republicanism and valor, I am adopting Rorty's tactics for alternative ends.

As your examples of cowardly duplicitous speech on the part of big R Republicans shows, this is not a defense of that party.

From an empirical sense in more conventional terms, its saying that the Democrats have lost the vote by taking all the fun out of helping the downtrodden by taking the nobility out of it. In other words, by saying we must be nice rather than saying it is honorable to be nice.

Because the Democrats aren't convincing when they say "guns, god and country!" they have left us at the mercy of the posers among the Republicans who are.

Posted by: TroyP | Dec 30, 2004 2:40:21 PM


Posted by: phred

troyp,

Sorry, I'm a bit confused here. Correct me where I get this wrong: you aren't trying to describe the world, but trying to get groups to coalesce around some kind of story involving individual liberty, valor and republicanism. but why? Presumably it is because the "fetishes" of democracy, equality, cruelty, and community are problematic; or is it just that you like the valor story better? Can there be reasons for thinking that that is the better story or that the old fetishes are problematic? If so, in this forum (and in others where people at least try to work within the framework of reasons) why not talk about those instead?

Put another way, what's the intrinsic merit of stories, which can after all be misleading or untruthful?

Finally, I don't know what to make of the "taking the fun out helping the downtrodden" remark. Surely there are still things one can do honorably, or to be valorous (perhaps choosing life-paths that involve self-sacrifice and helping others?). Is it that you think that there should entry-level valorous opportunities and that these opportunities are sucked up by traditional outlets? Or that every act of generosity should be honorable rather than requisite? If it's these, I don't really see the argument as to why (I'd appreciate pointers here). Or is it that more people would be helped in the long run (which would seem to rely on the old fetishes you cite, and is an empirical question)?

Posted by: phred | Dec 30, 2004 3:35:26 PM


Posted by: oliver

I have a problem with the prime analogy, which I'll mention even though I haven't thought out what consequences the problem might have for Prof. Dworkin's point. First, the prime assertion is unlike every other moral decision that exists today and has ever existed in that there exists a proof of it that (I suspect) an overwhelming number of experts accept and which I suppose you could look up somewhere. Second, unless it's a simple proof, from a glance at Prof. Dworkin's summary CV and my failure to notice philosophy of math in there combined with my experience with a common looseness of of speach make me doubt he's actually done the proof himself, but that instead he "knows" the prime assertion to be true and proven in the same way the rest of us "know" the earth is spheroid--that is, by heresay in effect (I guess I'm being a positivist here, but I don't know my philosophy well enough to say what kind of epistemology I may be hawking). Deciding whether to believe the Earth is spheroid is fundamentally a sociological problem. We base such decisions on our evolving theories of what kinds of testimony ("what is written in books of a certain size and weight and appearance") we can trust.

Posted by: oliver | Dec 30, 2004 3:37:45 PM


Posted by: oliver

Correction: "unlike every other moral decision that exists today and has ever existed in that there exists a proof of it'S CORRECTNESS"

e.g. Even if academic moral philosophers at acredited universities could agree on a single articulation of a a categorical imperative that fundamentally describes a given real-world situation (should I tell my sister Sue to get a divorce today?), not all such experts agree Kant's recipe provides proof that the choice is moral. So that's unlike the assertion that there exists an infinite number of primes, about which I expect experts agree.

Posted by: oliver | Dec 30, 2004 3:47:05 PM


Posted by: oliver

Here's my own analogy. I think being mad at somebody frequently goes with an implicit assessment of "injustice" or "wrong." I'm inclined to view those reflexive assessments as moral decisions, and so maybe there's something about them that applies to moral choices more generally. Although there is the phenomenon of forgiveness, one can also cease to be mad at someone after many years as a result of a new less-selfish assessment of what happened. We may have reflected on our anger and its justness extensively and might have been able to persuade a grand jury to convict our antagonist--then one day the kindness of a stranger enables us to concede to some personal flaw and we look at the historic maddening event completely differently. At least, that's what one reads in novels. I'm stubborn as an elephant myself.

Posted by: oliver | Dec 30, 2004 4:03:55 PM


Posted by: oliver

Make that "jury" instead of "grand jury." I don't know enough about appeals and don't have anything so explicit in mind that I want to question the smarts of judges.

Posted by: oliver | Dec 30, 2004 4:12:26 PM


Posted by: TroyP

Phred,

The advantage of stories is that they recognize that premises (axioms) are more important than deductions from premises. In stories, the fact that you like a character with certain morals better than others counts as a reason. Would Plutarch’s Lives for example be appropriate here?

It is my turn to be confused now. What counts as a reason? I had assumed that after Freud, Nietzsche, Godel, Kuhn, Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty there weren’t any liberals left that believed in moral argumentation by reasoning. Being pleasantly surprised, if you give me your answer to the question, “ What are people for?” I will try to give “real” reasons for my position.

