Reflections on Relativism, Reputations, Language and Morality

by Mark English

1: The dangers of relativism

1.1  Some recent discussions about the French far right got me thinking about narratives, morality, rhetoric and reputations.

1.2  It was suggested that moral relativism was an insidious force that opened the way for collaborationism in the past and threatens today to return us to a depraved moral condition. These notes constitute not so much a direct response to those claims as an attempt to set out my own basic intuitions on moral relativism and related matters.

2: Ethics and rhetoric

2.1  I am not a relativist about scientific and factual questions. But I don’t have a worked-out philosophical position on ethics. Largely this is because, as I see it, ethics is not primarily intellectual, and so the scope for rigorous and productive theorizing in the area is very limited.

2.2  Part of the problem is that the subject is difficult to satisfactorily define. A narrow definition seems unnecessarily arbitrary. But, on the other hand, if one uses (as I would be inclined to do) a broader definition incorporating prudential and related considerations then the question of the ‘right thing to do’ in any given case becomes a question which will be potentially dependent on such a wide range of factors (including the exact circumstances pertaining to the case in question and to the participants) that any purely theoretical or abstract principles-based approach would obviously be inappropriate.

2.3  I see ethics as a practical business. It concerns the way we deploy or express our personal value systems in our day-to-day lives. We deploy our value systems in virtually every action we take. But we also often give expression to our values in rhetorical terms; and our values can be modified via the rhetoric of others.

2.4  Clearly, rhetoric serves public purposes such as persuasion and shaming. It is an instrument of action rather than of observation, perception or intellectual exploration. It is more like a set of weapons than a piece of scientific equipment like a microscope or a telescope. (See section 5.)

3: Ethics and reputation

3.1  Ethics or morality is not private in the sense that it is social and mainly about how we treat one another as human beings; but, in another sense, it is private. It is private in the sense that it is not just about the way we act and treat others; it is also about the way we see others and ourselves. (‘Opaque’ might be a better word than ‘private’ here.)

3.2  Moreover, I would suggest that, on the whole, the reputational side of things is taken too seriously. Simply put, reputations – which are by definition public and subject to rhetorical interventions, both positive and negative – typically bear little relationship to the (private, or opaque as I am calling it) reality of the person in question. And I believe that reputation as it pertains to the moral qualities of a person is something that we can – and should – remain agnostic about, under normal circumstances at least.

3.3  If there is a thing which we cannot know, the proper response is agnosticism; and we cannot know another person’s self-perception. We can see a small part of what they do. We can hear a small part of what they say. But – with a few possible exceptions (life-long friends, spouses, certain confessional writers perhaps) – we cannot know the details or nuances of the value systems of other people, nor how they see their own actions as relating to these value systems.

3.4  Of course, we can judge the actions and statements of others against our own value systems and/or against a legal framework. In fact, we need to do this. Anarchism is not a realistic option. But we need to be clear about what it is we are doing here, what it is we are judging. And what it is that we are not doing, not judging.

3.5  Even in its more mundane applications (relating to accomplishment, expertise or practical reliability, say) we often get things wrong when it comes to a person’s reputed qualities. The implication of the common idiom, “So-and-so has a well-deserved reputation for …”, is that reputations are often (usually?) not well-deserved.

3.6  Given the above points, it seems to me that there has been far too much emphasis on moral reputation in recent times, both on the positive side (in respect of certain historical figures, but also some contemporary figures) and – especially – on the negative side. Given the infinite possibilities for spin and communicational distraction and deception, this obsession is arguably having a serious adverse effect on our politics.

3.7  Monarchical systems of government were effective for long periods of history. Maybe they got certain things right that we get wrong. The monarch was not in the position he or she was in on account of his or her virtue or accomplishment but rather by an accident of birth. There were some advantages to this state of affairs which could be seen to have contributed to political stability, social harmony and continuity. “The King is dead. Long live the King!”

3.8  There is a moving scene in the film La Nuit de Varennes in which the ceremonial cape of the fleeing Louis XVI is displayed and the woman responsible for looking after it talks about having once watched the king address a large crowd. It was not the man that she saw in the distance but the red cape. In other words, it is not the person of the king but the role and the symbols of kingship which really count and which constitute the true focus one’s loyalty.

4: Narratives

4.1  Historical narratives often serve political and ideological purposes. Most ideologies have a narrative component. In some cases the narrative component is central, as in most forms of nationalism.

4.2  But even anti-nationalistic ideologies can incorporate narratives in a central way. Marxism is a good example, as it is based on a particular reading of history (class struggle and so on).

4.3  Complex narratives can never simply be true. For any given narrative which is true to (by which I mean compatible with) all the known facts, there will always be other – conflicting – narratives that could be constructed which are also true to those same facts. A complex narrative, I am saying, necessarily goes beyond what can be shown to be true.

4.4  Complex narratives typically have a moral dimension. Certain actions or parties are presented in a good light, other actions or parties in a negative light.

4.4.1  In the case of our (often unspoken) personal narratives, we usually treat ourselves very favorably. In fact, mentally healthy people are known to have an exaggerated view of their own abilities and positive qualities, whereas those prone to depression typically maintain a more accurate and realistic view of their abilities, qualities and achievements.

