Feb 182014

On Elizabeth Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958), Intention sections 22-27 (1957), and “War and Murder” (1961).

No, Anscombe thinks that our moral language was developed in a theistic context, and without a law-giver, the idea of a moral law or obligation doesn’t make sense. However, we can debate about what actions display “justice,” whether some action is “harmful,” whether some task was performed “well,” etc. There are lots of evaluative words that have established social contexts and can be used unproblematically, but they can’t be added up into some overall judgement that “This is good! You must do it!” …at least not without a lot of work into figuring out what constitutes human flourishing.

What she writes beyond that depends on her audience: In a Catholic journal, she has no problem doing ethics: Are we ever justified in killing innocents? Or in going to war? For her fellow analytic philosophers, she instead writes about how best to talk about our actions: Given that a particular action in a particular situation can be given innumerable descriptions, how do these all relate to each other? This, however is still relevant to ethics, in that we need to figure out how to talk about the intentions involved in an action in order to assess its morality.

Join Mark, Wes, Dylan, and special guest Philosophy Bro as we discuss how “why” relates to “how,” whether Anscombe has really overcome Hume’s is-ought gap, and coitus reservatus. But first, listen to Bro’s Introduction to Anscombe. Read more about the topic and get the texts.

End song: “Adds Up to Nothing,” a brand new song by Mark Lint.

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Jan 282014

Both Sartre and Anscombe say that they’re teasing out the logical consequences of atheism for ethics, and of course we saw this back in Nietzsche too. If you ask “are these figures moral realists or moral irrealists?”, I think they’re going to say you’re missing the point. No, a sentence like “X is right” no longer becomes simply true or false, and this is because of some sort of conceptual mistake contained in the term “right” as it is usually uttered in moral circumstances, so that sure sounds like moral irrealism, e.g. emotivism, which says that such a declaration merely means “I approve” or a cultural relativist who would grant a truth value to the claim only when it is uttered in a particular cultural context and heard/judged by members of that same culture.

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Jan 272014

via thedailybanter.com

Think back a few years. If you frequented The Partially Examined Life during that time, you’ll remember the heated debate inspired by Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape (TML).The arguments in posts and comment sections across the blogosphere eventually took on a particularly impressive rancor. The ambient controversy helped land Harris on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and propel the book up the New York Times best seller list. You might have thought you’d left the hub-bub behind or that you’d at least moved onto Harris’s latest book, Lying. But as you may have heard, Harris has issued a challenge – The Moral Landscape Challenge – to call any of you out who believe you can refute the core thesis of TML. If successful, as judged by Harris himself, you’ll win $20,000. If Harris goes unpersuaded, best essay still gets a prize of $2,000. Submissions will be accepted February 2-9, and a winner will be announced in June. In order to be eligible, essays cannot exceed 1,000 words. The official rules are found here.

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Jan 232014

On Wed. 1/24 we spoke with Philosophy Bro about Elizabeth (aka G.E.M.) Anscombe. Go listen now to Bro’s introduction to Anscombe.

Anscombe was a student of Wittgenstein’s and is most famous for translating his Philosophical Investigations, and when Bro pitched this topic to me, he described her as the transition from Wittgenstein to Alasdair MacIntyre. This is puzzling, as Wittgenstein talks largely about language, whereas MacIntyre is all about virtue ethics.

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Jan 192014

On Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1946), “Bad Faith” (pt. 1, ch. 2 of Being & Nothingness, 1943), and his play No Exit (1944).

What is human nature? Sartre says that there isn’t one, but there is a universal human condition, which is our absolute freedom. This freedom is a basic certainty in our experience, and it comes out of the mere fact of our being able to will, so no subsequent alleged science can contradict it. If you claim to be determined by your character or circumstances, you’re acting in “bad faith,” which is what for Sartre has to serve as an ethics given the lack of good and evil floating out there in the world or duties assigned to us by nature or God or any of that. He describes his project as a matter of teasing out the often unrealized implications atheism.

Though his reading is rife with fun, literary examples, we (the regular foursome) had trouble both with this insistence on absolute freedom in all circumstances and on on this claim about no human nature which ends up making bad faith seemingly inevitable: you can’t be “authentic” to your “true self” because there is no true self to be authentic to! So ha!

Read more about the topic and get the texts. Listen to Mark’s introduction and our read-through of “No Exit.”

End song: “Minnesota Freak” by Mark Lint and the Fake (2000). Read about it.

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Jan 182014

Special guest Philosophy Bro introduces us to Elizabeth Anscombe’s essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” and her book Intention (sections 22-27).

Read more about the topic.

Jan 022014

Listen to Mark’s summary of the two main readings, then Listen to the PEL Players act out the play “No Exit.”

