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Monday, July 15, 2013

More Pluralist Reasonableness

My edifying exchange with "Unknown/Jay" has continued. "Jay"'s contributions are blockquoted and italicized, my typically long-winded replies are interspersed (also, there is a bit of editing).

[S]ince there is no criterion of warrant that has selected as the best belief among those on offer a belief that has not subsequently been supplanted by another better belief, it is wrong to think instrumental beliefs are any less conventional than moral or political ones.
This is your revenge for the parsing thing, isn't it? ... The sorts of things I call truth are the sorts of things that can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of a skeptical but openminded audience.
Those sorts of things can still be subsequently defeated by other candidate descriptions on the basis of the very same demonstrations to the very same skeptical but openminded audiences. Hence, they too are conventional. This isn't revenge, it's just my point.
I can't say I've ever heard of a time that that has happened as you say. If it did, then the obvious thing to do is devise an experiment in which the two candidate explanations predict different results. If you can't, then the models are practically indistinguishable for the time being and either is as useful as the other.
I said subsequently not simultaneously. New evidence, new experimental results, new applications, even new paradigms pop up all the time. The proper application of the relevant criteria of warrant don't secure certainty or finality even when they yield reasonable belief (I assume you now agree with this point given the above). But with finality lost we lose eternity -- hence warranted instrumental beliefs are contingent, conventional -- hence they aren't as different from mores or taste as you seemed to be saying before (I will spare you a long lecture on the idea of "taste" and how it was embedded in emerging empirical standards in the enlightenment that might actually interest you in this connection) -- hence my point before.
Nothing human is perfect. Still, it seems useful to me to semantically distinguish ideas which can be tested experimentally against competing ideas and found better or worse with some word like "facts" or "truths". I use words like "arrangements" or "mores" to cover matters where disagreements cannot be settled in such manner.
Well, pluralism is all about attending to differences that make a difference. I fear your distinction is too crude a tool to manage that, however. For one thing, though the criteria of warrant that select for reasonable moral or aesthetic or political beliefs are different from the ones that select for reasonable instrumental belief, I don't think the difference is one of more or less objectivity, intersubjectivity, or experimentalism.

As an example, on my conception moral beliefs -- from mores, "we-intentions" in Wilfred Sellars' parlance -- confer a sense of legibility from belonging to a community or dis-identifying from other-formations. One has to take great care in attending to the reality of the norms that confer such belonging and one often has to experiment quite a bit to accommodate one's performance of legible belonging given that every self really always only partially belongs anywhere and always also belongs multiply. Don't get me wrong, there are differences in the way objectivity, intersubjectivity, and experiment function morally as compared to instrumentally -- I do distinguish, recall, both the substantiation of instrumental beliefs and the ends of instrumental beliefs from beliefs in other domains.

But what I am taking care against here is a fetishization of instrumentality that would declare it more indispensably or more quintessentially reasonable than other modes of warranted belief. I'm not saying you are indulging in such fetishism yourself, but simply warning you that accepting a distinction between "hard" scientific truths and "soft" conventions uncritically facilitates such fetishism at the expense of the very reasonableness such distinctions fancy themselves to be policing into firmness.

I don't happen to agree that when we are doing science we are more rational or more perfectly human or more in touch with the external world than when we are doing other kinds of believing reasonably. This matters, because I think trying to elevate instrumentality above other modes, trying to apply instrumentality to other domains, trying to re-write the heterogeneity of reasonable belief in the image of instrumentality yields profoundly unreasonable outcomes, mutilates selfhood, disables the capacity of instrumentality to do its proper work in its proper domain.


Unknown said...

Jay here.

I view morality as a practical art of getting along in the context of human society. This leads me to believe that morality has about as much philosophical depth as society has, which isn't much.

I do think that people who spend too much time in discussions with other humans (politicians, academics, celebrities) often fall into the error of thinking that the universe works the way human societies do. As a corrective I recommend a solitary, manual hobby, like gardening or carpentry. It's healthy to interact a bit with things that can't be persuaded, appeased, or intimidated, but just are.