4.4.2  Political and social narratives are, by contrast to personal ones, essentially public and usually profoundly rhetorical. The very point of these stories is to motivate, coordinate values and facilitate joint activities, in part by persuading listeners or readers to make positive or negative judgments about historical events, figures, etc., elements which are then related to the current situation.

4.5  Stories which are presented as pure fiction can also incorporate political or ideological elements, of course. And, naturally, we tend to prefer novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, etc. who share our general political orientation. In my experience, this applies even when the works in question are not overtly political.

4.6  Being apolitical in certain circumstances can be construed as a strong political statement, but my point is more general than this. It is that one’s politics leaks out in what may be seen to be unexpected ways. (As I see it, however, this ‘leakage’ is inevitable because our political views, like all of our value-related tendencies and inclinations, derive from, or are a function or expression of, certain neural substrates – memory, prediction and reward, intentional empathy, etc..)

5: Rhetoric and language

5.1  I have been talking about narratives. How do narratives relate to language and to rhetoric? My main points here would be more concisely expressed perhaps in terms of Venn diagrams, but I will try to put them into words. In order, then: language-based rhetoric and narrative; rhetoric and language; language as rhetoric; language as a thinking tool.

5.1.1  Not all language-based rhetoric is narrative-based. Much language-based rhetoric is discursive and derives its rhetorical force from figures of speech and the connotations which particular words and phrases carry for a particular audience.

5.1.2  Not all rhetoric is natural language-based, of course. There is also a grammar and a rhetoric of images, as deployed in cinema, for example.

5.1.3  Does natural language reduce to rhetoric? Not quite. I see language as essentially a tool which we use to get things done. In this sense, it is rhetorical. It helps us get our way and make our requirements known to others. It allows forms of cooperation – and manipulation and deception – which would be impossible to achieve without it.

5.1.4  But language also helps us think. How do I know what I think until I hear what I say (or read what I write)? I am lying in bed now, developing these thoughts as notes, as sentences, as arguments. Before I articulate them and note them down, they are half-formed and evanescent.

5.2  The main point of all this is to draw distinctions between the public (rhetorical) domain and the private domain, especially in respect of language. Language is a cultural (and so a public) phenomenon but it also has a private aspect: it helps us think. I am not talking about a putative private language here, just ordinary language. It’s the thinking that’s private, not the language.

6: A form of relativism

6.1  If what I am saying about complex narratives is true, does this have implications for how one sees ethics? Certainly. If there is for any given complex set of events no ‘one true narrative’, no ‘God’s eye view’, then a certain degree of moral relativism is inevitably introduced.

6.2  I am not comfortable, however, using terms like moral relativism and moral realism. As soon as we start talking in such terms, we invite misunderstandings because these terms take their meaning from the various kinds of discussion which gave rise to them. Like any terms, they have no meaning in themselves but rather take their meaning from the discourse which sustains them. And when the discourse in question is technical rather than ordinary discourse, the terms are even less stable because they do not have deep semantic roots as ordinary terms normally do. (‘Thick’ moral terms like courage or decency, for example, have deep semantic roots in our language and culture.)

6.3  Notable secular humanist intellectuals such as Stephen Law and Robert Wright have come out strongly in favor of moral realism. I reject their respective points of view on morality, but don’t see the need to label myself a moral anti-realist or a moral relativist.

6.4  My take on complex narratives may well imply a degree of moral relativism and, to the extent that it does, I accept the label. But only to that extent.

7: Value systems

7.1  Morality is, as I see it, part of an informal system of expectations and patterns of behavior which make human social life possible. These informal rules and patterns vary from society to society, from community to community and from person to person, but there are also commonalities or ‘universals’. (More or less as variation between human languages does not preclude the existence of linguistic universals.)

7.2  Just as there is strictly speaking no such thing as a language – just sets of more or less overlapping idiolects – so you could say that the only real value systems or systems of morality are those that pertain to individuals. Like language, value systems are cultural products; but (again like language) they are instantiated as individual phenomena (and encoded in neural substrates). Though there is significant overlap in terms of their general nature and structure, the actual structure of every individual value system is quite unique.

7.3  These value systems express themselves in our words and actions, but never perfectly, never completely. Words are not always well-chosen. And, even when they are, they are often misunderstood. As are gifts and gestures of various kinds. This is part of what I was getting at when I talked about the privacy or opaqueness of our individual moral lives.

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41 Comments »

  1. “Though there is significant overlap in terms of their general nature and structure, the actual structure of every individual value system is quite unique.”

    That is quite true. Because of that, becoming aware of what I (or you) really value is long hard process of self-examination.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark wrote:

    “I would suggest that, on the whole, the reputational side of things is taken too seriously. Simply put, reputations – which are by definition public and subject to rhetorical interventions, both positive and negative – typically bear little relationship to the (private, or opaque as I am calling it) reality of the person in question. And I believe that reputation as it pertains to the moral qualities of a person is something that we can – and should – remain agnostic about, under normal circumstances at least.

    If there is a thing which we cannot know, the proper response is agnosticism; and we cannot know another person’s self-perception.”

    = = =

    This strikes me as neither true nor even desirable.

