Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Paradox of Conviction

Here's a puzzle I've been thinking about (with qualifiers, especially about the rife usage of the term reasonable below):

1. Most of us are, more or less, reasonable.
2. Most of us have some convictions about controversial issues (and reasonable people have conflicting convictions; hence, the controversy).
3. When our beliefs conflict with the beliefs of other (equally) reasonable people we should weaken our confidence in our own belief (tantamount to withdrawing our conviction, possibly adopting an agnostic stance on the issue).
4. Thus, it would seem that reasonable people should not have convictions (about controversial issues).
5. But reasonable people do have such convictions.
6. Thus, reasonable people are not reasonable!

A. By reasonable, I mean susceptible to evidence, disinclined to take radical skepticism seriously (or a pragmatic reason for disbelief), not inclined to the preposterous view that we are infallible (or even less fallible than our peers), etc.
B. I limit "controversial issues" to disagreements between reasonable persons. So, whether the Holocaust occurred is not a controversial issue.

- Maybe 1 is false? Let's hope not! (If we aren't, to some degree, reasonable, how will we get out of this mess?)
- I'm inclined to think there is something wrong with 3, even though it looks...reasonable. But denying 3 seems tricky. One possibility is that not all reasonable people are "epistemic peers"--that is, our background beliefs might be sufficiently different to give us each independent justification for holding the particular convictions we have. Nevertheless, if I have to assume that your background beliefs are just as prima facie reasonable as mine, then when confronted with a genuine, persisting controversy, I seem to have some reason to weaken my belief.

The puzzle, in part, has to do with a way I'm proposing we understand the notion of a conviction: we have convictions precisely about those things that are controversial in the sense above. If an issue is not controversial, then it does not, on my account, count as a "matter of conviction." (It's not my conviction that the Holocaust occurred, or that slavery is wrong...but I do, of course, believe these things and am completely convinced of them.) (NB: Convictions in my sense are not "blind": the person of conviction has reasons for her beliefs.)

So the puzzle is that it looks like it is never reasonable to have convictions on the very issues on which it is possible to believe with conviction (i.e. controversial issues). So, either we're not being reasonable in having convictions or, roughly, 3 above must go. (Or maybe my working account of conviction is the trouble-maker here?) To be continued...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sidney Hook on "First and Last Things"

I came across this essay called "Convictions" by Sidney Hook (originally published here, reprinted here). The end of it is highly quotable, so here you go:
When I reflect on first and last things, I find myself believing that we value life and fear death too much. Unless we recognize that there are some things more valuable than life itself, life is not worth living.

Meaning in Suffering?

I always try to do some "life philosophy" in my ethics classes: i.e. philosophical work that engages with questions about "the meaning of life." The reader I use has a nice sample from Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl discusses his situation in a Nazi concentration camp, amidst many people who had lost hope. Their lives seemed to have lost all meaning. One of Frankl's deepest questions is whether this showed that the Nazis had the power to make a person's life effectively meaningless. Frankl thinks the answer is no, and that the few examples of those who rose above the circumstances, in their charity to others, and other acts of courage (such as just the will to fight through the day), demonstrated that even those in the camp could continue to make something of their lives: they still had the capacity for choice, despite the most severe limitation of options.

Noting that suffering--to a greater or lesser degree--is an inevitability in any human life, he makes the (wild?) claim that, "If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering." I always ask my students what they think that means, and I must admit that I am deeply puzzled by one answer that I hear from many students, semester after semester. (I'm bringing all this up because I'm covering this excerpt tomorrow...)

This all-too-common answer is this: that suffering is meaningful because by suffering, we can better appreciate the good things in life. (So, it seems, suffering, on balance, can increase our overall happiness.) Basically, it seems to me that it's never occurred to students who give this answer what a horrible thing that would be to say to someone who survived a concentration camp, or any other terrible situation.

I recognize that this (terrible) answer is derivative of the idea that "you can't appreciate pleasure or happiness without also experiencing pain and unhappiness." I'm not, however, even sure that's true, but even if it is, the sort of suffering Frankl has in mind surely goes beyond any acquaintance we'd need with the unpleasant in order to appreciate its opposite. (And it's clearly true that, in large part, many people who survived the camps were utterly destroyed and permanently scarred by the suffering they endured: this is not a recipe for "appreciating the good things in life.")