Dale Carrico said...

Of course, there is not just one "human society" providing "the context" for one generally applicable kind of "getting along" for which there can be a "practical art" you want to call morality. I will repeat, the word
"moral" comes from mores, a term that etymologically registers the diversity and contingency and complexity of the phenomenon at hand whether you choose to take that on board or not. All that "just is" -- to use a phrase you'll appreciate, or possibly not.

It is easy to see why you would want to mobilize a metaphor of depth here, and then declare society and morality shallow (ie, there "isn't much... depth"). Foolish rhetoricians like me are quite attuned to the role of metaphors in the framing of arguments like yours, you know. It paints a very reassuring picture, does it not -- "society" without "depth" -- when you one is committed, as you have repeatedly demonstrated yourself to be over the course of our exchange, to a comparative denigration of beliefs about norms in respect to what you valorize as scientific facts? Still, it's just a metaphor, after all, whether you like it or not, and its aptness is very much a question.

I won't comment too much on your unsolicited diagnosis of "people who spend too much time in discussion with other humans" (what a terrible prospect!) and who are, in consequence, especially error prone when it comes to understanding the special force of facticity in your estimation. Your parenthetic specification that "academics" like me are among those you mean is very helpful, and I do thank you for that generous and respectful clarification.

You will forgive me if I point out that society is actually part of the universe, so your rather resolute distinction of the two is problematic to say the least. And since science is a collective interrogation of parts of the environment involving humans, engaged in social and cultural practices, applying historically situated practices and criteria your conjuration in respect to it of "things" that "just are" as against the comparably constituted objects of morals, aesthetics, and politics is also problematic.

I have the feeling you are growing a bit impatient with my pointing out such problems to you. You have my sympathies. To be sure, I will gratefully take under advisement your generous recommendations about how lovely gardening and carpentry are as hobbies, especially for silly humanities intellectuals like me. Thanks for the conversation.

Unknown said...

Of course there are many human societies, sub-societies, and expected roles. To me that implies that there are many moral standards by which one might be judged. If one's local society is particularly bloodthirsty (say, the Aztecs) or if you're stuck between two societies of different values, one's situation may become very difficult, even completely unsurvivable.

I'm sorry if I offended you with the depth metaphor, but my point is that logical rigor has little to do with my conception of morality. Angry people don't calm down when you explain that your actions were required by the categorical imperative. Observance of traditions and taboos, however irrational, is more in the nature of my view of morality.

Obviously, human society is part of the universe. In fact, it's the only tiny part of the huge, mostly unsurvivable universe where we can live. I'm quite dependent on it, but its internal dynamics are a great inconvenience to pretty much everyone. I'm particularly bothered by the observation that we seem to have overshot our sustainable population quite some time ago, the resulting environmental damage is becoming acute, and we seem completely unable to collectively deal with that.

Again, I apologize for any offense that I've given, and hope there are no hard feelings.

Dale Carrico said...

I get your point, I'm not sure you get mine. In my view morals involves a complicated negotiation of a dynamic constellation of social formations in which we only partially and always multiply identify and disidentify, and that was no less true for "the Aztecs." The practices and convictions that yield reasonable instrumental beliefs are of course different in form from those practices and convictions that yield other reasonable beliefs, but I don't agree that instrumental beliefs are less conventional or more acquiescent to a reality that "just is" than other beliefs are. Further, I think misunderstanding this makes us less reasonable in our beliefs, very much including our scientific and instrumental beliefs, even though most of the people who disapprove or misunderstand the point tend to think reasonableness urgently depends on this disapproval or misunderstanding. Anyway, I'm not offended, but the exchange seems to be reaching diminishing returns.

Dale Carrico said...

I definitely am also bothered by the acuteness of ongoing and exacerbating catastrophic anthropogenic environmental change -- keep educating, agitation, organizing, and pushing for regulation, legislation, and investment in sustainable infrastructure. We will continue to seem incapable of dealing with this crisis collectively... right up to the point when we become capable of it. Whether this point will be in time or not is not something we can do anything about but keep on keeping on. Best to you.