At long last, we’re returning to existentialism after an initial foray into it with Camus. We’ve previously covered Sartre talking about phenomenology and the self, and also Kierkegaard talking about the self and values, so those are related, as is Heidegger’s talk about being-in-the-world and our proper attitude towards Being. Oh, and Buber also talked about the primacy of “the Other” in making sense of ourselves, and this general discussion of “self” continued in many of the above and was key in one of our Hegel episodes.

“Existentialism” is an amorphous term that is used in many ways; it connotes primarily the experience of me, now, facing life, including my own death. Well, that’s pretty much one end of philosophy, isn’t it, or rather the center, where the periphery is made up of various subjects that we throw ourselves into, studying them with some analytical apparatus like that of science, or history, or mathematics. Any time philosophy becomes urgent, becomes about facing the human condition and trying not to be distracted or otherwise self-deceived, then you’re talking about existentialism, so it’s not surprising that you could have Christian existentialists and Buddhist existentialists… Continue reading »

Dec 192013

Rawls’s principle 2a, to remind you, is (quoting from wikipedia here):

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that (Rawls, 1971, p.302; revised edition, p. 47):

(a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle (the difference principle).

This has appeal to modern liberals because it acknowledges two conflicting moral intuitions. On the one hand, fairness = equality, right? On the other hand, enforced equality is horribly soul crushing (as amply illustrated by this short story we occasionally refer to, “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut).

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Sep 202013

We’re barely more than a day away right now from our interview with Frithjof, which he says he’s “thrilled” about, and I’m certainly looking forward to as well, though I can picture any number of things going less than ideally as I introduce these two known elements (Frithjof on the one hand and Seth/Wes/Dylan on the other) to each other.

For me, this period of preparation has been not only a chance to systematically treat this topic (work) that has occupied so much of my thoughts and experiences over the last twenty years since I learned about New Work, but it was an opportunity to bore more explicitly into some aspects of my own philosophical foundations. Frithjof’s class was the first philosophy course I took in college: as a sophomore (having not decided as a freshman that I needed to concern myself with reading Descartes and such) taking (through the dubious permissiveness granted by the University of Michigan honors program) this very upper-level course (a number of my fellows there were grad students) reading Hegel’s Phenomenology and Sartre’s Transcendence of the Ego and such.

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Sep 252012

One of the comments on Mark Satta’s recent very hot post about universal salvation has been zooming ’round my brain, and demands, I think, a PEL episode at some point. A comment by our listener Bear stated:

My questions about Atheists wanting to redefine orthodoxies of particular belief systems, be it Christian, Buddhist, Mormon, Islam &c., demanding those within the belief system to accept certain propositions internal the belief system. For example, telling very conservative Evangelical Christians or Buddhists that they must accept and not condemn sodomy, and they must accept what greater society thinks about these things.

This is not an abstract concern, I have seen this regularly.

When does the internal beliefs of a group become public debate? How much can a society demand that a religious group abandon its beliefs and conform to the rest of society?

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Aug 012012

In preparation for our Aristotle Politics episode, I checked out a new semi-philosophy podcast called the Mile High Sanity Project, as they had an episode on Aristotle’s ethics. I say “semi-philosophy,” because the podcast is made up of three guys in different disciplines. They trade off being the lead guy on episodes, so the philosophy ones are “Norm’s Conceptual Corner,” featuring Norm Schultz, who’s got a master’s and teaches at some community colleges in Denver. So it’s essentially a one-man PEL, with some other non-philosophy guys to act as interlocutors (and they do a fine job at that). The several ethics episodes go through various issues in ethics such as divine command theory, cultural relativism, and natural law, but given that this one on virtue ethicsis the last in the series and came out in October 2011, I wouldn’t hold your breath for the subsequent promised issues on utilitarianism and other moral theories.

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Jul 052012
Alasdair MacIntyre

On Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), mostly ch. 3-7 and 14-17.

What justifies ethical claims? MacIntyre claims that no modern attempt to ground ethics has worked, and that’s because we’ve abandoned Aristotle. We see facts and values as fundamentally different: the things science discovers vs. these weird things that have nothing to do with science. In Aristotle’s teleological view, everything comes with built-in goals, so just as a plant will aim grow green and healthy, people have a definite kind of virtue towards which we do and should naturally strive. Though MacIntyre doesn’t want to bring back Aristotle’s biology, he does want to put the goal-directedness, i.e. the normativity, back into our conception of the facts of our lives.

