What does consistency have to do with reasons?

December 11, 2009

I asked Allan Gibbard this post’s titular question earlier this year, and he patiently noted that many people value consistency because if one has inconsistent beliefs, one or more of one’s beliefs must be false. I responded that since he and I believe that all normative beliefs are, in some sense, false, this sort of consideration wouldn’t give us — or other anti-realists about value — any reason to want our “ethical beliefs,” whatever form they might take, to be consistent. I can’t remember where the conversation went from there, but I don’t think that he was particularly moved by my response.

But I was moved by it, and I still am. Sure, if I believe P and not-P, I must have a false belief. But if there aren’t any normative truths, then if I believe P and not-P with respect to some normative matter, I should probably just stop having beliefs of that sort, but if I’m unable to stop (as some anti-realists seem to hold), what harm could follow if I have inconsistent beliefs about such matters?

I recognize that only certain varieties of “anti-realism” about ethics hold that there are no normative truths. Perhaps Allan’s “quasi-realism” isn’t one of them — I can never keep track of what he does or doesn’t think can be true — which might explain his not being impressed with this line of thought. But if one doesn’t think that there are any truths of the form “X is good,” “X is right,” “X is reasonable,” etc., then it seems one doesn’t have any truth-related reasons to value consistency among one’s normative commitments, beliefs, statements, etc.

Leaving that aside, here’s another little pseudo-problem: Suppose, like Sharon Street, you hold that “to make a normative judgment is to ‘give laws to oneself.’ As soon as one takes anything whatsoever to be a reason, one thereby ‘legislates’ standards according to which, by one’s own lights as a valuing agent, one is making a mistake, … if one endorses certain other normative judgments.” (This is from Street’s “Constructivism About Reasons,” pp. 229-30.)

I take Street’s account of reasons and normativity to depend largely on an appeal to internal consistency of some sort. According to Street, one’s judgments about reasons can be judged as “correct” or “incorrect” from the standpoint of all one’s other judgments about reasons. Of course, since Street also holds that there are “ultimately” no normative truths or truths about reasons, I’m inclined to ask why we should continue to make “judgments about reasons” or take ourselves to have reasons if we agree with Street that there are ultimately no truths about these matters. She has an answer to this, of course: We can’t help but occupy the “practical standpoint,” and occupying this standpoint necessarily involves making normative judgments and taking oneself to have reasons. I’m not convinced that she’s right about that, but I’ll grant it for the sake of argument.

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Teaching Early Modern

December 3, 2009

There has been some very interesting discussions on how to teach an introductory early modern class. My own undergrad experience has been the standard “rationalist vs. empiricist” story line, and some of the improvements suggested sound very interesting. I’m especially pleased to learn that there is an anthology of women philosophers from that period, and wish I had read some of that in my limited exposure to history. Anyway, I thought these links would be of general interest.

[HT: The Ethical Werewolf]

Prescriptive Metaethics

October 4, 2009

By and large, metaethicists have focused on descriptive questions about the nature of our moral discourse. For instance, is it in the business of stating facts, or of expressing affective states? If the former, are there such facts? If the latter, how is this reconciled with the role that moral language plays in reasoning?…

There is one clear exception. Some who are interested in error theory have shifted their attention from the descriptive question to a prescriptive/ practical one–namely, “Are we to retain moral language? And if so, how are we to treat it?” (I give the practical variant since it might be thought problematic for an error theorist to ask a question framed in terms of “should.”) The reason for this shift is that the prescriptive/practical question seems quite pressing in the case of error theory. Error theory seems to force the question. The two most prominent answers discussed by error theorists, to my (limited) knowledge, are eliminativism and moral fictionalism (of the prescriptive variety).
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Bleg: Mental Activities?

September 23, 2009

I want to make a distinction between mental activities and mental states.

As I only have some vague ideas, it is easier to point to some examples. Some examples of mental activities: counterfactual reasoning, doxastic deliberation, planning, daydreaming, dreaming, playing a pretend game. Some examples of mental states: beliefs, desires, imaginings, emotions, perceptions. My sense is that there really is something different about the former cluster compared to the latter. Any suggestions on how that distinction might be made more precise?

