Bits and Pieces: The Obligatory; The Supererogatory; Prudential Cases; Arguments.

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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[1] Philosophers sacralize moral obligation and maintain that moral considerations are always overriding of all others, and yet ordinary people (as well as philosophers in their ordinary lives) hold actions done from earnest desire in much higher esteem than those done from duty. “Don’t just do it out of a sense of duty” is a commonly expressed sentiment, and who, upon hearing that someone is doing something for you solely out of duty, hasn’t at least thought that you’d rather they not do it at all? Indeed, such common wisdom is this that it is standard in the raising of children.

[2] That people should sometimes do what they aren’t obligated to do also seems a common and comprehensible human attitude that modern moral philosophy is ill-equipped to make sense of. “You should be generous” expresses such an attitude, and it’s only one of many such expressions one hears in ordinary conversation.

Of course, philosophy can offer an analysis of this in terms of hypothetical imperatives: for example, People should sometimes do what they aren’t obligated to do, as it is a good way of currying favor or some such thing. But I would maintain that this doesn’t provide a good reconstruction of this common attitude. Nor is it well-construed via Kant’s conception of “imperfect duties,” which are simply obligations that apply under practical constraints.

No, the idea here is that one doesn’t want to be the sort of person who only does what’s required or what will invite punishment or blame if not done, and as observed in [1], this it is a wisdom so common that we have a stock of expressions articulating it, many of which are employed in the raising of children. The reasons why it’s (usually) a bad idea to live this way are many and cut across a number of categories, in a manner that is resistant to the abstractions, simplifications, and [small-‘r’] rationalism required of most modern moral philosophy.

In discussing this with my colleague and boss, Elizabeth Foreman, she said that it’s a good part of the reason why she dislikes act-centered moral theories – a category to which virtually every major modern moral philosophy belongs – and prefers agent-centered ones. Certainly, a virtue ethic will have an easier time making sense of this common attitude than will Utilitarianism or Kantianism.

[3] Yet another concept for which modern moral philosophy seem incapable of giving an accurate reconstruction is that of the supererogatory.† Philosophers define it as that for which one is rightly praised if one does it, but not rightly blamed if one fails to do it, but this is a poor analysis of the ordinary concept, the sense of which is “going above and beyond the call of duty.”

The philosophical treatment of supererogation will include all of the most mundane of Kant’s imperfect duties, as well as acts so noble they go beyond what duty requires, but this combination of the prosaic and the holy is not what is not what people mean to invoke when they employ the expression. Indeed, given that modern moral philosophy sacralizes the obligatory, as mentioned in [1], it is almost analytically ill-suited to making sense of the idea of something being above and beyond it.  

[4] Last week, while I was visiting the superlative Robert Talisse in Nashville, I asked him why the following wasn’t the best argument for liberal democracy one could give: Because you won’t win every election and you can’t kill all your opponents.

It seems to me that where a prudential case is available, it’s always preferable to a theoretical one: fewer assumptions to take on board, no appeal to spooky or otherwise dubious entities, and persuasive in a straightforward, concrete way that requires little by way of elaborate or abstract thinking and is most likely to “travel well” cross-culturally. And given that politics, like ethics, is a practical discipline, whose purpose is to address how we should actually live, this last point is especially important.

Robert wasn’t especially dazzled by my formulation of the fundamental principle of liberal democracy, but he also couldn’t really deny it, which led to an interesting conversation on the usefulness of theory in practical areas of philosophy.

[5] Over dinner, for which Robert’s friend and colleague Scott Aiken joined us, I maintained that philosophers overestimate both the efficacy and the aptness of arguments. I hadn’t been very moved by certain first-order moral claims they were making or the arguments for them, and at one point Robert said of my intransigence that tenacity isn’t an argument. He’s right, of course, and that’s when I said the thing I said about arguments.

In one sense, there’s nothing strange about philosophers’ overestimation of arguments. It is our primary modality, after all, and as a general matter, people overestimate the value of the thing they’re best at or do the most. But in another sense it’s quite weird, as philosophers (like Soylent Green) are people. And surely, as people, we must have noticed that other people – and not just the stupid ones – don’t value or employ arguments anywhere close to as much as we do.