His new take on virtue has two components: the excellence involved in any established practice, like physics, cooking, or playing guitar; and the need to live a coherent life story given your particular culture and commitments. You might have bought into the aim to be a great chess player, for instance, which requires not only intellectual virtue, but being social enough to keep the enterprise of chess in business (i.e. no murder when you lose). To get from great chess player to great person means integrating your various practices into one fulfilling life, and MacIntyre thinks that this effort is sufficient to give you objective moral standards, given your particular practices and, moreso, your cultural traditions. Unlike the existentialists, MacIntyre thinks that for an individual in a real situation, having moral standards is not a matter of some free choice or “leap,” as if morality was nothing in itself that we humans are bound to. No, morality is real, and fully justified, for an individual embedded in his culture and commitments. Just like you can’t, yourself, decide to win at chess by changing the rules, you can’t “create values” as Nietzsche might recommend by denying or re-interpreting your duties as parent, neighbor, citizen, etc.

The regular four continue the discussion started in ep. 58, giving some of MacIntyre’s dismissal of dozens of major figures in philosophy and trying our best to make sense of his proposals. Buy the book.

End song: “Indefensible,” by Mark Lint, 1998.

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Jun 202012

On G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, ch. 1 (1903); Charles Leslie Stevenson’s “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms” (1937), and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, ch. 1-2.

Is there such a thing as moral intuition? Is “good” a simple property that we all recognize but can’t explain like yellow? G.E. Moore thinks that any attempt to define good in terms of properties like “pleasure,” “interest,” or “happiness” are doomed. Even if all pleasurable things were good, the word “good” still wouldn’t mean “pleasant;” you could always sensibly ask, “but are those pleasant things really good?” This is Moore’s “open question” argument, which expresses his objection to the “naturalistic fallacy,” i.e. deriving an “ought” from an “is.”

Stevenson agreed that “good” isn’t reducible to any natural property; saying something is good is not to express a property about it at all. Instead, moral terms are tools we use to convince other people to like things that we like. This tendency of the word “good” to elicit such a response is part of what Stevenson calls its “emotive meaning.”

MacIntyre thinks that this emotivism now pervades our current uses of ethical language. Because Moore is successful in debunking all the ethical theories that rely on natural facts (and supernatural ones too) to ground morality, we’re left with no grounding at all, and people like Moore who pretend to be using intuition to discover primal moral facts are really just expressing their own preferences. The same goes for ethical theorists whose key terms don’t hold up to scrutiny: when someone justifies an action by referring to a fiction like “greatest happiness,” “natural rights,” or “the dictates of reason,” he is just, again, expressing his preferences; these bogus theories just serve to mask what’s really going on. We’ll give MacIntyre’s positive account of how to ground morality (which is derived from Aristotle’s) in episode 59.

Read more about the topic and get the readings. Dig our new web site layout!

End song: “When I Was Yours,” by Mark Lint, 1997.

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May 172012

These two episodes cover some related approaches in 20th century ethics:

First, we read Chapter 1 of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica(1903), which argues against utilitarianism and other ethical philosophies by exposing the “naturalistic fallacy,” which equates “good” with some natural property like pleasure or people’s actual desires. This error, says Moore, also extends to equating good with what God wants or what we would choose upon calm reflection on social norms and our own innermost desires. It may well be that the good coincides with one of these categories, but that’s not what the word “good” means, as it’s always a sensible question to ask “but is pleasure good?” or “is God’s will good?” for any alleged equivalent. No, says, Moore, good is a basic, indefinable, non-natural quality of the world. Buy the book or read it online. You can also listen to it.

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Apr 272012


Watch on YouTube.

I liked the meta-discussion that kicked off the second PEL naturalized Buddhism episode, specifically on what knowledge we gain by assessing the supernatural “rules” contained within “religious” Buddhism. Even after rejecting a supernaturalist stance, there’s value in reviewing the form of life revealed within Buddhism’s supernatural tenets. In that spirit, I enjoyed Boddhisatva’s Brain most for its comparison of different philosophical worldviews. Reading the book, I asked myself how Owen Flanagan’s purely philosophical Buddhism meaningfully differed from, say, the Roman Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. But Flanagan might respond that juxtaposing a “naturalized” Buddhism against Roman Stoicism is inherently interesting for its own sake. Flanagan says that comparing Eastern and Western traditions…
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Apr 062012
The Buddha

Continuing our discussion of Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized (2011).

Are the basic tenets of Buddhism compatible with a respect for science? In episode 53, Owen Flanagan outlined a science-friendly project of comparative ethics, and touched on Buddhism’s empiricist theory of knowledge and its metaphysics of impermanence. If that was the lecture, this episode is the discussion section, where the regular foursome expands upon these themes and hopefully makes some of the previous discussion more understandable to folks new to philosophy.

