Dec. 21.15: on the origins of the idea of moral responsibility in relation to moral theory

I am uncomfortable with the idea of moral responsibility. Not because I deny there is such a thing, or because I don’t know what it entails, but because I’m not sure where it comes from.

We might want to say that moral responsibility emerges naturally from the facts, and is not dependent upon our other moral convictions. So, moral responsibility is a kind of gloss on causal responsibility, which can itself be read off of the world, and which subsequently forms an indispensable part of a complete moral theory. If that were the case, we should expect non-confused convictions about the nature of responsibility to be relatively insensitive to the contents of normative moral doctrines. Evidence of its truth might be the fact (if it is a fact) that people really do think that responsibility has some important connection to agency, consciousness, and control.

Lately I have been teasing myself with another idea. Maybe the idea of moral responsibility plays no antecedent part in a moral theory at all — perhaps it is the output of such theories in practical application. If that were the case, we should expect our non-confused convictions about the nature of responsibility to be very sensitive to the contents of theory. Evidence of its truth might be the fact that utilitarians endorse a theory of responsibility that will be wildly at odds with a Williamsian theory of responsibility.

I suppose that another possibility is that the notion of responsibility is just a convention which contingently functions as an input to our moral theories, and which itself has no moral significance. That is a confused relativistic position that I find upsetting, but I suppose it’s possible.

Nov. 16.15: speculation that normative reasons are indistinguishable from their force

I think that the following claims have no practical normative force. i.e., regardless of the form of normative discourse (legal, moral, etc.) we have in mind, each of these claims are either false, or guilty of equivocation because their truth is strictly irrelevant to the project of guiding the actions of persons.

a) “The asylum inmate is responsible for what he did.”
b) “My personal reasons for acting are never minimally good reasons for action.”
c) “There is a pretty useful short-cut, but you should ignore it if you’re trying to get there quickest.”
d) “You shouldn’t put anti-septic on your wound, just because that feels bad.”
e) “The doctor probably knows what’s best for me, but that’s no reason at all to follow their advice.”
f) “The fact that state terrorism is a horrible thing has no bearing on whether or not we ought to endorse it.”
g) “There is never any difference between blameworthiness and responsibility.”

Notably, none of these claims are absurd — that is, none of them are *obviously* false or irrelevant. It seems to me that they are false or irrelevant on reflection. They are also problematic in their own ways: on my reading, (a) denies that practical responsibility involves epistemic responsibility, (b) alienates the agent from their own rational agency, (c) is imprudent, (d) confuses feelings for reasons, (e) is mindlessly anti-deferential, (f) takes an oddly ironic stance towards what matters, and (g) fails to recognize that individual capacities for practical action are almost never at their peak.

But it seems reasonable to expect that for more of these defects that a claim about practical action has, the more it will seem absurd i.e., like contradictions. And if that’s the case, then it should tell us something about how the truth-conditions of practical normative claims have an important connection to their reason-giving force.

Nov 8.15: Of sophiboles, cases of cooperative misleading

I am still thinking about misleading and truth from an interesting and thought-provoking talk by Jennifer Saul last week. Many of my intuitions have gained form and structure from her presentation. In it, she argued that misleading and lying are not (all other things equal) morally different. Importantly, Saul suggested that misleading can be different than lying in one special subset of cases — effectively, in those contexts where the listener can be reasonably expected to have special duties to scrutinize the testimony before them, owing to the adversariality of the context and the capacity of the listener to engage in critical inquiry.

