Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Smith responds on ethics

Karl Smith responds to my post on secular ethics here. I think if I give this another shot I might win him over a little more, because he raises good points that I don't feel like I personally have trouble grappling with. So here it goes.

Karl responds:

"I don’t mean the following in any dismissive way but simply to articulate my understanding. Daniel seems to be making three statements to me

  1. Secular Ethics is Pluralistic Cultural Politics
  2. Hurrah for Pluralistic Cultural Politics!
  3. I am not interested in playing ethics-game

I am understand that pull of this approach. I find this unsatisfying because, like Daniel I assume, I see limits to coexistence. As a contemporary practical matter for example, are we willing to accept, acceptance of human trafficking as a within-community ethical standard that should be tolerated, without even protest or disapprobation?

And, if you do think that we should attempt to morally press a community which accepts human trafficking, not to do so, are you not at minimum initiating a neutron-bomb moral assault. Where in this case you hope to leave the actual human participants unharmed, but to obliterate the underlying ethical standard."

Jonathan Catalan, in the comment section to my original post, suggested I was being Rawlsian which seemed fair enough to me, although that was not my original intent. Originally I had a more Rortian liberalism in mind. Rawls works too I suppose, but Karl's comment here shows exactly where Rawls and coexisting communities gets strained and where Rorty shines a little brighter. Needless to say, I would press communities who find it morally acceptable to engage in human trafficking. My concern is not at all with taking ethical stands. My concern is with chasing the phantom that is a foundationalist ethics. This is the sense in which I agreed that Karl and Douthat are both right: secular ethics is very hard to justify. My point is that theistic ethics is no better.

And my approach to this problem is that we should not hold good ethics hostage to obsessions over justification, particularly because justifications seem to be so specific to particular communities. The problem facing modern, cosmopolitan humans is the coexistence of very different populations. Since ethics governs human relations, it seems to me that our ethics should facilitate this coexistence the best it can, right? That's the extent to which you can call me "Rawlsian". Indeed, if a secular ethics can facilitate this coexistence such that micro-ethics are practiced in separate communities, then all the better - we're all happy.

This seems like a good route to me, and it seems to me we have lots of ethical standards accessible to us as secular animals (see the Sam Harris stuff on the moral landscape... there's quite a bit of naturally available ethical intuition out there). The great thing is, maintaining and respecting this secular ethic rarely impinges on religious ethics people may also want to adopt. And when it does, it's usually indicative of something wrong with the religious ethic (human sacrifice, honor killings, what have you).

So that's all why a secular ethic is appealing on a practical level. My point is that to embrace all this it seems to me you really have to stop worrying about justification and foundations (which Karl and Douthat initially seemed too caught up in). This is where Rorty trumps Rawls. Rawls risks being a least common denominator ethics. Rorty doesn't because if you reject the justificationist project you're quite comfortable saying "I have no foundational justification for this ethics, but I'm asserting it because we seem to live much better together when we adopt it". If you're enraptured by justification, that sounds inadequate. If you're concerned with getting along in the real world, it's one of the best defenses of an ethical position I can come up with.

And again, the great thing about this approach is that it tends towards a minimalist cosmopolitanism, right? So the Douthat's of the world have the opportunity to articulate and construct communities around their own ethics. The only ones who are really left out in the cold are the Wahhibists and those types. And the Rortians are quite comfortable saying "I don't really care if those sorts are left out in the cold".

Life becomes a matter of arbitration and discussion - not justification and ethical calculus. That seems nice to me, and very workable.


  1. I don't have a background in philosophy or anything, so I sometimes have trouble expressing my thoughts on this. So more clarification always helps... here's what I wrote in Karl's comment section:

    "My concern was more with your concern about justifying ethics. I absolutely would press communities that engage in human trafficking, for example. My point is to differentiate myself on why I would press them.

    Douthat would say “non-theists can’t justify opposition to human trafficking because evolutionary theory doesn’t give them warrant”. True enough.

    Brad DeLong would respond with all kinds of great points about how theists don’t have much room to talk and even if they could cobble together a laudable moral position by ignoring all the inconvenient verses, that still hardly amounts to a solid justification in the eyes of communities that don’t accept scripture.

    My response to all this is “exactly why do I need to justify my opposition to human trafficking to you???”

    I agree with you, Douthat, and Brad insofar as I have serious doubts about how solid anyone’s justification is. I think that:

    1. Anyone who thinks they can provide a foundation for ethics is fooling themselves, and
    2. We have moral intuitions about good ways to live together that don’t require further justification – they simply require assertion (along with a good dose of tolerance, since we’ll all be asserting slightly different things).