Folks that like hearing us free associating among anecdotes and rants about movies and discussion of our ground rules will enjoy this, whereas those impatient to hear about Buddhism are free to jump past the first 20, or even 40 minutes, at which point we get down to business and talk about karma, nirvana, emptiness, no-self, and the four noble truths. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “Who Wants to Love Me,” a new song by Mark Lint (with some elements recycled from 1992 or so)

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Feb 182012

Amazing!If my notes here have gotten a bit dismissive sounding, it’s largely to provide a counterweight to Dave’s discipleship. This is not to diss Dave (or Bo or other Pirsig fans posting on our board here), but my approach, and the approach I see in enthusiasts like Katie re. Foucault or Matt Evans did for Plato is yes, to try to figure how out to charitably elaborate and defend the view, but perhaps moreso to independently parse and critically appraise it: you pick it apart, test the limits, and see what remains. (Again, this is not to diss Dave, who I’m sure is seeing his role here as sharing his enthusiasm and trying to get more folks interested in Pirsig.)

While of course you want to get out of a reading every bit of richness you can (so as to make it worth your time to have read it), I’m extremely suspicious of anyone who focuses too exclusively on any one philosopher (for non-professional reasons; if you’re a Kant scholar, than of course you have some reason to get obsessed, though of course to be a good Kant scholar you’d need to really know your Hume and Leibniz and many others), whether it be Marx or Ayn Rand or Jesus or whomever. Genius is overrated… even great thinkers steal 90% of their ideas from their predecessors and contemporaries, and don’t necessary end up with the greatest versions of these ideas. The progress of ideas makes any one thinker to some extent instantly obsolete. Pirsig provides a fine model of a very smart guy thinking through things deeply to come to his own conclusions, but don’t think for a second that he invented the idea of overcoming subject-object dualism, which is one of dozen or so major themes pervading philosophical history in the 20th century (see Heidegger, for one, though arguably he was just following on to Hegel), and Pirsig’s account, taking up a whole two books of musings totaling something like 100 pages when you get rid of all the travelogue stuff, is just not going to be the most developed and comprehensive take on this however you slice it.

OK, enough with the general cautionary words to keep perspective, which no one in need of them is likely to listen to anyway. I wanted to recount here a part of Lila that struck me as a particularly stark example of casual overreach: pages 152 to 157. Here he explains how denying subject-object metaphysics solves a whole mass of traditional philosophical problems.

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Dec 262011

In episode 53, the full four-man PEL crew spoke with Duke University’s Owen Flanagan, mostly about his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, which has a number of aims:

-To argue that supernatural beliefs can be removed (or “tamed”) from Buddhism and still leave an elaborate enterprise relevant to modern life.
-To put Buddhist conceptions of virtue and happiness in dialogue with other types of virtue ethics, particularly Aristotelianism.
-To argue that claims of the superior happiness of Buddhists are both conceptually confused (because the Buddhist conception of happiness isn’t equivalent to what you might think; it’s not just a feeling, but definitionally requires attainment of Buddhist virtue) and unsupported by neurological evidence (the popular media have taken up stories of certain very limited experiments that have shown certain neural chracteristics in one or two Buddhists, but this is far from what is required; see this article for details).

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Nov 222011

In this interview with Kenan Malik (a “scientific author,” i.e. a psychology/biology guy who dabbles in philosophical issues) uses the Euthyphro to argue that presenting religion as the guardian of moral values “diminishing the importance of human agency in the creation of a moral framework.” His enemy is “false certainty” in ethics, whether because you think that basic moral precepts are given by God and beyond question or that science yields up moral truths (note that since scientific findings are by their nature defeasible, I don’t think this description is apt).

In describing Leibniz’s view (which agrees with Plato’s), Malik makes the same jump from the metaphysical to the epistemological that Matt criticized me for in our discussion (the bolding is mine):

Or, as Leibniz asked at the beginning of the 18th century, if it is the case that whatever God thinks, wants or does is good by definition, then “what cause could one have to praise him for what he does if in doing something quite different he would have done equally well?” If, on the other hand, God recognises what is good and promotes it because of its inherent goodness, then goodness must exist independently of God. But God is no longer the source of that goodness, nor do we need to look to God to discover that which is good.

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Nov 162011

Discussing Plato’s “Euthyphro.”

Does morality have to be based on religion? Are good things good just because God says so, or (if there is a God) does God choose to approve of the things He does because he recognizes those things to be already good? Plato thinks the latter: if morality is to be truly non-arbitrary, then, like the laws of logic, it can’t just be a contingent matter of what the gods happen to approve of (i.e. what some particular religious text happens to say).

We’re joined by Matt Evans, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan to discuss the text, which seems to be not as directly related to modern debates regarding the Divine Command Theory as we thought going into this. Ah, well. We cover all the angles and Seth spends the last bit going on about Judaism. Oy!

Buy the bookor read it online. Read more about the topic.

End song: “False Morality” by The MayTricks, from the album Happy Songs Will Bring You Down (1994) Read about it.

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