It’s worth thinking about what arguments actually get you. If you’ve managed to put together a valid one, it means that if your premises are all true, then your conclusion must follow.  Of course much of the time – and in the case of the sorts of arguments I was talking about with Robert and Scott, pretty much all of the time – some or even most of the premises one is relying on are controversial or even actively contested, and just as often there is no way to confirm their truth. (In any ethical or political dispute, many of the premises on which a judgment or imperative is based, are going to be value judgments.) What this means is that many if not most arguments one encounters are just a bunch of complicated conditionals, for which the people offering them cannot confirm the antecedent. Arguments can thus function as a kind of bluff (in ordinary discourse especially, but in academic discourse as well), giving the aura of having demonstrated something, when all you’ve really done is offer a bunch of “if-thens” that you know you can’t cash out.

If you want to get people to do something or change their minds on matters of value, the most important thing you can do is get them to care, and arguments are just about the worst way to do that (though facts may be essential). If you want them to change their non-axiological beliefs or practices, it may be worth asking yourself: (a) why do you want this? (b) how important is it that the other person agree with you? (c) how sure are you that you are correct? and (d) is it the sort of thing that really can be demonstrated by an argument, or is it merely bluffed by means of one.

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†Throughout I have been speaking of offering a “reconstruction” of a common practice, attitude, way of speaking, etc. In the Analytic philosophical tradition from which I hail, the purpose of a philosophical theory is to provide an analysis and rational reconstruction of something first-order: a practice; attitude; belief; theory; etc.

With regard to ethics then, as W.D. Ross put it in The Right and the Good, “the main moral convictions of the plain man [are] not opinions which it is for philosophy to prove or disprove, but knowledge from the start,” which means the job of moral philosophy is to provide an analysis and reconstruction of actual ethical practice, not invent a practice and then prescribe it. After all, as Bernard Williams has pointed out in “The Human Prejudice”:

It is a muddle between thinking that our activities fail some test of cosmic significance, and (as contrasted with that) recognizing that there is no such test. If there is no such thing as the cosmic point of view, if the idea of absolute importance in the scheme of things is an illusion, a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted, then there is no other point of view except ours in which our activities can have or lack a significance.

And with regard to philosophy more generally, as Stanley Rosen observed in Metaphysics in Ordinary Language (and which I’ve quoted before):

Ordinary language is retained as a basis… of all technical dialects.  It is this basis that serves as the fundamental paradigm for the plausibility or implausibility of theoretical discourse and particularly of philosophical doctrines.”

40 comments

  1. Nothing I say in the following is meant to bring out ways in which I think you’re mistaken. (You make the appropriate qualifications.) I’m just contributing some thoughts.

    I often ask my students: if there were one true answer to every philosophical question, would they like to know it? They usually say yes. So I tell them: every philosophical question can be answered truly by “It depends.” They never fail to be dissatisfied.

    The point I’m trying to convey to my students, of course, is that intellectual nourishment comes not (simply) from knowing the answers to our questions but from knowing what possible answers depend on. (This is certainly true for philosophy and probably true for other theoretical endeavors.) The value of philosophical argumentation, that is, just might lie first and foremost in appreciating all the ways “it depends.”

    The point I’m trying to convey right now is that if one thinks the overriding goal of philosophical argumentation is to convince another of the truth of this or that proposition, then, yes, philosophical argumentation looks like a failure. But I don’t think it’s obvious that that’s the overriding goal of philosophical argumentation. (I’m including the argumentation I’m offering in this comment.)

    You write: “If you want to get people to do something or change their minds on matters of value, the most important thing you can do is get them to care, and arguments are just about the worst way to do that (though facts may be essential).” I think I agree — I think I affirm the antecedent! (Indeed, the mode of discourse we use to get people to care, if indeed we use discourse at all, might be closer in form to the mode of discourse we use in aesthetic contexts in inviting one other to perceive or feel things.) Your antecedent is indeterminate; a lot rides on what we take “doing something” and “changing one’s mind” to come to.

    For example, and to come back to what I suggested above, if we think of changing one’s mind exclusively as reassigning the truth values of some proposition, then, yes, argumentation looks effete. But a change of mind “on matters of value” might amount to one’s coming to appreciate the reasonableness of another’s point of view, another’s value-structure — something that has, not incidentally, happened to me in witnessing you make arguments publicly about various ethical matters. My mind has undergone a change, a transformation; I’ve worked my way around, or maybe into, your point of view. Perhaps my axiology hasn’t changed, but my perspective on my own axiology has.