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  3. Dan

    You are right, there are factual claims and there are normative claims I am making. But the latter are based on the former. They follow from them, I would have thought. (Since in most cases we only have fragmentary evidence, we cannot reconstruct a person’s self perception with any confidence.)

    Note that the claims are qualified: “But – with a few possible exceptions (life-long friends, spouses, certain confessional writers perhaps) – we cannot know the details or nuances of the value systems of other people, nor how they see their own actions as relating to these value systems.”

    And see 7.3.

    My main argument relates to the two sides of language: public and thought-enabling. I can see that this view (which implicitly draws on a brain-centred view) could be seen to clash with certain strands of 20th century philosophical thought. I am influenced by Chomsky here to some extent.

    I am not against judging bad actions or punishing perpetrators. Just against what I see as a totally unnecessary – and in many/most cases not soundly based – further step.

    Do we really need heroes and villains?

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  4. Do we really need heroes and villains?

    ===

    Human beings do.

    Also, I don’t think your normative claims “follow” from your factual ones. I think you have an unrealistic conception of when it is reasonable to ascribe a view to someone.

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  5. Wouldn’t we be better off without heroes and villains?

    Yes, I know that Hitler and Stalin were monsters and that Dr. Jonas Salk was a great person. So Salk is one of my heroes: we all know that he refused to patent the vaccine he discovered and never made money off of it. However, let’s say that I read a biography of him (I never have) and learn that he cheated on his wife, sexually harassed his female lab assistants and never paid any attention to his kids. Then he’s no longer my hero.

    However, wouldn’t it be better in the first place not to idealize anyone and to recognize that discovering vaccines against horrible illnesses is a great thing, but that the people who do it are human, all too human?

    There are very few (thank Zeus) Hitlers and Stalins, all too many Eichmanns and a goodly number of Dr. Salks, who
    do great things, but often are far from perfect people and not worth idealizing, not hero material. That’s the way we human beings are, in general neither heroes nor villains.

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  6. “I don’t think your normative claims “follow” from your factual ones.”

    *If* we don’t know someone’s intimate thoughts, actual intentions and so on then (I would have thought) we lack the grounds to reliably or definitively judge them. So we shouldn’t judge them. (Normative.)

    “I think you have an unrealistic conception of when it is reasonable to ascribe a view to someone.”

    There is scope for discussion here, obviously. I am emphasizing the private aspects – maybe overemphasizing, but I thought my claims were quite measured.

    As to heroes and villains, I realize that we all tend to think in this way (I am not immune), but I am saying these ideas often bear little relation to reality (i.e. to the actual people involved in all their complexity) and so we should try to keep these tendencies in check.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mark: I understood you. I just don’t accept your inference. I don’t believe I have to know someone’s intimate thoughts, etc., in order to come to a sound judgment of them, so long as I have observed a sufficient amount of their behavior. Indeed, I would take a very dubious, Wittgensteinian approach to your inclination to sharply separate those intimate thoughts and the relevant behavior.

    I also don’t think “reality” can be separated from our representations of it, so I don’t find that aspect of your argument compelling either.

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  8. Do we really need heroes and villains?

    Yes, we do. Role models have a powerful influence on behaviour. Christianity, Confucianism and Buddhism succeeded because they had leaders that resonated in those cultures as role models. Stoicism failed because it never had a believable role model to ignite belief and motivate emulation.

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  9. Mark,
    but I am saying these ideas often bear little relation to reality (i.e. to the actual people involved in all their complexity)

    Yes, we naturally idealise our role models by focusing on the desirable aspects of their behaviour and minimising the undesirable. That of course is the right thing to do since we should be emulating only the admirable aspects of their behaviour.

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  10. Dan

    I am saying that *if* we don’t know someone’s actual intentions and so on then we lack the grounds to reliably or definitively judge them in a moral sense.

    You say: “I understood you. I just don’t accept your inference. I don’t believe I have to know someone’s intimate thoughts, etc., in order to come to a sound judgment of them, so long as I have observed a sufficient amount of their behavior.”

    Sure, if you observe “a sufficient amount” of their behavior you can judge. But this begs the question. When do we have sufficient data?

    It happens all the time that people’s intentions and so on are misread or misjudged by others. There are countless examples I can think of in respect of myself (when my own words have been misinterpreted or my intentions grossly misread) and I suspect the same applies to anybody. (Knowing oneself, of course, is no simple matter – we fool ourselves all the time – but still we know certain things, like what we meant to convey by certain words or what we were hoping to express or achieve by certain actions or gestures.)

    You also said: “Indeed, I would take a very dubious, Wittgensteinian approach to your inclination to sharply separate those intimate thoughts and the relevant behavior.”

    I am not claiming that there is a sharp separation between intimate thoughts and behavior. I made the point that our behaviors are a natural expression of our value systems.

    “I also don’t think “reality” can be separated from our representations of it, so I don’t find that aspect of your argument compelling either.”

    This, I take it, is a response to this sentence in my previous comment: “As to heroes and villains, I realize that we all tend to think in this way (I am not immune), but I am saying these ideas often bear little relation to reality (i.e. to the actual people involved in all their complexity) and so we should try to keep these tendencies in check.”

    I defined what I meant by reality here. It’s just the normal English idiom. My claim seems pretty uncontroversial. It relates back to what I was saying before about life (and literature for that matter) being full of examples where intentions etc. are misread.

