Sunday, August 23, 2009

Don't Think Too Hard (?)

Convictions, I claim, are important and valuable for the living of an integrated, self-directed, and morally good life. But some convictions, of course, as well as some ways of acting on one's convictions, are horrendous. The short of the issue is: how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? It would seem that reflection plays some important role here. In my paper on this (now undergoing revision right on this point), I suggest that, among other things, we must be willing to take a "reflective stance" on our convictions. There are, however, some serious questions to be raised about this: How much should we reflect? Should we reflect on all of our convictions? I'm currently trying to refine what to say about the role of reflection to avoid certain possible problems.

The first worry is, as Bernard Williams put it, "reflection can destroy knowledge." The problem is that reflection might lead us to doubt an entire framework within which we had (what seemed like) knowledge. But Williams' point is more severe than that reflection can destroy appearances. (In some cases, that might be a good thing!) Rather, Williams suggests that if we allow that a person who has a set of value (or virtue) concepts which she can correctly identify when they are displayed by others (or in the world), and thus can correctly apply her concepts, then she has a certain kind of knowledge. (She knows when things satisfy the value-concepts she embraces.) But if she reflects on those concepts and comes to doubt their objectivity (say), then that knowledge becomes tainted: what she does with her concepts comes to look like one game among many. Her knowledge has been destroyed.

Mill became aware of a similar problem during his mental crisis. He questioned all of his commitments and found that his belief in them was easily weakened by his intrusive self-doubts. Upon recovery, Mill had this to say about reflection (and happiness):
Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, ot putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. (emphasis added)
So, it seems, don't think too hard! I've always had doubts about this negative view of reflection, even though it is true that we can raise doubts about our own lives that are extremely hard to answer.

A different worry about the reflective requirement is that it doesn't (or shouldn't) apply equally to all of our convictions. Should I really reflect on whether slavery is wrong? Do I need to examine that?

I tempted to say that it depends on what we mean by reflection here. It seems right that I shouldn't doubt my conviction that slavery is (absolutely) wrong. But that doesn't rule out there being a point to reflecting upon why. Of course, the problem here is that at some point, we reach moral convictions that are bedrock, and the "why" question no longer has an answer. But if that's because the why question no longer makes sense, then I don't think reflection is destroying anything. Reflection might show us that the bedrock lies much deeper below the surface than we thought--that many of our convictions involve taking much for granted. Optimistically, reflection can help us better understand the structure (and relations between) our beliefs. (And here, I don't want to rule out that reflection can be informed by outside sources, e.g. by findings in moral psychology, etc. I can (and sometimes should!) bring empirical data to the armchair!) A related worry has to do with confirmation bias: that reflection is just going to give me whatever answer I want. However, this is a place where knowing the risks (and flaws) of reflection can make reflection better, even if not perfect. (We can't demand perfection.)

The last worry is that too much reflection will lead to inaction. We don't want to end up starving like Buridan's Ass. But sometimes a moment of "reflective paralysis" is a good thing: it stops us from doing something foolish, or dreadful. Equally important as reflecting on our convictions themselves is reflecting upon what we are prepared to do in the service of our convictions. (See, e.g., this previous post on tolerance.) This is another place where reflection might uproot other assumptions/convictions. (For example, my conviction that X is wrong is a different animal from my views about what should be done about people who do X.) Surely it's not a bad thing to reflect upon what we're prepared to do in the service of our convictions, and to consider whether that itself can be justified. (Or on the other hand, whether we're really not living up to our convictions...)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

P.S.: Yeats

I'm starting to revise "Moral Conviction and Character." I want to send out a thanks to the person in the RoME audience who gently called me out on a misuse of a line from Yeats' "The Second Coming," which I had pulled from a quotation book early in my inspiration-seeking on the topic. The line is: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." By itself, one might read this as saying that if you're one of the best, you avoid conviction (and its intensity), or else you'll become a fanatic (one of the worst). But actually, Yeats is lamenting the lack of conviction amongst "the best." (One interpretation I quickly dug up identifies the best as roughly young intellectuals.) A lack of conviction here is a cause of passivity, and the worst, full of intensity and unimpeded, wage war. (Yeats is writing after WWI.)