  2. The value of argument in talking about our values is not to convince others, but to explain to others why we do certain things or act in a certain way.

    That becomes more or more important as our world becomes more fragmented, more liquid, as we can no longer assume, as people do traditionally, that our neighbors and even friends share all or most of our values.

    Obviously, if the purpose of presenting arguments for our values is to explain ourselves to others, then the arguments should be courteous, without insults, without unnecessary irony, clear and directed to the person one is talking to, without grandstanding directed to members of one’s tribe, etc.

  3. As I think about your case – which I too find the more convincing way to frame things – here’s what I suspect.

    There is this tradition in Western philosophy that treats reasons as these mystical thingies that compel people sans their voluntary will. Like, a reason is good if and only if it IS good, and whether people hear it is good is only a biproduct of whether it IS good in and of itself. And thoses who know the good do the good, or, those who hear a convincing reason will recognize that it is convincing and be bound by it.

    But as far as I’m concerned, this is just really bad psychology that has really quirky consequences. Reasons aren’t good; people find reasons to be good. Reasons don’t bind; people (who may have reasons) bind. If x is ‘impermissible,’ it is not becuase reason has permission-granting and -denying properties, but becauase people who hae been convinced of x (or the reason behind x) thereby deny us permission to do -x.

    Quite a few have said what I think Nietzsche said, and I think he was right: western moral philosophy – with its talk of permissibilty, justifiedness, etc in the abstract – seems hell-bent on doing the type of philosophy one can only do with a god at its center, but without a god at its center. Duties should be treated as legal rules (at worst) or cultural scripts (at best), not as moral abstracts. And one can accept or reject them for philosophical or prudential reasons.

      1. I also suspect a reason philosophy tends to prefer justificatiaons centered around the theoretical rather than the prudential: philosophy is as much a quest for peace (or its possibility) than it is a quest for truth. So, when talking about duties, for instance, philosophy tends to want some theory that (we can pretend) will give all rational people the same answers about what duties we do and don’t have, what justice demands, etc. The problem with the prudential is that it is relative (to person, a culture, etc) and therefore more openly susceptible to yielding different answers from different people. Of course, in reality, theory is equally capable of doing this, because reasons (at least in my view) will be appraised differently by different folks with different predelictions. But at lesast with theory, philosophers can pretend that we can find the one answer to these questions that all rational people will accept.

        I have no idea why philosophy proceeds that way except to say what I said before: this may have something to do with a void that philosophy was left to fill once religion became a less powerful player. Now that we can no longer appeal to god as the peace-making (because answer-giving) authority, we will now appeal to reason to do the same work.

        1. I can’t agree about the prudential vs. the theoretical and the matter of cross-cultural effect. I think the prudential is much more credible cross-culturally than the theoretical.

          1. “I think the prudential is much more credible cross-culturally than the theoretical”

            I guess I’d be content to leave that as an open question. It depends, probably, on how similar you think peole are cross culturally, and that probably gets us into a complex empirical question.

            But really, my point is not that the prudential is MORE susceptible to cross-cultural variation, as that whether it is or not, philosophers likely take the prudential to SEEM more contingent (cross-culturally, interersonally, and even intrapersonally) than the theoretical. Put it this way: if a philosopher wants to argue that I HAVE x obligation – wants to establish that I REALLY DO have that obligation – convincing with prudential reasons leaves open the idea that if my practical situation changes, I might not have that obligation tomorrow, or be convinced that i don’t. But if they can get me on that theoretical reason, that (in theory, at least) isn’t open to changes with the times or context.

  4. It seems to me there is a basic illogical approach to how we go about doing moral or ethical philosophy. First, someone comes up with an ethical system such as Utilitarianism. Then, opponents come up with examples of that go against their ethical intuitions. For example, the act had a good result but the person who committed the act had selfish reasons for doing so. Due to our intuitions we conclude that the ethical system is wrong or, at least, incomplete. The problem is that our intuition about what is good or ethical can’t be proven. My intuition about about the goodness of an act may not be the same as yours. So, it seems we end up to the point where ethics are totally based upon each persons feelings or intuitions. Ethics seems relative and ethical systems are not of much(if any) value.