    More generally, I just don’t see the relevance of the representations/reality criticism here. I am explicitly embracing the idea that there is no “one true narrative” of a person’s life. But there are countless false or (if you prefer) implausible narratives, by which I mean narratives which are based on misreadings or misunderstandings – or simply on inadequate knowledge of a person.

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  11. Labnut,

    I’ve never seen Jesus, Confucius or Buddha as heroes (about whom we have absolutely no biographical information about how they really were), but for a long time I did see Socrates (about whom we have very little accurate biographical information) as a hero, Socrates as depicted by Plato.

    I went around asking lots of people uncomfortable questions, trying to shake them out of their intellectual complacency
    (as Plato’s Socrates did), and I irritated and pissed off a lot of people (who probably deserved being irritated in many cases). They didn’t give me hemlock to drink, but they probably would have if they could have.

    What was the point? I just created a lot of problems for myself.

    After all, Plato’s Socrates is basically a fictional character.

    Wouldn’t it have been saner if I had chosen a hero whom I knew, whose weak points and virtues I was aware of, who lived in a society much like mine, say, my father or my great uncle, people with a lot of defects and a lot of virtues like all human beings, but people whom I knew so well that they could provide me with clear and generally positive guidelines about how to deal with specific situations without creating unnecessary problems for myself?

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  12. Mark: I don’t think I’ve “begged any question” at all. Obviously there is no abstract definition of what will count as sufficient observation of someone’s behavior to make judgments about them. It is a matter of practical wisdom.

    Sorry you don’t see the relevance of the point about representations. The point just is that you privilege a person’s “intimate thoughts” with respect to his or her representation in a way that I do not and that I think is mistaken. As I discussed in my “Self-Made” essay, I think that others’ representations of a person are as constitutive of his or her identity as the person’s own. You think there is some “reality” about a person that is independent of the representations of them, and I don’t.

    As for what you think “seems uncontroversial,” I don’t know how reliable *I* think that is, given my observation of what I think is a sufficient amount of your literary behavior. More often than not, I find your intuitions to be very much on the eccentric side of things.

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  13. Wallerstein,
    I’ve never seen Jesus, Confucius or Buddha as heroes

    On the other hand, innumerable people do see them as most worthy role models, so argument from experience is not enough.

    Wouldn’t it have been saner if I had chosen a hero whom I knew
    That is your choice and I don’t see it as a matter of sanity.

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  14. It seems straightforward that there is an asymmetry in moral value judgements with respect to the intent we our ascribe to our own actions as compared to the intents of others. If others act in a way that causes harm to us the first impulse is to assume bad intent. If we act in a way that causes harm we rationalize the behavior as not being true to our intent or to our real character.

    This suggests a corrective based on awareness of this dynamic would be in order. I would not go so far as Mark as aspire to an agnosticism of others intents. There are I think asymmetries in both directions as Gilbert Ryle points out. There are some ways in which we have more access to others than we do to ourselves. Also there is something to the Maya Angelou saying that when people show us who they are we should believe them.

    I’m going to side with Dan here. I think we should do our best to be aware of the asymmetries that can muddy our understanding, but it comes down to a practical wisdom in how we apply our judgements. I don’t think that this type of practical wisdom can be cultivated with a fixed or formulaic system.

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  15. Dan

    “Obviously there is no abstract definition of what will count as sufficient observation of someone’s behavior to make judgments about them. It is a matter of practical wisdom.”

    I was not asking for an abstract definition. And I don’t disagree – I made the point myself in the essay – that we can know others, well or not so well.

    I am also aware of (and have written at length about) our tendencies to self-delusion. So I do not think that I am privileging self-observation in the way you suggest…

    “The point just is that you privilege a person’s “intimate thoughts” with respect to his or her representation in a way that I do not and that I think is mistaken… You think there is some “reality” about a person that is independent of the representations of them, and I don’t.”

    The “reality” I talked about is a full picture with all the behavioral complexities and all perspectives (including those of the person in question) taken into account.

    “I think that others’ representations of a person are as constitutive of his or her identity as the person’s own.”

    I read your essay, Self-Made, which elaborated on these points and basically agreed with it. (See my comment there.)

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  16. Labnut

    “[W]e naturally idealise our role models by focusing on the desirable aspects of their behaviour and minimising the undesirable. That of course is the right thing to do since we should be emulating only the admirable aspects of their behaviour.”

    I’ve got nothing against role models but I think it would be better if we actively resisted our natural tendencies to idealize the people we like and demonize those we don’t.

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  17. Mark, I also am concerned with the hedging and qualifying – sometimes in your essays, I’ll agree with something or a given line of thought, but find that it doesn’t reveal its assumptions or reach a conclusion I can agree or disagree with; I sometimes have to ask myself, ‘well, if I buy this, what else am I expected to take with it?’

    So, while I agree with much here, I hesitate to raise questions that concern me, not only what I would agree with, but what I would challenge seem double sided.