I have long had reservations about academics and the subject of truth-telling. So, here’s an essay from 2006: (…/who-needs-sophistry-…/) In it, I argued that the public assertion of certain kinds of exaggeration are sometimes both faultless and laudable. Over the past decade I have had plenty of occasion to have that thesis challenged, but am generally unpersuaded by those challenges.
In that essay I argue that philosophers and scientists frequently engage in a kind of wise exaggeration, which I have mentally given the label of “sophiboles”. That is, we faultlessly assert things in a black-and-white bivalent fashion, when the closest justified belief is much more complex. Example. According to his critics, Galileo was guilty of asserting a sophibole when he decided to cast aside fictionalist and probabilist readings of the evidence; and for what it’s worth, I’m inclined to say that he is guilty of doing right. (Anyway, this is my simplistic conception of the history, and reminds me I really ought to read Alice’s Dreger’s 2015 book, “Galileo’s Middle Finger”. But for now it’ll suffice as a toy case.)
Are sophiboles cases of misleading? Much depends on how you define “misleading”. To me, “misleading” involves distracting someone away from apprehending a true proposition that is worth caring about in a conversational context, and hence to cue belief in a falsehood, or distract away from a truth, without explicitly thereby asserting a falsehood. (It is hard not to include reference to what conversation partners care about if we are to assess them in terms of the cooperative maxims.)
Unlike most cases of misleading, sophiboles are constructively focusing our attention upon *true* beliefs worth caring about, and are not directed towards the malicious creation of false beliefs. e.g., for Galileo, the truth of the theory of heliocentrism as a model of the solar system; it is not to inculcate a false belief in the solar system. Suffice it to say, Galileo did not lie in any of this; he did not assert a falsehood. Moreover, his intention was to lead us to a truth about the world, not to lead us to a falsehood.
But that will not save his sophibole from being a case of misleading, since people in a cooperative conversation can be concerned with different things, and they can disagree about the truths worth caring about in such contexts, so long as those cross-purposes are jointly acknowledged. So, the Church — wanting Galileo to tone down his rhetoric — encouraged him to adopt a probabilist or fictionalist vernacular. Those little qualifiers (i.e., “In all probability, p…”) mattered to them. For them, Galileo was attempting to mislead away from the epistemic, or second-order, status of his claims. Galileo’s actual heliocentric claims were true, but (according to his critics) the realist statement of his claims misled people from the form of justification, and in that sense were distracting people away from an important truth about the limits of our knowledge. Galileo was misleading about something worth caring about.
To be sure, Galileo’s highly politicized insistence on realist rhetoric soon evoked an adversarial context. And, FWIW, I would even argue that he was right to be adversarial, because while neither departed from intellectual good faith, it is the case that the Church’s epistemic concerns are not so much worth caring about as the realist ones are. (There’s that famous middle finger of his.)
But that’s a historical contingency. My point is that we should be able to see the two parties continuing to accuse each other of misleading even if they had been able to maintain a cooperative dialogue. And so misleading, at least in the form of sophiboles, is generally not so bad as lying.

Oct 28.15: normative truth, and the conditions for moral objectivity

If there are genuine moral truths, then they are objective truths. But this is not very interesting, because all it amounts to saying is that there is an appropriate moral authority out there who says this thing that must be done.

The harder question is what to say about the rational constraints that produce the authority in the first place. Are these king-making features that ground moral authority “objective”?

Well… sort of. The funny thing about moral authority is that it gets lost when it stops being worthwhile. This is in apparent contrast to legal authority, which arguably continues onward beyond the point where it has stopped being worthwhile. Still, these are matters of degree, not of kind — morality is relatively more sensitive to the idea of worthiness than law, but both do care.

So the right thing to do is to ask, not whether or not the claims are true or false, but instead: when is the authority *earned*? Some practices will be geared towards the achievement of goals (“technology-like”), others will be more geared towards maintaining expectations (“convention-like”), and some are geared towards the expression of lived experience (“art-like”). Morality qua morality is a kind of social technology, whose central point is to get things done by telling us who has the best advice on how to get on with things. In contrast, law qua law is a set of conventional verdicts, whose central point is to keep things going as they’ve been going.

If moral authority were earned only as a means towards the expression of lived experience, then the grounds of moral authority would turn out to be subjective, in the relevant sense. In those conditions, some kind of error theory would be best to hold. But I am inclined to believe that error theory is a mistake, so I won’t be saying that.

Oct.20.15: compatibilist freedom of the will and quasi-perceptual intentions

If the only plausible compatibilist idea of freedom of the will demands that our conscious faculties be capable of exerting control at least sometimes over our behaviour, then it is hard for me to escape the inference that our intentions (or, anyway, our “free” intentions) are quasi-perceptual. That is, it is hard to avoid saying that quasi-perceptuality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the free will, if there is such a thing.