    And that point #2 is where the pluralism comes in. But I agree – pluralism for the sake of pluralism (or a “fully justified” pluralism that refuses to step on the toes of human traffickers) can be weak. That’s why the point about pulling away from this concern for justification is important for understanding what I’m trying to claim."

  2. In Political Liberalism, the only thing Rawls requires is that you use reason to argue your position on a public forum. Btw, consequentialism is a form of justification. Political Liberalism is a substantial jump from A Theory of Justice (which almost requires people to agree with "justice as fairness").

    1. I ought to read him one day. I enjoy wandering into these sorts of discussions, but it's definitely not what I spend most of my time on.

      On consequentialism as justification - first, I'm not sure this has to be consequentialist, although it's true I put it in those words. I think it's also fine to just say "I don't think we ought to live in a society where X is allowed".

      Also on that point - I'd give the same response to Hume below. Yes if by "justification" you just mean "some argument in favor of", then obviously that's true. But I thought the word was supposed to have had more epistemological teeth than that.

  3. ""I have no foundational justification for this ethics, but I'm asserting it because we seem to live much better together when we adopt it".

    That is a justification.

    1. Sure, used casually. Yes, we don't throw darts at boards Hume. I thought it was pretty clear from the context of this post and from the entire discussion what "justification" meant. Not an argument in favor of a position (I agree that's fine), but a proof of sorts that a claim has some sort of independent grounding in an ultimate truth.

      If you're just going to use it casually like that, my response is "yes, obviously".

      It's fine if you want to use the word that way in your comment, but I am not using that word in that way in the post in order to say something about foundationalism in ethics.

  4. My apologies, I did not read the prior posts nor this one very closely. The justificatory approach to social morality taken by, e.g., Geral Gaus, is more in line with the wide use of "justification". When one person says to another, "do ought to do x!", the other person (legitimately) replies "why? you're not the boss of me." The prescription requires justification. If the person responds "because it is better if we all do x", that is a justification, and one that (likely) appeals to the reasons held by the second person. I apologize for reading into your discussions a different context of justification.

    1. No need for apologies (been getting that a lot from commenters lately... am I grouchy or something?). But this is how I would say we "justify" things.

      The line that really got me in Douthat's initial post was this parenthetical: "It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims. (You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.)"

      My reaction was surprise that he would expect that kind of grounding (and what about theists who accept evolution and physics?!?!), as well as a sense that he is overcomplicating things by bringing in metaphysics. We do argue for certain positions, it's true. But this sort of foundational justification doesn't seem to me to be strictly necessary - and probably not even possible.

    2. Wow! Douthat actually expected that there should be a REASON we should act a certain way! Incredible.

    3. Not incredible and not the point, Gene.

      If you want to argue with someone who wants to do morality by throwing darts, go find such a person, then shoot me an email and I'll come along and argue against them with you.

  5. Errors:

    "you ought to do x!"

    "if the persons responds 'because we all seem to live better if we all do x'..."

  6. "I have no foundational justification for this ethics, but I'm asserting it because we seem to live much better together when we adopt it".

    So what? What if my concern is not in living together well, but in serial killing and cannibalism, or wiping out the Jews or the Armenians, or destroying life on earth? Why should your concern that we live well together, which you admit has no foundation at all, matter to me in the least?

    1. "What if my concern is not in living together well, but in serial killing and cannibalism, or wiping out the Jews or the Armenians, or destroying life on earth?"

      We who like to live together peacefully have certain protocols for dealing with people like you to ensure we can continue to live together (relatively) peacefully.

      "Why should your concern that we live well together, which you admit has no foundation at all, matter to me in the least?"

      Well my own adherence to that position isn't a reason why it should matter to you. I'd imagine if you're built like most of the rest of us, though, you see value in that.

  7. Daniel,

    I truly think you would appreciate much of the work by Gerald Gaus, especially his approach to social morality. I have many doubts, but that does not imply I do not see the value of his discussions. His most recent book, The Order of Public Reason (2010), is highly recommended. Here is the very informative chapter 1:


    I have a few other recommendations, If you are interested, what is your email address? More than happy to send along a few papers I find very helpful.

  8. I don't have an opinion on whether society (or some segment of society) needs religion to order their moral lives, which is to say, on the issue of whether we need religion or could all become secular, I'm ambivalent, or agnostic, or something.

    But on the meta-ethics, which seems to be what the exchange was originally about, I think your entry was humming along fine until you mentioned Sam Harris. I mean, are you sure he's so willing to part with justification, as you indicated you were in your last post of the topic, as opposed to providing his own refutations to moral skepticism in the history of philosophy (which is a whole nother kettle of fish)?

  9. Your non-committal endorsement of the principle of utility needs justification.

    Yes, certain rules will allow man a more comfortable existence than other rules.

    So what? Why should we care about "consequences?"


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