    So let me remark something I think I can say safely: I understand the distinction you make between private thinking (not language) and public remarks, and I think I accept it more than does Dan, because I’ve worked a lot of jobs where I needed to keep my thoughts to myself. However, once we commit ourselves to speaking and writing in public, that distinction becomes simply irrelevant. What I say or write that others might hear or read, that is all that can be known of whatever thoughts I might have, as far as others are concerned. There is an art to being the same person to people that I share my private thoughts with and yet also to those I do not share those thoughts with – although I think we can agree that there are many people who are always the same because they might not have private thoughts, or at least don’t believe having these are necessary. But whatever thoughts we do share, will make us who we are in the community, and where there is dissonance, we will find some way to account for it, and either develop a gestalt of the whole individual, or admit that we can’t, the person in question is too fragmented, something about him or her is ‘unknowable’ (ie., unaccountable). But this happens all the time, especially about historical figures.

    Now your essay seems to suggest that all this can be accomplished in some non-political way, and this might be ideal, and you seem to suggest that monarchism permitted this ideal to the extent that the office, not the person was at issue under a monarchy. Well, that depends on how narrow we define either the personal or the political. As I suggested in my essay on Hamlet, Hamlet’s motivations are as political as personal, and his judgment on his uncle and the court is as much about their political reputation as their personal integrity. No political system can vouchsafe loyalty to the office rather than the person; but any political system where the person becomes the demand for loyalty is certainly corrupt.

    Ultimately in all such matters, one has to make choices. In the Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade explains to Bridgette O’Shaunessy that he is having her arrested for murder, despite any feelings he may have for her, because “When your partner’s murdered, you’re expected to do something about it.” He sounds like he’s surrendering to herd expectations, but what he’s really uttering is an Existentialist credo: One follows the code, because not doing so leaves life not worth living. Or as Sam Peckinpah has Joel McCrea say in Ride the High Country: “All I want is to enter my own house justified.” Even religious moralities share some of this, one get’s a sense of it even from Kant and Mill.

    As labnut succinctly put it in a comment on your Truth and Justice article: “There comes a sticking point in life, where you say thus far and no further. You summon up your courage and prepare to lose everything rather than abandon principle.” One doesn’t need to be a moral realist to see that.

    As to the question of the need for heroes: I actually make a distinction between those I would consider ‘saints’ because of their single minded dedication to a transcendent cause Socrates, Jesus, Buddha), and those recognizable (to someone somewhere) as heroes, who are courageous fighters to a good cause, but who, on analysis, are human in their own way. So I while I am as resistant to hero worship as you, this is for apposite reasons – I actually do have heroes, but I accept that they may be drastically flawed. Most people are, from at least someone else’s perspective.

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  18. ejwinner

    “Mark, I also am concerned with the hedging and qualifying…”

    You make it sound like I am being evasive or devious. My self-perception is that I am just trying to clarify and develop my thoughts in a public forum in an open and honest way. But – who knows? – I may by deluding myself.

    “I understand the distinction you make between private thinking (not language) and public remarks…”

    Good!

    “However, once we commit ourselves to speaking and writing in public, that distinction becomes simply irrelevant. What I say or write that others might hear or read, that is all that can be known of whatever thoughts I might have, as far as others are concerned.”

    Taken together with non-linguistic behavior, yes. An affectionate hug reveals thoughts (of a kind) too.

    “I think we can agree that there are many people who are always the same because they might not have private thoughts, or at least don’t believe having these are necessary.”

    Everyone, I assume, has some kind of self-narrative.

    “But whatever thoughts we do share, will make us who we are in the community, and where there is dissonance, we will find some way to account for it, and either develop a gestalt of the whole individual, or admit that we can’t, the person in question is too fragmented, something about him or her is ‘unknowable’ (ie., unaccountable). But this happens all the time, especially about historical figures.”

    Yes.

    “Now your essay seems to suggest that all this can be accomplished in some non-political way… ”

    All what?

    “… and this might be ideal, and you seem to suggest that monarchism permitted this ideal to the extent that the office, not the person was at issue under a monarchy. Well, that depends on how narrow we define either the personal or the political… No political system can vouchsafe loyalty to the office rather than the person; but any political system where the person becomes the demand for loyalty is certainly corrupt.”

    Indeed.

    “Ultimately in all such matters, one has to make choices. In the Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade explains to Bridgette O’Shaunessy that he is having her arrested for murder, despite any feelings he may have for her, because “When your partner’s murdered, you’re expected to do something about it.” He sounds like he’s surrendering to herd expectations, but what he’s really uttering is an Existentialist credo: One follows the code, because not doing so leaves life not worth living.”

    I think I can buy this.

    “Or as Sam Peckinpah has Joel McCrea say in Ride the High Country: “All I want is to enter my own house justified.” Even religious moralities share some of this, one get’s a sense of it even from Kant and Mill.”

    Of course, my view would not be supportive of a religious or Kantian position on ethics. (I am not hedging on this one!)

    “As labnut succinctly put it in a comment on your Truth and Justice article: “There comes a sticking point in life, where you say thus far and no further. You summon up your courage and prepare to lose everything rather than abandon principle.” One doesn’t need to be a moral realist to see that.”

    Probably not. But perhaps we can’t really say what we would actually stand up for in practice. Courage must be *tested*. (Talk is cheap.)

