Preposterous Universe

Wednesday, December 29, 2004
Can moral reasoning convince anyone of anything important?

Richard Posner, guest-blogging for Brian Leiter (here and here, with an introduction by Leiter here), lives up to his image as a practical, hard-headed guy. He basically says that people have fixed ideas of right and wrong, and all the philosophical pondering in the world isn't going to change their minds. And thank goodness, by his lights:
[T]he sort of political discussion in which political philosophers, law professors, and other intellectuals engage is neither educative nor edifying; I also think it is largely inconsequential, and I am grateful for that fact. I think that what moves people in deciding between candidates and platforms and so on certainly includes facts (such as the collapse of communism -- a tremendous fact), as well as a variety of "nonrational" factors, such as whom you like to hang out with --I think that's extremely important in the choice of a political party to affiliate with. When a brilliant philosopher like Rawls gets down to the policy level and talks about abortion and campaign financing and the like, you recognize a perfectly conventional liberal and you begin to wonder whether his philosophy isn't just elaborate window dressing for standard left liberalism.
Over at Crooked Timber, Jon Mandle gives what I think is a good response:
But Rawls's approach to moral reflection -- and what he would count as a compelling reason –-- s quite different. Moral reflection is not about devising arguments to get other people to switch over to the position that you already hold. It is to help you figure out where you should be.


[I]f we are in the position that Rawls imagines -- with many internal conflicts and uncertainties -- his opens up room for another project: trying to get our moral beliefs right. In pursuing that goal, it makes sense to try to construct arguments from our most secure beliefs (what Rawls calls "provisional fixed points") to conclusions regarding issues we are much less certain about. (The fixed points are provisional because even they are not in principle immune from possible revision.) In this context, a compelling argument is not one that could move anyone like an irresistible force, but rather one that we judge to provide good support for its conclusion -- valid inferences from premises we have a high degree of confidence in.
Actually I think that Mandle is conceding a bit too much. He is basically saying that the role of philosophy is to help us sort out our personal moral beliefs, even if there is little hope for convincing anyone else to change their minds. That seems a little too defeatist. Convincing other people is difficult, but it does sometimes happen, and sometimes even for good, rational reasons. It doesn't necessarily happen -- even two perfectly rational people may disagree about matters of morality, whereas they better not disagree on the solutions to a certain differential equation -- but it can happen, and it's worth trying.

The point is that there are no fixed moral truths upon which we can all agree with metaphysical certitude, but there nevertheless are pre-existing feelings that each of us has about what is right and what is wrong (basically Rawls' provisional fixed points). Some of these feelings might even be opinions that we might want to think of as conclusions of arguments rather than axiomatic starting points, but they are nevertheless the launching-points for our moral reasoning. The job of moral philosophy is to sort them out and shoot for some kind of consistency. But, even though these points are not given as fixed external truths (and might arise from random formative events, religious influences, or even biological predispositions), we are fortunate enough that different people do not have completely non-overlapping ideas to begin with. Most of us have a great deal in common in our moral beliefs, even if we can't achieve perfect unanimity.

It's this degree of overlap ("consensus" would probably be too strong a word) that allows us to make some progress in reasoning with each other. And I would claim that careful philosophizing can help us come to better degrees of agreement, as well as helping us to rationalize our individual moral judgments. It happens all the time that two or more people agree on some basic truths, but end up disagreeing on some specific policy conclusions; in such cases, academic philosophy can be helpful. It's certainly completely unfair to imagine that the work of someone like Rawls is just an elaborate justification for a pre-existing set of random beliefs; the starting points for Rawls are very similar to those of most modern welfare-state liberals, so it's not surprising that they generally end up at the same conclusions, although Rawls' will be much more thoroughly thought-out and internally consistent. Philosophy isn't impossible or useless, it's just hard.

By the way, Posner of course has his own blog with Gary Becker. (Funny that the University of Chicago, generally way behind the curve in anything involving computers, would be so rife with good blogs.) He also authored a one-week diary for Slate, which is both inspirational and depressing. I would be happy to accomplish in any given week what that man does in a typical day.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
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