    1. Yup. Two other problems I see with that approach: first, it is sort of circular. We create a system presumably to get away from relying on our intuitions, but then use our intuitions as the guide to judging the theory correct or not. Second, it assumes what I think is a tall order: that humans, who evolved over millions of years, will have internally consistent intuitions that can be stitched together into a coherent theory. My response to that assumption is always to question what actual humans have given them reason to think such a strange thing.

      1. Good points. I especially like the one about circular reasoning. I think this is also an issue in other areas of philosophy but I don’t want to get too far off topic.

  5. These comments and, I guess, this piece, makes me wonder why any of you do philosophy. I realize that’s a very hostile thing to say, but I don’t mean it with hostility, though I can’t deny I feel exasperation. Part of it is defensive as well, because it makes me wonder why *I* do philosophy too, short of: I’m 46 and now it’s too late to do anything else.

    But I realize that’s an extremely strange response. After all, what is it that Dan said in the piece, or any of you said in the comments, that makes me draw that conclusion? I could elaborate upon why I *think* have the response, but I’m sure that nothing anyone here has said will make the feeling rationally defensible. That said, there is probably *some* reason I’m having it. All I know is that if I explained why I have it, people would say, “your feeling doesn’t follow from anything I said. So, your comment doesn’t make any sense.”

    And that’s no fun either! So, all I can say is that this discussion makes me feel exasperated, and I probably have no good reason to feel exasperated, but there is probably some *causal* reason for why I feel exasperated. I don’t know why any of you would care about this, save that some of you like me.

    1. Robert Gressis,

      I find you very likeable in spite of the fact that we come from very different political and cultural tribes.

      The other day in a blog someone called me a “snowflake” and claimed that I am “too sensitive”.

      I googled “can you be sensitive?” and discovered that according to psychologists, there is a group of people who are categorized as “highly sensitive people”, about 15 to 20% of the population. It’s not considered to be a mental illness or a personality disorder, but rather a personality trait. You might check it out.

        1. Here’s a simple test:
          https://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/

          That’s part of website dedicated to the topic.

          Yes, I’m sure that some people here will call it “psycho-babble”, but if it helps some people understand themselves better and then obviously, to do what they can to face the world with that new self-knowlege or that new narrative about themselves, it seems worth looking into for anyone who might feel that it applies to them. As I said above, 15 to 20% of the population are considered to be highly sensitive.

          1. My personal experience convinces me of the efficacy of psychotherapy, but I should emphasize that being a highly sensitive person is not considered to be a mental illness or a personality disorder. It’s a personality trait, which does not mean that a good psychotherapist cannot help one deal with it, just that they are not going to cure it, because there’s not an illness to cure.

          2. What it’s called has to do with the way people see themselves and how others around them see them. By now, introspection is generally accepted as a personality trait, not as mental illness or as being anti-social. So if you have a friend or relative who is uncomfortable at big social gatherings and shuns parties and you see that person as “introspective” and that person sees themself as “introspective”, you’ll be more accepting of them and that person will be more accepting of themself than if that person feels guilty or ashamed or considers themself a party-pouper or if you (the friend or relative) see that person as being anti-social or as having a bad will or a negative attitude.

            So too with the highly sensitive person who is not necessarily an introspective person, although there is some overlap.

          3. I don’t mind it, but I don’t really have anything to add. One can get better at all of these things, and as they are elements of a good life, I would think one would want to.

          4. For sure. But it seems that best or at least a good way to get better at socializing, if one feels a lack in that area, is to understand oneself instead of making futile attempts to be better at it and/or sitting around feeling guilty or inadequate or a failure or a loser or weird, etc.

          5. I didn’t quite understand Robert’s reaction, and he didn’t explain himself very much, so it was hard to know what to say about it.

          6. I don’t know Robert nor am I qualified to opine about his reaction, but it is possible that he is a highly sensitive person and thus, reacted as he did. I wanted to provide him with a conceptual tool that might be useful to him, perhaps not.

          7. Professor Gressis might be hesitant to explain publicly in detail what offended him, so why don’t you email him personally?

        2. > Regardless of what it’s called, it’s something one should work on, as it makes life a lot harder.

          In some situations, I agree. But I think, like for many other biological traits, a fairly large variation in sensitivity is part of a normal continuum. For example, how much a baby is startled given a specific stimuli can represent a facet of psychological temperament, in that sense some people are born more sensitive than others, some average, some less. How that plays out through development and later in life can be positive too, and isn’t always a problem in need of work or therapy (not sure you’re saying it is). That said, and also speaking from personal experience, I think that individual and cultural expectations, including what’s considered normal by ourselves and by others, can and does sometimes make life harder and in those cases we can probably benefit from ‘work’, and a better understanding of all the factors involved.