However, I did go read the “about” part of the blog. Diatribe or not, as an empirical matter, among a majority of US voters, I believe that any argument that ended in …therefore there is no God, or …therefore sodomy is morally acceptable would be taken as a reductio ad absurdum proof of the falsity of the premises of the argument.

The country is divided because to a bunch of people the belief in God and that sodomy is wrong is as fundamental and unquestionable a premise, if not more so, as life is good, honesty is good, love is good or any other premise one can make.

In my opinion, we need to be distracted from our moral differences which are real, fundamental and meaningful, not argued out of them by a proof of their truth or falsity.

Posted by: TroyP | Dec 30, 2004 5:46:59 PM


Posted by: frankly0

I had assumed that after Freud, Nietzsche, Godel, Kuhn, Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty there weren’t any liberals left that believed in moral argumentation by reasoning.

How about turning this point around?

Here we have Posner, regarded as quite the intellectual idol of the right, basically saying that most (all?) morality is either relative or something worse.

Yet if there's anything that the great moral hero of the right, George Bush, is absolutely clear about, it's that he's absolutely clear about all things moral, and if there's any basic sin that the left has been accused of, it's multiculturalism and its supposed concomitant, moral relativism.

So I'm wondering, do people on the right give the slightest damn about whom they hold in esteem? Or is the membership in the Right conferred on both Posner and Bush sufficient unto itself that we can stop worrying our pretty little heads about their flatly contradicting each other on some really basic stuff -- stuff that at all other times they themselves use to disparage the left?

And please don't tell me this shows how "open minded" you all are, when it really seems to show only how inconsistent you are!

Posted by: frankly0 | Dec 30, 2004 6:05:44 PM


Posted by: p

can't post much, as I'm on may way out. But I haven't a clue as to how Godel and Kuhn relate to moral reasons, and I've never really seen the insights of Derrida, Foucalt, and Rorty, so I can't really say much about them.

But what counts as a reason? I can't give an algorithm, but certain things clearly count: causing pain is a reason against an action (though not dispositive, of course), impinging on person's ability to form and act according to their life plans, denying people the basic components of a minimally decent life. What makes those reasons (or why should we think that those count)? It is just hard to see how it could be otherwise.

As to "what are people for?" I don't think they are _for_ anything. Really. But that alone doesn't mean that we don't have obligations to them.

Posted by: p | Dec 30, 2004 7:44:38 PM


Posted by: oliver

"The claim that my belief is just a rationalization requires showing one of two things. Either that such proofs are not themselves good reasons or that I would have continued to believe (the claim [sic?]) even if I had no such proof."

I'm not sure how to interpret this dichotomy. Where my "rationalization" for a moral choice is utilitarian, I think I have good reasons for it, and I might change my mind if I encountered a utilitarian argument against them, and yet I regard Utilitarianism unproven as a recipe for morally correct choices. So on which side of the dichotomy I am supposed to place myself?

Posted by: oliver | Dec 30, 2004 10:42:18 PM


Posted by: Henry Woodbury

frankly0 -- President Bush has strong moral beliefs he cannot articulate. Posner says, "That's OK!" There you are.

I think slarrow nailed it about 12 comments in. The value of a moral position should not depend on the rhetorical abilities of its champions.

TroyP also seems to me to be spot on. Posner is preferencing democracy and contract (and the rule of law) over life and liberty -- and for good reason! To allow judges, whatever their intellectual chops, to override the law is to slide from democracy to a star chamber -- of judges or philosophers or technocrats, depending on whose arguments the star chamber likes best.

If activist judges don't seem like a bad thing, consider that presidential cabinets also tend to be made up of very bright people ready to justify executive action with very compelling arguments.

Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Dec 30, 2004 11:21:18 PM


Posted by: Bill

Characterizing moral debate as typified by arguments from premises, exercises in an analogous kind of specifically moral "reasoning", etc.... This kind of talk seems to me to demean what actually goes on in moral suasion.

Isn't moral suasion a kind of rhetoric that is nonetheless dignified by honest attempts to appeal to common sentiments and inference-like moves we all make based on them? We can criticize this kind of rhetoric, of course, and have well established grounds (norms and the like) on which to do so. Doing that does not require that logic and norms about observation play the same role as in establishing facts of a less motivational nature.