Normative Because False!?#

September 18, 2009

In what is meant to be  “a contribution of major importance to a unified theory of probability and utility” Jeffrey (The Logic of Decision) says about Bayesian decision theory that

Indeed, it is because logic and decision theory are woefully inadequate as descriptions that they are of interest as norms. (p.167)

Now,  here’s a worry I presented yesterday in the seminar and that I’d like to present again, so that other people may consider it and that the ones that heard it can see why it’s worrisome. There are, at least, two questions the claim above prompts:

1) If theory T is woefully inadequate as a description of phenomena F, and yet it is meant to be a normative theory of F, couldn’t it be that it makes absurd demands about F?

2) If it is in virtue of theory T’s woeful descriptive inadequacy towards F that T is an interesting normative theory of F, wouldn’t it be the case that false descriptive theories turn out to be interesting normative theories?

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Diagnosis precedes prescription

August 26, 2009

The title principle seems obvious enough. Which makes it all the more puzzling that most normative political theorists ignore it in practice. Why is this? What are the implications?

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Zombie Spouses

August 8, 2009

Would you be worse-off with respect to well-being if your spouse didn’t really love you, but only seemed to? Lots of people think you would be and are therefore persuaded that well-being/welfare must consist of something more than pleasure, happiness, or other mental states.

For example, Shelly Kagan’s “Deceived Businessman” believes he has a faithful, loving spouse but has an adulterous spouse who secretly despises him. Kagan argues that since the businessman is blissfully unaware of his spouse’s deceptions, mental state theories of well-being cannot distinguish between the deceived businessman and his doppelganger whose identical beliefs about his circumstances are true. Kagan concludes, “In thinking about this man’s life, it is difficult to believe that it is all a life could be, that this life has gone about as well as a life could go. Yet this seems to be the very conclusion mental state theories must reach! … So mental state theories must be wrong” (see Kagan’s Normative Ethics, p. 35).

OK, how about this: In 25%-Zombie world, every fourth person is a zombie, and every fourth spouse is a zombie. The non-zombie denizens of 25%-Zombie world know that every fourth person/spouse is a zombie who behaves exactly like (and is indistinguishable from) a normal person but feels nothing and doesn’t love anyone. (Never mind how they know this. It’s true, they believe it, et cetera.) I think the non-zombies would find it disconcerting that there were so many zombies around, but most would eventually get over it, marry someone, and assume that some other sucker had the zombie spouse. Many of the non-zombies would be wrong about this, but neither they (the non-zombies with zombie spouses) nor anyone else would ever know which spouses were zombies.

I don’t think the non-zombies with zombie spouses would, on average, be any worse off with respect to well-being than non-zombies with non-zombie spouses. (Of course, they’d all be worse off than average spouses in our world, since we don’t have to worry about whether our spouses might be zombies, but this worse-off-ness would apply to all married non-zombies in 25%-Zombie world, whether or not they were married to zombies.) What do you think? If you agree with me, do you think this constitutes a counter-example to thought experiments like Kagan’s Deceived Businessman? I sure do, but you might have guessed that.

I think that in our world, disloyal or unloving spouses usually are distinguishable from faithful, loving spouses because the former don’t feel and display the same respect and love for their spouses as do the latter. So deceived spouses typically suffer tangible, discernible harms to well-being that undeceived spouses typically do not suffer. However, if unloving spouses were completely indistinguishable from loving ones (e.g., because they were zombies or superb deceivers who never came out of character), I don’t think the unloved spouses would suffer any harms to well-being. Their situation might “look worse” to epistemically privileged readers of thought experiments since we know, e.g., that Donna’s husband is unfaithful or that Jack’s wife is a zombie, but that strikes me as a purely aesthetic matter — something that doesn’t look quite right from “the view from nowhere” — rather than anything to do with well-being.


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