          Reasons. I find this all very interesting, your post, the comments and Robert’s in particular.

    2. Rob,

      I think yours is actually quite an understandable reaction. I can only speak for myself and why I am engaged with philosphy, but I suspect that your mystification/exasperation comes from you having one aim in doing philosophy and some of us seeing an entirely different aim, and maybe even to the point where we see your aim as less valid than our aim.

      When I think about why I became and have remained drawn to philosophy, it is almost more a psychological reason than a truth-seeking reason. I am interested in the disciplline because it paints different understandings of the world and its constituents while offering reasons for why that view should compel the reader. Compel the reader to what? To the truth of what the author is arguing? Surely that is what most philosophers aspire to, and maybe that’s what I also would have said once. But I think what changed my mind away from that is the recognition (at least I consider it a recognition) that philosophy is vitally effected by things like intuition and temperment, and to the degree that those can be idiosyncratic between individuals, I can’t see that philosophy will ever get to any truth that transcend’s what Kierkegaard might call a subjective one. You may have great arguments for a deontological approach based on moral realism, but I might (a) either find your reasons short of compelling on completely idiosyncratic grounds (say, I just don’t think analytic philosophy is the best way to capture moral truths), OR since I cannot really intuit that there are real moral properties, your argument based on them (or even for them) just can’t get off the ground.

      That doesn’t mean philosophy doesn’t have value, though. To me, philosophy is the area where we articulate our visions for how to interpret and make sense of the world by getting very good at articulating and evaluating arguments for and against various positions. That makes it different from science in that philosophy is more hinged to argument than empirical evidence, and that makes it different from poetry or art because philosophy focuses not just on sketching these visions but on offering arguments for them.

      Again, that’s just my take.

  6. OK, let me try to understand my reaction, with the caveat that I’m not sure this is why I had the reaction I did.

    First, Dan wrote:

    “Last week, while I was visiting the superlative Robert Talisse in Nashville, I asked him why the following wasn’t the best argument for liberal democracy one could give: Because you won’t win every election and you can’t kill all your opponents.

    “It seems to me that where a prudential case is available, it’s always preferable to a theoretical one: fewer assumptions to take on board, no appeal to spooky or otherwise dubious entities, and persuasive in a straightforward, concrete way that requires little by way of elaborate or abstract thinking and is most likely to “travel well” cross-culturally. And given that politics, like ethics, is a practical discipline, whose purpose is to address how we should actually live, this last point is especially important.”

    You didn’t say “the theoretical case isn’t important at all”; what you said is that the practical case, when you have one, is better than the theoretical case, because it’s likely to do a better job persuading people. That said, perhaps because I know your metaethical views, and your general appreciation (?) for the practical over the theoretical, I *heard* it as “the theoretical case isn’t important at all”.

    Nevertheless, when I hear that the practical case is what you should try to find rather than the theoretical one, I worry about people becoming *too* practical. This is the case with some of the students I teach this semester. Many of them say that they don’t like reading, they don’t like writing, and they do like discussing, but only when it’s directly personally relevant to them. The idea of discussing something just because it’s puzzling, even if it is abstract, has no purchase on them. I feel like we as a culture used to at least *pretend* to lionize learning for its own sake, but maybe it was all a put-on. Maybe it was always the educated class projecting their (self-involved) sentiments onto the working and entrepreneurial classes. In any case, I now feel as though I hear more and more people thinking that finding ideas interesting for their own sake is juvenile or oppressive or whatever. I may be imagining this.

    Second, Dan wrote:

    “philosophers overestimate both the efficacy and the aptness of arguments. … In one sense, there’s nothing strange about philosophers’ overestimation of arguments. It is our primary modality, after all, and as a general matter, people overestimate the value of the thing they’re best at or do the most. But in another sense it’s quite weird, as philosophers (like Soylent Green) are people. And surely, as people, we must have noticed that other people – and not just the stupid ones – don’t value or employ arguments anywhere close to as much as we do.”