Another mistake students seem to make is that they seem to confuse effort with suffering. They then seems to suggest that suffering can be rewarding because of the payoff at the end. But they're really talking about effort, not (the experience of) suffering. It may indeed require effort to endure unavoidable suffering, but effort can be expended on other things, too. (Does Albert Pujols suffer when he takes batting practice?)

I take it that Frankl's point is a bit more austere than the students want to recognize. As I read him, sometimes suffering is unavoidable, but if we have something to live for (or even the hope that if we make it, there will be something better to live for), then we can make the process of enduring what would otherwise seem pointless a meaningful activity or situation. That doesn't mean suffering is good. (So put your hairshirts away...) Frankl is trying to show how we can maintain our dignity, not providing a recipe for happiness.

(I end with this otherwise depressing piece because the upshot of Frankl's theory is that we have a responsibility to create (or find) meaning in our lives. And since many of us--including, I presume, those fortunate enough to go to college, etc.--aren't faced with a life of pure suffering, we owe it--both to ourselves and to those who don't have the same open range of possibilities--to make something good of our lives. Otherwise, why are we living? Maybe that's moralistic--and I don't take to moralizing in my ethics classes--but I can live with one exception on the last day...)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tolerant Engagement

I just read an excellent paper by Barbara Herman, "Pluralism and the Community of Moral Judgment" (in a collection of papers edited by David Heyd Toleration: An Elusive Virtue (1996)). Herman explores the idea--very similar to one I'm working on (and I welcome an ally in thought here!)--that toleration can remain too static, and that the presence of moral conflict or disagreement calls instead for engagement. Working from within the Kantian tradition, Herman notes Kant's argument that "where 'a multitude of persons' live in such a way that they 'affect one another,' they are under moral necessity to enter together into civil society" (p. 75). She goes on to claim:
I think it can be argued that we are similarly obliged to enter and sustain a community of moral judgment not to secure enforceable rights but to bring about the conditions for moral development and colloquy: the conditions necessary to secure what Kant calls 'the public use of reason.'"
The general idea is that moral reflection and development are by their very nature not static, and so the "public use of reason"--where we are engaged with others on moral issues--is a necessary part of our own moral development. She tends to treat toleration and engagement as different possibilities: I can tolerate someone else without "sitting down with them" and so treating toleration as a "first moral response" to moral difference can lead to moral stultification.

I agree very much with the direction of Herman's ideas. I have been working to develop a notion of "tolerant engagement" which is opposed to "bare toleration." Herman's work would seem to raise the question as to why invoking the concept of tolerance is necessary. After all, I might engage with other's whose beliefs or practices which I judge to be (prima facie) deplorable, and that judgment might persist even after some amount of engagement with them.

In my view, the "tolerant" component of tolerant engagement is an essential attitudinal component of what makes genuine engagement possible, with those with whom we have apparently deep moral disagreements. Primarily, such tolerance takes the persons with whom we disagree as its basic object (or subject, as it were). An attitude of tolerance dictates a "softened" response toward these persons, which makes a civil discourse possible. As I hinted in my last post, our judgment that a person is mistaken (or even acting in a morally intolerable way) does not remove the obligation to honor the basic principle of respect for persons. Thus, our default position cannot be exclusionary and maintain this basic respect. (Even in the case where the person has been convicted of a criminal offense, our laws recognize this idea in its prohibition of sentencing in absentia except in specific cases where the person chooses to be absent.)

Thus, the problem with refusing to discuss points of moral difference with those whose beliefs or practices we find intolerable (or bordering on it) is not simply (or essentially) that such an attitude is intolerant. Rather, in doing so, we refuse to honor a moral responsibility we ourselves have to engage. Now, there are limits to engagement, such as when the other party refuses to do so. There, no engagement--which can include discourse and compromise--is possible, and such refusals should be regarded as morally suspect. (I ignore for now problems of power inequality, such as when a more powerful party requests a "discussion" but only if the weaker party first meets various "conditions." For now, it's sufficient to point out that the imposing of conditions, too, can be a morally suspect lording of one's power over a disadvantaged party which, for that, is not necessarily in the wrong...)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A (Non-Liberal) Defense of Tolerance?