Posted by: Bill | Dec 30, 2004 11:32:35 PM


Posted by: Joshua Cohen

Oliver...not that it matters at all...but the proof that there are infinitely many primes is very simple and known since Euclid. You don't have to be a philosopher of mathematics, much less a mathematician to understand it. Goes roughly as follows:

Suppose you have a list of all the primes. Multiply them together now and add 1. Call that number P. Well, since P cannot (by hypothesis) be a prime (remember, we started with a list of all the primes), it must be a composite number, thus divisible by a prime number. Call that prime factor p. Well, p cannot be on the list of all the primes that you started from, unless p divides into 1 (the difference between P and the number that comes from multiplying together all the primes). But if p was not on the original list, then we contradict the initial assumption: that we had a list of all the primes.

Posted by: Joshua Cohen | Dec 30, 2004 11:53:00 PM


Posted by: oliver

Thanks for the proof. Drat that Prof Dworkin. He speaks precisely. Let's just pretend he said Fermat's last theorem.

Posted by: oliver | Dec 31, 2004 12:08:46 AM


Posted by: frankly0

frankly0 -- President Bush has strong moral beliefs he cannot articulate. Posner says, "That's OK!" There you are.

You're entirely missing the point.

Would the right wing happy with the idea that Bush's beliefs are incapable of justification? That they are based purely on emotion and custom? That they are, perhaps, no better justified than, say, a number of bin Laden's moral beliefs which we regard as pernicious, which might also be based on another set of emotions and customs? Bush has "causes" for his beliefs; bin Laden has "causes" for his -- why is one set of beliefs better than the other, according to Posner?

All of these points are regarded as the standard weakness of so-called moral relativism (though I'm not sure Posner really is adopting moral relativism, instead of something worse). The right wing claims to deplore that notion, and pretend that it is the peculiar disease of liberals.

If Posner has an answer to these problems, it's certainly not obvious from the passage quoted.

Posted by: frankly0 | Dec 31, 2004 12:56:10 AM


Posted by: Jay Cline

A Luddite Fable

Man walks into a bar, a furious dark shadow following him like stink on skunk. He plops down on the barstool and the barkeep asks, "What'll it be, Mac?" "Whiskey, straight", he mutters. Barkeep fills a glass and sets it before the man, who downs it in one swift gulp. "Again. And keep 'em comin'". The second shot disappears faster than the barkeep can refill it.

Pouring a third, barkeep ventures, "Bad day?" Stony murderous silence. The third one vanishes. As the fourth is being poured, in a thin strangulating voice says, "They replaced me with a goddamn robot!" "You work at the plant, then?" Man pulls out a flimsy piece of paper, oblivious to the barkeep's question, "and all I get is a lousy two week severance check! How the hell am I supposed to feed my family on this?! All I know is building cars! And the robots are replacing all of us! Tomorrow, I'm telling ya, tomorrow night me and a bunch of us boys are goin' down to the factory floor and we're gonna rip out each and every one of those godless monsters!"

Barkeep ponders this as he pours an even half dozen. "You know, Mac. Technology and progress ain't so bad. Why, just a hundred years ago we had no idea what killed off all them dinosaurs 65 million years ago, or what nearly killed every living thing on earth 250 million years ago. It was asteroids. Asteroids and comets slamming into the earth like some Hammer of Vengeance from the Almighty Himself."

Man looks up from his sixth, a little blurry, "Whaddayamean, millions of years ago? Wot's that got to do wit' anything?"

"Well, now we know. And we know it could happen again, killing us all in one furious moment."

The man sobers up a bit, a little fearful. "When? When is this going to happen?"

"It could be tonight or tomorrow. Maybe next month or next year. Or maybe not for another million years. Point is, we know now, and soon, we'll be able to do something about. Yessir, we will soon be able to find this killer monster and blow it out of the sky before it even gets close. Technology will save us all!"

The man grunts, downs his last drink, throws some money on the bar. "A million years!? And what is my little girl supposed to eat until then!"

Posted by: Jay Cline | Dec 31, 2004 10:01:53 AM


Posted by: chainlink

frankly0 wrote: Would the right wing [be] happy...

There isn't _a_ right wing, just a coalition of those suspicious of government-sponsored projects of social and economic reengineering.
Conservative communitarians reject them because they destroy tradition, which they value. Classical liberals and libertarians reject them because reflect a dangerous overestimation of the competence of an overly simplifying and unhistorical kind of rationality (Hegel would call it _Verstand_)to organize and control human life and history. Bush embodies the former perspective; Posner's point, I believe, is the latter. He wishes to undermine the sort of claims of rationality that would enable the State systematically and coercively to reshape social life. He is not claiming that reasoning is undemocratic, and is not poisoning any wells: the claim seems to be, rather, that what voters are doing is in fact engaging in and marking stages of a reasoned discussion--about matters which seem rarely to admit of a clear consensus. In matters of morals, democratic social life _is_ a form of rationality.

frankly0: ...idea that Bush's beliefs are incapable of justification? That they are based purely on emotion and custom...