    So, I have a lot of sympathy for the claim that philosophers overestimate the efficacy and aptness of arguments, but I don’t know that I agree with it. I am very moved by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber’s theory, in _The Enigma of Reason_, that (a) reason is a biological trait; (b) being a biological trait, it has a function; and (c) its function is to help us coordinate and cooperate. Now, Mercier and Sperber say that the way reason does that is through arguments. What’s interesting, though, is that they think reason is a mental module. It provides very intuitive, immediate deliverances of the following sort:

    (1) That claim is plausible.
    (2) That reason supports that claim.

    What Sperber and Mercier claim additionally is that people don’t make implicit arguments. They say there is no such thing as an implicit argument. We can pretend to reconstruct the steps we take whenever we do something and put those steps into argumentative form, but that’s not really what happens. What usually happens is that there is some cue in the environment, and we just immediately act. It is only when others ask us to justify ourselves (or when we’re imagining that someone will ask us to justify ourselves) that we have to put things explicitly as arguments.

    So, if philosophers think that people act on implicit arguments that we philosophers have to reconstruct, I agree with you that we’re overstating the importance of arguments. Where I disagree with you, though, is that I think ordinary people argue all the time, in the sense that they produce reasons for claims, or prepare themselves too. E.g., here’s an argument:

    WIfe: “You should get the car washed.”
    Husband: “But I just got it washed last week!”
    Wife: “Yeah, but a flock of pigeons pooped on it today.”
    Husband: “Damn it. I’ll get it washed tomorrow.”

    People argue like this all the time. And these kinds of arguments are often quite efficacious.

    Maybe when you say that arguments don’t have much efficacy, you mean simply *philosophical* arguments. Or maybe you mean, “when someone isn’t already convinced of one of the conclusions or one of the premises, then arguments don’t have much effect.” Though, if that’s what you mean, then, like, duh. But I assume you mean philosophical arguments.

    If that’s what you mean, then that would explain why I asked why you (and others here) do philosophy. Like, why not just do something else? If arguments are usually efficacious, but not in philosophy, and all we do in philosophy is produce arguments, why do it? It’s like saying, “most chairs work, except the ones we make at our factory, but we’re still going to make these chairs.”

    Later on, Kevin wrote:

    “Reasons aren’t good; people find reasons to be good. Reasons don’t bind; people (who may have reasons) bind. If x is ‘impermissible,’ it is not becuase reason has permission-granting and -denying properties, but becauase people who hae been convinced of x (or the reason behind x) thereby deny us permission to do -x.”

    I see what he’s saying. I just find myself thinking, “yeah, but sometimes people ought to find some of these reasons good, and they don’t.” Here’s an *extreme* case of what I’m thinking:

    WIfe: “You should get the car washed.”
    Husband: “But I just got it washed last week!”
    Wife: “Yeah, but a flock of pigeons pooped on it today.”
    Husband: “And?”
    Wife: “…and? Well, now the car is really dirty.”
    Husband: “And the relevance of that is …?”
    Wife: “Well … I’m confused now. You yourself just got your car washed last week. So you must realize that cars need washing?”
    Husband: “why would you draw that conclusion?
    Wife: “Excuse me, what is going on? Is a ghost possessing you? Why the hell else would you get a car washed??”
    Husband: “It’s just what people do.”
    Wife: “Right … because they don’t want dirty cars!!”

    Anyway, the point is, I think we human beings are primed to find certain reasons compelling. This could be because of how we’re wired, or how our culture is, or whatever, but we do. And we have a *lot* of common ground. I guess everything may be a conditional argument (but maybe not?), but regardless, it seems, barring cases like the fake one I made up above, that people regularly find arguments very compelling.

    But what about Kevin’s own claim, that people find reasons compelling, but that reasons aren’t compelling in themselves. Here I’m going to do this thing that no one likes, and ask: “why should I believe *that*?” Like, do you have an *argument* for it? And do you think it’s *true*. I’m guessing you don’t think it’s true, because I’m guessing you don’t think anything is true, except in the rather psychological sense that “people find certain things agreeable, and they find other things agreeable, and there’s an end on it.” But then if that’s what you think, why do philosophy?

    Philosophy, and all things, is just an elaborate way of explaining how things taste to you. All disagreement–philosophical, political, scientific, logical, mathematical, artistic–is just an elaborate way of explaining how things taste to you and saying that others should like the taste of that too.

    And I guess I see this global noncognitivism as making everything seem pointless? Or something.