Hans Oberdiek, in his (swell) book Tolerance, has argued in support of tolerance as a virtue, on substantively liberal grounds. In addressing some worries at the end of the book, Oberdiek accepts that it would be a mistake, in his view, to think that liberalism (of his variety) is fully neutral, and that a defender of liberalism--and along with it, the value of tolerance--should admit this. I'm not as interested in his response to these worries as in an assumption that seems implicit in his overall discussion: that tolerance itself is a distinctively liberal value (derived from the value of personal autonomy).

Tolerance is an attitude of forbearance and restraint toward others. It is conceptually distinct from the act of toleration, which, I think, is possible to do "intolerantly"--that is, I might tolerate something because I value peace more than aggression, while still judging that the activity or practice to be, in itself, intolerable. This may seem paradoxical, but I'll leave the paradox for another time. Presumably, the view that tolerance is a distinctively liberal value stems from the idea that its value comes from the way it promotes individual autonomy.

I think, however, there's a way to derive the value of tolerance from values that aren't exclusively liberal (e.g. in the sense of invoking personal autonomy). At least, they are values to which liberalism doesn't, I think, make a distinctive claim. (Maybe I'm wrong about this or misunderstand liberalism.) I'm thinking of two basic values: respect for humanity (as for example in Kantian thinking) and humility.

Now it is true that Kant prizes autonomy, but respect for humanity extends to persons who are not themselves autonomous (e.g. infants and those with severe mental disabilities). That we should respect all of humanity means that we may never treat others as mere means, but always as ends in themselves. Call this the recognition of the humanity of others (and ourselves). In itself, I don't see that this is a distinctively liberal value.

Humility has to do with our attitude toward ourselves. It involves recognizing our own limitations, frailties, and the possibility of making errors (for example, in judgment). Humility thus involves, in a different sense, the recognition of our own humanity: the recognition that we are, after all, only human--not angels or gods.

It seems to me that the value of tolerance toward persons can be derived from these two recognitions. If I am, after all, only human, then I have to recognize my own limitations; at the same time, since others are persons, too, and worthy of basic respect, humility seems to demand that I extend not only respect, but also tolerance of them as "only" human, and thus liable to (what I think are) errors in judgment and action. Where deep moral disagreements emerge, this might, for example, entail that I should try to restrain my tendency toward intolerance (and intoleration) of others where the disagreement seems fairly substantive and where I cannot (reasonably) simply dismiss these others as "mad" (say, like Ted Bundy was). I should respond to these people, as persons, in a spirit of tolerance, even if my own judgment leads me to hold that some practice or activity of theirs is, in itself, intolerable.

In a prior post, in "defending intolerance," I was thinking primarily of beliefs and actions (or practices) as objects of tolerance and intolerance. Putting this together seems to lead to a "tolerate the person, not the practice" sort of idea, which seems (to me) rather uncomfortable. That is, people are often so bound up with particular commitments and practices that these things are constitutive of their identities as the particular sorts of persons they are. I've always found the "love the sinner, hate the sin" view not entirely convincing for this reason. So there's a lot of work left to do here.

(One possibility is that if we start with persons, the value of tolerating persons may lead us down a complicated road of understanding the place of particular practices in their lives which we are inclined to judge as morally unacceptable... OTOH, a "liberal complaint" might be that this variety of tolerance is going to be too weak to pull much weight. I'll have to think more about that...)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thomson on the Perils of Exaggeration

I've been covering the abortion debate in my summer ethics class the last couple days, and happened upon an article by Judith Jarvis Thomson from the Boston Review (1995). The following two paragraphs caught my attention, given some of my recent thinking:
In the first place, those who accept the doctrine [that a fetus has a right to life from the moment of conception and thus that abortion is murder] ought not say that reason requires us to accept it, for that assertion is false. The public forum is as open to the false as to the true, but participants in it ought to take seriously whether what they say is true. There is already far too much falsehood in the anti-abortion movement. A recent newspaper photograph showed an anti-abortion protester holding a placard that said "Abortion kills;" that much is true. But under those words was a photograph of a baby. The baby looked to me about a year and a half old—counting in the ordinary way, from birth, not conception. The message communicated by that placard was that abortion kills fully developed babies, and that is false, indeed, fraudulent. Exaggeration for a political purpose is one thing, fraud quite another.