It's an interesting, and important, charge to level at a certain kind of intellectualism that disengages from the world. It goes to the aim of my paper: we are often dismayed at the damage that people with certain kinds of convictions level against others, but we also admire (other) people of conviction. In comments on the last post, Rob and I have been talking a bit about reflection and whether it can be trusted. But I think Yeats' basic worry is equally legitimate--that the wrong kind of reflection (or intellectual distance) can undermine convictions that it would be good to have. The Socratic thought that we "know nothing" can lead to a kind of nihilism. But that has to be a perversion of the Socratic ideal, since Socrates himself was an exemplar of moral commitment. (There's a nice essay by George Kateb called "Socratic Integrity" which examines the balancing between Socratic ignorance and the moral integrity displayed by Socrates. The essay is in Integrity and Conscience, ed. Shapiro and Adams, NYU Press, 1998.)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Moral Convictions, "Absolutes," and the Real World

I'm back from the RoME Congress in Boulder, and got some helpful feedback on my paper "Moral Conviction and Character."

Julia Driver (my commentator at RoME) presented a case meant to question whether I am right to say that we stand up for our convictions in a way that we don't stand up for "lesser" beliefs: Samantha has always strongly believed that it's wrong to cause pain just for fun, but lately she's been reading some work that challenges this claim (using fantastic scenarios where the utility of the causing of pain outweighs the pain caused), and as a result is no longer utterly convinced that it's (always) wrong to cause pain just for fun. Nevertheless, Samantha still thinks it's more likely that it is always wrong. So, she no longer believes with full conviction, but would still, given the odds (as she sees them), still stand up against causings of pain just for fun.

This example got me thinking about the relationship between our practical convictions and moral theory (or theories), particularly the use of fantastic (and "desert-island") cases to motivate particular sorts of theories.

Samantha's uncertainty here doesn't plausibly seem to be uncertainty about whether it's wrong to cause pain just for fun, roughly, in the real world. Rather, she's unsure of some more theoretical principle, like, "it's wrong to cause pain just for fun in all possible worlds (or in all logically possible scenarios)." But one could hold both (1) that it's wrong to cause pain just for fun in the real world and (2) that it's not always wrong to cause pain just for fun in all possible worlds, etc. That's exactly what some utilitarians say. (Hare, for example, said similar things about slavery.) Now there are people--call them absolutists--who find this combination of beliefs odd. (I myself have often found it odd.) However, utilitarians often use these fantastic cases not so much to figure out what we ought to do in the real world, but to deflect certain kinds of criticisms--e.g. to show how strange the world would have to be for certain seemingly unsavory actions to be morally obligatory (or ok). It's a theoretical point that in some possible world, some causings of pain just for fun would have the highest utility. But at the practical level of life in this world, that point is of diminishing interest.

So my suggestion at RoME was that Samantha could--for practical purposes--put these theoretical questions aside and thereby stand by her conviction with full force: in the real world, it's (always) wrong to cause pain just for fun. Now, if she is a utilitarian, then she needs some kind of empirical support for that claim--that is, she needs to show why it's contingently true that the actual world is such that causing pain just for fun could never have a higher utility. That, if anything, would have to be the source of any reasonable doubt on Samantha's part. (An aside: I'm a bit concerned here, however, whether we can tidily disentangle the empirical and the conceptual here...)

So, I think the take-home point is that if our moral convictions are primarily practical--that is, concerned with value and action in the actual world--then Samantha shouldn't become doubtful about her prior conviction in the face of a fantastic scenario. As Williams might say, if she does doubt it, then she has had "one thought too many."

This relates to another point that came out in the discussion of the paper: that with respect to some convictions (perhaps including the one above), "maintaining a reflective stance" on the conviction is not a reasonable requirement (which is something I've got to tidy up in the paper). Some moral claims are basic to moral thinking, and to reflect on them--that is, to reflect on whether they really are correct--would be a perversion of moral reflection.