But the emotional structures and customs of a community are crucial parts of any "justification": we may feel we should do one thing rather than another because this is the kind of people we are, this is how we have come to understand ourselves. Where's the problem? Do we really have to reject any argument that we couldn't convince bin Laden of?

Posted by: chainlink | Jan 2, 2005 4:46:23 AM


Posted by: TroyP

...a dangerous overestimation of the competence of an overly simplifying and unhistorical kind of rationality...

This a great phrasing of what I support. Yes, its crass, simplistic American cultural imperialism but it easy and its exciting.

There are only 3 ways to decide the size of a democracy. One person, everybody, and the muddled collection of historical ethno-nationalistic- historical jerrymandering we have now.

Switching from a philosophical mode to a strategic defense mode. Technology increases the damage a small number of people can create. Concentrations of people and wealth become at risk. Distributing one options across the whole world seems sensible defense posture.

Posted by: TroyP | Jan 2, 2005 4:13:27 PM


Posted by: Jeremy Pierce

Don, I think comments on Typepad blogs can handle links, but you have to type in the URL by itself, and it will make it a link.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | Jan 2, 2005 8:17:41 PM


Posted by: enzo rossi

Chailink wrote:

There isn't _a_ right wing, just a coalition of those suspicious of government-sponsored projects of social and economic reengineering.

If Bush's project of creating an "ownership society" isn't social engineering, I don't know what is.

Posted by: enzo rossi | Jan 3, 2005 11:56:51 AM


Posted by: AlanC9

chainlink, there's no problem with justifiying our positions "because this is the kind of people we are." Actually, that's Postmodernism 101.

But what happens when the nation doesn't agree on what kind of people we are? One of the reason Bush has been such a polarizing figure is that he's revealed how little we really have in common on a lot of issues. (I think Clinton understood this too, but did his best to paper the differences over.)

How do we talk to each other then?

Posted by: AlanC9 | Jan 4, 2005 12:56:15 PM


Posted by: chainlink

AlanC9 wrote: Actually, that's Postmodernism 101.

I think it's older. As far as I know, it makes its appearance in Germany as a response to the universalism of the French revolution. I really don't understand the Left's appropriation of it: in that context, the argument is supposed to be employed, it seems, only by minorities, whose ability or inclination to disagree on how to interpret their identity is more or less explicity rejected.

(Universalism isn't inherently a bad thing--but it can't be a presupposition, only a--perhaps, in fact, unachievable--goal.)

I think that discussions that are open to history and include interpretations about the kind of people we have been and now are are _more_ likely to provide their participants grounds for a kind of mutual recognition and acknowledgment of legitimacy than arguments about abstractions. Maybe we share more history than we do political presuppositions. And in any case, ideologies are short cuts: the more particulars we introduce into the conversation, the smaller their role.

Posted by: chainlink | Jan 4, 2005 4:36:57 PM


Posted by: AlanC9

I'm guessing the Left picked it up because their thinkers spend too much time in academia, as opposed to doing retail politics. Probably a mistake, since an awful lot of people seem to want leaders to have some sort of trancendental justification for their values.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Jan 4, 2005 6:41:51 PM


Posted by: Herbert Browne

chainlink writes .."Maybe we share more history than we do political presuppositions. And in any case, ideologies are short cuts: the more particulars we introduce into the conversation, the smaller their (ie ideologies) role.."
So true... and this is the kernel of morality, too, which has a basis as primordial as DNA- and may be as evolutionarily adaptable. However, sociologists, not having the tools of reductionism with which to precisely chop it up for comparison and contrast, will be a long time in structural analysis.
Posner's "rationalizations" seem, basically, to be a problem of a limited vocabulary- as if the "notes" resulting from my elbow impressed upon a piano keyboard are equivalent to the "notes" of a noodling jazz pianist- just "notes". Morality has provided a social primate with some communal strategies for success; and continues, to this day, to do so. At this point, "we" find ourselves so successful that the physical limitations of the earth are becoming faintly discernible, in certain sectors. Morality will, of OUR needs, perhaps, require expanding to take in more than just our species- a quantum leap, of sorts (or perhaps our comprehension of the extent of 'moral existence' will be the leap). It may rear its tentacles to indicate the pragmatic 'rightness' of families of same-sex parents that will enhance community values by NOT procreating, for example. New paradigms of morality don't mean 'relativism' necessarily; but they must mean a survival worth sustaining. I've seen Einstein quoted as saying "we are Life that wants to live in the midst of other Life that wants to live". To the extent that .."wants to live" is an intrinsic function of our species, we may have Morality to thank; and, if so, there's no denying its efficacy... so far. ^..^

Posted by: Herbert Browne | Jan 15, 2005 12:24:25 AM


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