But falsehood is by no means the worst that comes of pronouncements that abortion is murder. Say that often and loudly enough, and some weak-minded soul is sure to start shooting to put a stop to it—as of course has happened, most recently in Brookline [where a shooting occurred; see the start of the article]. That is the second point to stress about the public forum: what is said there has consequences. Exaggeration for a political purpose is one thing, incitement to do harm quite another. (my emphasis)

A friend of mine also drew my attention to this op-ed from today's New York Times.

In the stuff I'm working on, which in part involves what we can justify once we've decided for ourselves that some thing is intolerable, I've argued that hateful rhetoric falls beyond the pale, precisely because it attempts to blur the line between non-violence (an exercise of free speech) and violence (via provocation). There seems to be a lot of hate in the air these days...anyone know what the remedy is?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Defending Intolerance?

I'm currently working on an essay entitled "In Defense of Intolerance." The basic idea is this: we often tend to think that intolerance must be bad because intolerant individuals often do horribly violent things. But this confuses (or ignores) that the line between the tolerable and the intolerable has nothing to do with the lines we can draw between various means of acting upon our intolerance. In my view, that we find something personally (and morally) intolerable does not itself justify violent intolerance. But that, importantly, doesn't mean we should reject our own intolerance. Some things are intolerable. And sure, just what is intolerable is often a contentious issue. But the fact that issues are contentious does not, I think, justify the view that we must therefore put all our convictions on hold. On the other hand, as I'm putting it in the essay: while I may have the right to risk my own life for the sake of a thesis, I have no right to risk the lives of others for it (especially when they are not consenting).

(I hope the parenthetical appeal to consent doesn't "go too far," as I want the basic argument to have as broad an appeal as possible. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Moral Convictions and the Summer of (In)Tolerance

So, let's get this thing off to an uncontroversial start. I've been thinking about moral convictions, their value, and the problems that arise when various people have moral convictions that conflict. I'm mainly interested in thinking about these issues at the personal level, rather than the political. So my organizing questions concern the relationship between a person's moral convictions and the proper grounds for believing with convicition, as well as what a person may do in the service of his or her convictions. Thus, additional questions: Is tolerance incompatible with integrity? Does forbearance amount to an unacceptable compromise? Can we even, in a different sense, make compromises when it comes to our moral convictions? Or, on the other hand, is it ever reasonable to elevate a belief to a conviction? Yeats says no: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." That seems wrong to me.

I'm giving a paper in Boulder at the RoME Congress in August where I suggest that moral convictions are valuable for a variety of (not only personal) reasons, but that they are risky, and must be handled with care. As the recent murder of Dr. George Tiller attests. That situation, and the mass of ensuing commentary, gets at some of my key worries. How can someone who has the conviction that abortion is murder not feel compelled to "do something about it"? I won't go through all the possibilities or link to all the raging. But I'm pretty sure that the start is to see that there are HUGE disanalogies making the pernicious comparisons floating about--that Tiller is comparable to Jeffrey Dahmer, and (the perennial view) that abortion is comparable to the Holocaust--incredibly irresponsible and basically vicious. (And I'm sure that seeing that doesn't require that a person have a settled view on abortion.) Perhaps more detail later, in the event that it's not obvious. Discuss.


I guess the reason I'm starting a new blog is that, despite my deep doubts, perhaps this will be useful. I read a few blogs, often to my own dismay--especially when I have the horrible thought that perhaps I need to read the blogs that these other bloggers read. Have a look at Thoreau's "Life Without Principle" and replace "newspapers" with "blogs" and you'll understand my issues.

I've recently been drawn into this discussion (you can follow the further links there), and stand by my view that the blogosphere is a "virtual state of nature." But there are a lot of good folks out there, too, so I'll take my chances. My minimal rules about comments are that (1) I don't need any viagra (yet) so please don't advertise it here, and (2) I'll delete anything that's pure nonsense, and possibly anything that's off-topic.