[Updated Nov. 16.15]

Very quickly, there are at least two different kinds of accounts of intentions. Many agree that intentions are causally self-referential: that is, they are the sort of thing that you represent as true, and become true by representing as true, and thereby causing it to happen. I say to myself, “I will lift my arm”, and then that saying-to-myself makes the thing happen. I describe a state of affairs, and then it happens. Such intentions are cases of de dicto reference, meaning they involve descriptions that refer.

Unfortunately, that makes it seem as though intentions are contingent on our capacity to introspectively verbalize. But (some complain): can’t children intend? What about non-human animals, like corvids? It seems they can intend to do stuff even if they can’t verbalize. What’s up with that? Hence the alternative — proposed by Tyler Burge, endorsed by AA Roth (and others) — is that our intentions only have de re contents. That is, our intentions have the structural feature of causal self-reference they function in such a way as to refer, but don’t involve any inner second-order faculty that is capable of introspecting on and verbalizing the thoughts that refer.

That all sounds great, except for one thing: the free will drops out. Right or wrong, few people have traditionally wanted to say that non-human animals have a free will. The free will is supposed to be a function of deliberation and our capacity for conscious control. And it seems to me that the connection between such a faculty and the notion of a de dicto intention should be obvious enough to be suggestive.

Of course, it remains to be seen if any such thing as the de dicto intentions actually exist. In all probability, I think, even mature adults will not have rich internal descriptions that they could report as reasons, even after deliberation. For it seems to me that de dicto intentions may have gaps in their content. But this is no reason to suppose that they do not exist, or that our account of intentions must be replaced by the de re account, which is tailored to fit children and corvids.

Elijah Millgram at Daily Nous

Elijah Millgram is one of my favorite philosophers working today, so I was pleased to see him write a series of blog posts over at Daily Nous. I took the opportunity to comment excessively, and enjoyed the ensuing dialogue.

In “Doing it All By Yourself“, Millgram takes a shot at the illusion of the lone wolf philosopher, the philosopher who claims authority over the general topics of philosophical concern. I think Millgram’s points are well-taken, and generally approve of attempts to temper the arrogance of certain kinds of philosopher who assume that the disciplinary boundaries of philosophy are non-porous.

All the same, in my comments I worry that Millgram’s comments make no room for philosophy as a branch of authentic inquiry into the ways things work. For example: me. I do philosophy because it makes things make sense by my own lights; I do not do it because I am the self-conceived titan of rationality, fit to serve as umpire of critical thought. Maybe I can’t “do it all by myself”, but my own voice has got to be in there somewhere.

In “Metaphysics by Forgetting“, Millgram argues that the apriori is a kind of cognitive blind spot — we take our givens as givens because we’ve forgotten that they came from more humble aposteriori beginnings. I agree with him, more or less, though only when it comes to the matter of intuitions and other states which (I think) have the feature of ontological neutrality.

In “Metaphysics as Intellectual Ergonomics“, Millgram advances a wide-ranging intellectual programme, which he refers to as ‘intellectual ergonomics’. His programme is probably best seen as a form of analytical neo-pragmatism, but if so, it starts it all afresh and unfettered. His comment here is too brief to evaluate very well, but it relies heavily on the notion of repurposing of conceptual schemes. In this, it stands in stark contrast to the neo-pragmatism of Rorty and Davidson.

In the ensuing comments, Izzy Black and I have a good conversation about the prospects of metaphysics, which I found enormously helpful. The disagreement, as it emerged in the course of the exchange, seemed to come down to an argument over whether or not the intelligibility of the world demanded conceptual schemes. I argued that this could not be the case, given that the transition between schemes may involve the theoretical imagination, which does not rely upon the prior authority of any conceptual schemes in order to operate fully.

In “Keeping it Real in Philosophy“, Millgram argues that the discipline is at risk of becoming corrupt and unproductive, and argues that we should be thinking seriously about how to develop procedures to mitigate disaster. To help the cause, he enlists the aid of Jerome Ravetz, author of parallel works in the sociology of science.

I offer my own spin on some of the problems of the profession, expressing worries about overly strident condemnations of the quality of work. Here, I’m afraid that I self-consciously run the risk of coming across as something of a middling apologist-reformer.