    “As to the question of the need for heroes: I actually make a distinction between those I would consider ‘saints’ because of their single minded dedication to a transcendent cause (Socrates, Jesus, Buddha), and those recognizable (to someone somewhere) as heroes, who are courageous fighters to a good cause, but who, on analysis, are human in their own way.”

    I don’t honor Socrates, Jesus or the Buddha as you seem to do. For example, I see the historical Jesus (to the extent that he can be reconstructed from the sayings and stories as someone who was part of a particular religious (or politico-religious?) culture. Whoever said those things had charisma and insight and (probably) courage but the worldview is totally alien to mine. You have a spiritual (in some sense) view of the world which allows real saints (in some sense) and which plays into your social and political thinking. Nothing wrong with that but it is not how I see the world at all.

    You also talk about secular heroes…

    “So I while I am as resistant to hero worship as you, this is for apposite reasons – I actually do have heroes, but I accept that they may be drastically flawed. Most people are, from at least someone else’s perspective.”

    If one acknowledges the flaws, one is not idealizing (or idolizing) the person so my objections would not apply.

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  19. On a particular road that I used to travel to work a certain culture developed after a while. If someone drove up behind us we would move over the yellow line to the left to give enough space for overtaking. That person would briefly flash his hazard lights in thanks and we would flash our headlights in acknowledgement. I know, this is a common practice.

    There is no rule that requires this and we are not taught this. In fact we are taught that this can be dangerous. But we do it. We do it because we are imitative creatures. We naturally copy behaviour that seems advantageous or good. And as we copy each other this practice spreads.

    This is why we need role models. Because we are imitative creatures that tend to copy good examples.

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  20. Dan

    “The worldview of the Jesus of the New Testament cannot be “completely alien” to anyone who is a part of Western civilization.”

    I was giving my honest and candid reaction to investigating serious modern scholarship on the *historical* Jesus (i.e. on the figure lying behind the “Jesus of the New Testament”, as you put it). I don’t know if you know much about this tradition of scholarship (I know you have studied a substantial amount of Jewish history), or about the sort of very mainstream and traditional and distinctly unevangelical Christianity – actually Christian-Platonism – to which I was exposed as a young person and which is such a central element of Western cultural history, but it was a huge shock for me to discover just how different the figure that emerged from that scholarship was from the figure I had read off the writings of the NT.

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  21. I didn’t see anything in the article that suggests that we aren’t allowed to judge ourselves. In fact, in may be that what we characterize as “judgment of others” occurs when we decide that we’re “fed up” with a behavior pattern. We act when we judge that we can’t be tolerate any longer.

    What is possible is far more important than one is true. I believe that we are allowed to say “the possibilities that are denied me by your conduct are too valuable to allow your conduct to go unchallenged.” The virtue of our “ethics” may be the degree to which it avoids such challenges by others, and persuades those we challenge to subscribe to our agenda.

    An incoherent response to an ethical challenge would be the ultimate failing – which should be daunting to those that characterize themselves as “the brave and the free,” as though these were principles that guarantee privileges.

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  22. Brian

    The sort of judgments you are talking about seem to relate primarily to the unacceptability of certain forms of conduct and (as you suggest) I have no problems with these kinds of judgments.

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  23. The thing is, I no longer can tell what you have a problem with. It’s not judgments about behavior. And it isn’t judgments about people when one has observed a sufficient amount of their behavior. As far as I can tell your problem is with judgments about people when one has not observed a sufficient amount of their behavior. This strikes me as true, but in a very weak, uninteresting way. It’s sort of a “No, duh” point, which it would seem odd to bother writing a whole essay about.

    I think the problem is the constant hedging and qualifying, as EJ suggests. But i don’t agree with you that this suggests we think you are devious, which I certainly dont

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  24. Dan

    I am emphasizing the private or opaque aspects of our thought (and value systems).

    As is evident from your response, this emphasis and the view I am putting doesn’t mesh perfectly with the philosophical tradition with which you are associated. It’s not necessarily incompatible with it, but it doesn’t mesh perfectly.

    As I said, I am picking up on a couple of Chomsky’s ideas here; and also informing this piece is my interest in the brain, and my conviction (against the views of some philosophers) that brain science is relevant to many questions of philosophical interest.

    So it’s not black and white. I acknowledge that Wittgenstein and Ryle had some important things to say. But there is more to say, especially when our knowledge-base has expanded to the extent that it has.

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  25. Dan

    The OP was conceived as an attempt to set out *in as concise a manner as possible* (thus the paragraph numbering) my ideas on the specified themes. But both you and ejwinner have complained about hedging and/or evasiveness(?), and you have also accused me of saying nothing at all of interest.

    So, at the risk of complicating matters, I will try to flesh out what I meant at 3.4 when I said that it’s necessary to judge the actions and statements of others against our own value systems and/or against a legal framework but not necessary (or desirable) to judge in another specific sense of that word.

    Anarchism, I said, is not a realistic option. “But we need to be clear about what it is we are doing here, what it is we are judging. And what it is that we are *not* doing, *not* judging.”

    It’s a subtle point. You seem to think it’s too subtle, a kind of fudge. But there is something I am getting at here which relates to our tendency to go further and create heroes and villains. I admit that the point is not entirely clear in my mind but I sense that there is an important issue at stake here and part of the point of writing this was to try to capture – and test – this intuition of mine.

