Tuesday, March 23, 2004


Amusing: My critique yesterday of an article by big-time Princeton philosopher Gilbert Harman produced a very rapid backdown. Prof. Harman emailed me a brief reply, the key sentence of which was "My article was intended only to point to certain developments in social psychology" -- a much more modest claim than he in fact originally made. For instance, he originally said "Character based virtue ethics may offer a reasonable account of ordinary moral views. But to that extent, these ordinary views rest on error". A climbdown from "error" to "certain developments" is quite a plummet. Given the way he had ignored half the evidence on his topic, a backdown was of course all that was available to him.

Being an old guy, I have long ago decided (and got into print) what my views are on most of the major questions of analytical philosophy. Keith Burgess-Jackson's various posts on philosophical questions have however reminded me what fun philosopical questions can be so my interest in thinking about them has revived somewhat. Keith and I do not however agree on many of our conclusions. I suspect, in fact that there are NO two philosophers who agree with one-another on all philosophical questions. So I am sure that Keith will not take it amiss if I make a few comments (in my usual "take no prisoners" way) about his theories. He will probably just give my theories a hard time in reply.

In particular, Keith has a theory of "rightness" that is deontological. A deontologist believes that at least some actions have little bits of rightness or wrongness attached to them in some mysterious, mystical and unobservable way. Keith's own version of deontology seems to be peculiar to him: He thinks that uncontracted actions (contracted actions being actions done or refrained from pursuant to some sort of contract) can only have wrongness attached to them, not rightness. That oddity aside, however, he seems (in his major paper on the subject) to give NO reason why he believes that some actions have moral attachments nor does he say how we find out what those attachments are or resolve disputes about what they are.

That really puzzles me. I could understand such a view in a religious believer -- as religious believers believe in lots of mysterious, mystical and unobservable stuff -- but Keith is an atheist! I am forced back onto the view espoused by John Maze that Keith and those like him are simply making a mistake about how uncontracted actions come to have rightness or wrongness. Maze (See: Maze, J. (1973) "The concept of attitude". Inquiry, 16, 168-205) says that because moral properties are sometimes spoken about in the same way as physical properties (the statement "X is right" is of the same form as "X is pink"), some people mistakenly conclude that moral properties must have a separate and distinct existence of their own similar to physical properties. They don't, however. As most people readily see, "X is right" is an entirely different sort of statement from "X is pink". They see that "X is is right" is a value judgment whereas "X is pink" is a statement of fact. It is easy to detect, measure and agree on pinkness. None of that is true of rightness.

That "rightness" is a value judgment does not however mean that it is unimportant. As I think almost all psychologists would agree, values are very important indeed. I spent most of my research career studying them.

I also made a very brief comment yesterday about how I believe rights (as distinct from rightness) come about. Keith asked in reply whether or not I think that babies have rights. The ancient Greeks certainly thought that newborn babies had no rights at all. A father had the right (up to a certain age) to say whether a baby lived or died. So it seems to me that we GIVE babies rights. They are not BORN with rights. If babies are born with rights that are independent of any human law or custom, where do we find those rights? -- under the baby's fingernails? If not there, where? Or do we merely assert them without proof or evidence? And how come the Greeks could not find them?


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