    I think of it like this. Some people behave in seriously antisocial ways. They need to be reformed or taken out of circulation.

    For argument’s sake, imagine a situation where the only way to stop a person engaging in seriously antisocial behavior is to execute them (by firing squad, say). My thought is that *ideally* the whole procedure would be carried out without demonizing the victim. It would be done clinically to a point, but with sadness and regret. An unfortunate necessity. The point is that I think one can and should (in most cases at least) remain agnostic about the “person”.

    I don’t want to get into a discussion of revenge, retribution, etc.. But the philosophy of law literature (what I know of it) is in the back of my mind.

    On knowing enough about a person… You never know someone’s life story as they know it. For almost 100% of that life, you were not present. Whereas we are present 100% of the time for our own lives and remember much of it.

    So in my ideal situation one would ‘condemn (the person) to …’ (a long prison term or whatever), but not ‘condemn’ simpliciter, i.e. in the sense of the word which is used by Christians in talking about the judgment of the Almighty.

    I have tried to spell out the main intuition which lies behind this piece. And you can see (I don’t hide the fact) that it may have roots in a Christian upbringing where one is taught not to judge (lest you be judged, etc.). Just because I am no longer a Christian does not mean that I reject the possibility that embedded in the Christian tradition are some deep and useful psychological or moral insights.

    I hope I have answered your accusations of hedging etc..

    I would also question your blanket characterization of my writing at this site as “eccentric”. You claimed that the intuitions in evidence in my writing are eccentric and unreliable. Sure I have written one or two light and self-consciously eccentric pieces. But I would not characterize my main beliefs and convictions as eccentric in the least.

    In the present case, I have explained the (possible) cultural origins of one of the main points of the OP. Since it is a component of a mainstream tradition of Western thought, it can hardly be called eccentric. It’s not something I just dreamt up. It’s something I have been thinking about all my life.

    Also, to counter the accusations of flawed or eccentric intuitions I could give a couple of literary illustrations of my point (writers having basically the same intuitions as me on this topic), but this is too long already. Another time perhaps.

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  26. Mark:

    I didn’t say your writing on EA was eccentric. I said that I found many of the intuitions you appeal to — and invocations of what is “commonly thought” — eccentric.

    Some of the clarifications in your remarks, here, are useful. I’ll speak to them in another response.

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  27. Mark:

    At the beginning of the piece, you reminded us of the conversation that took place in the wake of your invocation of French fascists, so you have to understand that some of us read this essay in light of that prior incident.

    What you seemed to be saying here was that unless you’re in someone else’s head, you shouldn’t judge them. My response was that it is perfectly appropriate to judge someone based entirely on their behavior, so long as one has seen a sufficient amount of it. Your response was a qualification — you agreed with me, but said that the question of what counts as a “sufficient” amount is not necessarily clear and there may be disagreement about it. And it was at that point that I started to wonder what the point was at all, as it started to look like you were just stating the obvious.

    As for heroes and villains, as I indicated in an earlier comment, I don’t think its possible to be human and live a human life without having them. And I still don’t. Certainly, we should be cautious about identifying people as heroes or villains too easily, but this again, strikes me as falling into “no, duh” territory.

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  28. Maybe part of the differences above have to do with the many different meanings of “judge”, as in “to judge someone”.

    We certainly don’t need to know 100% of someone’s life to judge them guilty of a crime or an anti-social act. We just need to establish that they commited the crime or the anti-social act. That’s true of the French collaborationists who were featured in the previous post by the author. All we need to know to judge them guilty of collaboration was whether they effectively aided and abetted the Nazi occuption in France.

    Now at times we talk about judging a person as a whole. That is very tricky because as has been said above, with the exception of close relations, very close friends and our partners, we rarely know anyone well enough to judge them as a whole.

    What’s more, in the case of certain crimes, not collaboration, a second of weakness may lead someone to commit a crime which will land them in prison for life. My momentary rage at someone’s insulting me may lead me to strike them dead, but otherwise, during the rest of my life I may have been a relatively non-violent person, generous, fair and compassionate. So before we judge the murderer or the rapist as completely evil we might reflect a second and think that we all go through moments when we almost give into our primal impulses.

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  29. I strive to be a conscientious person. Central to that striving is my own intrinsic evaluation, but no less so is the potential judgements of those people who know me well enough to pass competent judgment. That judgement is a primary motivator. This striving goes well beyond any tangible punishments or rewards I might receive for my actions. Social judgement from those who matter to me is not something I would want to do away with even if it were possible.

    I agree with Mark that we do too much hero worship and perhaps we villainize others too quickly likely because it is easy to think we understand better than we actually do. I think our judgements should be an expression of our understanding, and we should contain our judgement in proportion to the quality of our understanding – but judge along the hero – villain we must.

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  30. Dan

    “Certainly, we should be cautious about identifying people as heroes or villains too easily, but this again, strikes me as falling into “no, duh” territory.”

    To my mind much of the meat, much of the interest, lies in discussing *the extent to which* [this or that]: the extent to which theories or approaches are compatible, or the extent to which something is possible (like understanding others or ourselves), or the extent to which we can harmlessly indulge our natural hero/villain-creating tendencies.

    Our respective positions on this last question are clearly different – possibly in interesting ways and possibly for interesting reasons.

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  31. sethleon

    “Social judgement from those who matter to me is not something I would want to do away with even if it were possible.”

    Good point. I agree social judgment is important for us all, both for pragmatic/extrinsic and intrinsic reasons. But are we not usually most concerned with the judgment-for-its-own-sake of those we love, those who are very close to us? Think of someone we are trying to get to know/impress: we want them to think well of us so that they will want to see us again. But with someone we love it is not like this at all. As I see it, if we are confident in the rightness of our actions we don’t need the approval even of people we respect (but we may still need the approval of those we love).

    “I agree with Mark that we do too much hero worship and perhaps we villainize others too quickly likely because it is easy to think we understand better than we actually do.”

    Yes, but there may be other reasons/motivating factors also.

    “I think our judgements should be an expression of our understanding, and we should contain our judgement in proportion to the quality of our understanding …”

    I agree entirely.

    “… but judge along the hero/villain continuum we must.”

    Or you could call it a (morally) good/bad continuum.

    The terms ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ are suggestive to me of genre or children’s fiction. I have been using the terms more or less in *that* sense. But I acknowledge that the terms can be used in other ways (as you and Dan have been using them).

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  32. s.wallerstein

    “Maybe part of the differences above have to do with the many different meanings of “judge”, as in “to judge someone”.”

    Yes, I made a similar point in a recent comment. And I have also noted the connotations that the words “hero” and “villain” hold for me which may be playing into things here.

    “[A]t times we talk about judging a person as a whole. That is very tricky because as has been said above, with the exception of close relations, very close friends and our partners, we rarely know anyone well enough to judge them as a whole.”

    Yes. And seemingly holistic judgments (“What a shit that guy is!”) can usually be unpacked and reinterpreted as something quite specific. (“He treats women badly” or “He bullies subordinates” or whatever.)

    “What’s more, in the case of certain crimes … a second of weakness may lead someone to commit a crime which will land them in prison for life. My momentary rage at someone’s insulting me may lead me to strike them dead, but otherwise, during the rest of my life I may have been a relatively non-violent person, generous, fair and compassionate. So before we judge the murderer or the rapist as completely evil we might reflect a second and think that we all go through moments when we almost give into our primal impulses.”

    You focus on an extreme type of case here. I think the general principles and spirit of what you are saying (awareness of human frailties) could be applied more broadly than just to crimes of passion and the like. Not so much to cold-blooded and premeditated crimes, but to the sorts of bad behaviors that people may drift into without realizing the implications etc..

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  33. Mark:

    I thought this was a nice essay.

    The bit I find most interesting is this: “Morality is, as I see it, part of an informal system of expectations and patterns of behavior which make human social life possible. These informal rules and patterns vary from society to society, from community to community and from person to person, but there are also commonalities or ‘universals’.”

    This leads to some obvious questions: Are there not forms of behaviour required for social life as such? Not just universals, but requirements? If there are, then do they not set a limit to what can vary from society to society? And does it not follow that “individual value systems” cannot be “quite unique” but must be built around respect for shared social necessities?

    Alan

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  34. Mark English,

    You’re right that generally people drift into bad lives. One bad step leads to another.

    Then there are those people who are caught by a shift in the zeitgeist. Roman Polanski probably believed that he was
    in the vanguard, breaking another “stupid bourgeois taboo” when he slept with a thirteen year old girl. I think that many people, including myself, would have believed at the time that sleeping with under-aged girls was one more progressive step in the “sexual revolution” and now for many Roman Polanski is seen as worse than a war criminal.

    I see that they now blame Simone de Beauvoir, whom I’m sure believed that she was in the vanguard of humanity breaking “stupid bourgeois taboos”, for seducing her high school students.

    Moral values shift so fast these days that you need to be online 24 hours a day to keep up with them and not end up branded as a “reactionary enemy of humanity”.

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  35. Alan

    “Are there not forms of behaviour required for social life as such? Not just universals, but requirements?”

    Necessary, you mean? But necessary for what exactly: social life, or social life amongst humans?

    The “universals” I am talking about parallel linguistic universals which purport to be a sort of sine qua non of *human* language(s). In other words they are not concerned with language as such but with *human language* as such. In other other words they are not necessarily necessary for an advanced linguistic system. But they *are* necessary for a human brain- and culture-generated linguistic system.

    “If there are, then do they not set a limit to what can vary from society to society?”

    From (human) society to (human) society, yes.

    “And does it not follow that “individual value systems” cannot be “quite unique” but must be built around respect for shared social necessities?”

    Unique systems can have common elements. There may be a necessary core (I use the word hesitantly), but the *precise details* of each of our value systems (think of them as encoded in our brains) are unique, just as each of us has a unique idiolect. (Your version of English is slightly different from mine and from every other speaker. It has unique elements relating to the extent of the lexicon, the precise understanding of the meaning and connotations of particular words and expressions, pronunciation, etc.. But in the case of you and me and the people at this forum there is more than sufficient overlap to allow effective communication.)

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  36. Mark: I should have been clearer. I meant necessary for a biological species such as ours. Other social species will have other features required for their forms of sociality.

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