    Like I said, I’m guessing people won’t see this as relevant to anyone’s comments or what anyone wrote. As I said above, the real puzzle is why I feel these things, not so much with anything anyone has said.

    1. Maybe most people don’t think like me, but in my experience it’s:

      Wife: You should get the car washed.
      Husband: But I just got it washed last week.
      Wife: A flock of pigeons just pooped on it.
      Husband: (listening above all to her tone of voice and observing the expression on her face) For sure.

      That is, the husband understands from her tone of voice and the expression on her face that to avoid domestic unpleasantness it’s best to wash the car. The reasons are much less important to the husband than his desire to preserve peace at home. By the way, it’s not a sexist thing: that works both ways.

      1. I’d also add that in this situation, what matters to the wife and maybe the husband is that x gets done, not what resason is motivating it getting done. Say that the husband still doesn’t buy the argument, but decides to get the car washed because (a) he just wants to avoid the argument, (b) he knows that his birthday is coming up and doesn’t want to displease his wife right before it, or (c) some other reason that has nothing to do with feeling the force of the wife’s arguments.

        I can see SOME situations where the why is as important as the that. But if we were to ask the wife whether she cares more that the car gets washed or whether she cares that the husband accepts her reasoning, I have a hard time thinking that the wife will get all deontological on us.

    2. Robert, you write:

      “Philosophy, and all things, is just an elaborate way of explaining how things taste to you. All disagreement–philosophical, political, scientific, logical, mathematical, artistic–is just an elaborate way of explaining how things taste to you and saying that others should like the taste of that too.”

      Such a view might certainly strike one as unsavory, if not as noncognitivist or nihilistic, if one has a certain understanding of what such a taste consists in and of what it takes for taste to count as objective.

      I think it’s obvious that argumentation is efficacious in nonphilosophical contexts. The question is what this efficaciousness amounts to, what its conditions are, and how it comes about.

      One approach is Wittgenstein’s. He notes that for argumentation to work — in order for interlocutors to even *be* interlocutors — there must be a vast, unspoken, and inexhaustibly articulable agreement in something like sensibility or taste, an agreement largely presupposed, largely silently learned and absorbed, and largely left unsaid. Those who agree in this way share a form of life. Cavell’s exemplificational-enumerative definition of a form of life is as good as any: “shared routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation.” (That’s from his 1962 Phil Review article, “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy.”)

      This pre-articulate agreement serves as a condition for the possibility of the brief, epigrammatic husband-and-wife exchange you rehearse above (the one in which it just takes a sentence or two to achieve intersubjective coordination). The pre-articulate agreement also gives the *illusion* that all the rational force comes from what is actually articulated — that reasons are these little metaphysically independent loci of rational force or whatever, as Kevin noted. In fact, however, a large amount of the work is already done, behind the scenes. So sometimes we might be explaining our “tastes” to each other; but most often we’re silently presupposing a shared “taste” that allows us to “change minds” with the sort of succinctness you illustrate in your example.

    3. Robert,

      Excellent response. I’ll just respond to the portion directed at me (and I do hope you let me in on the dialogue you are planning. This is a great topic to think about.)

      “I see what he’s [Kevin is] saying. I just find myself thinking, “yeah, but sometimes people ought to find some of these reasons good, and they don’t.”

      That they ought to hae good reasons just pushes my response back a step. Reasons are’t convincing. People find them convincing. If people ough to find reasons convincing, they must find the reasons that they ought to find resaons convincing, convincing. I can’t say this with any certainty, but I again suspect the reason philosophers tend to think this way – that there are reasons we all ought to find convincing irrespective of who we are concretely – is that deep down, it is as much a quest for peace as it is a quest for truth. It matters as much to a philosopher whether x set of reasons are the true set as it does that all “rational” people will be convinced by them (or that we can imagine that they will be). Truths that only a handful will accept as true are less useful than truths that we can say everyone would find convincing if they just tapped into the truthfulness of the reason, gave it honest consideration, etc.

      So, at the end of thte day, whether we like it or not, people are the ones that need to find reasons convincing, and that is more of a personal matter than maybe we’d like. To say to me that an argument I do not find convincing is one I ought to find convincing is esentially saying to me “Damn you! Accept the idea or I will call you things like irrational and expel you from the ideal speech situation.” My only response is “Okay, do what you have to do then. But persuasion is still a two-party affair.”

      “But what about Kevin’s own claim, that people find reasons compelling, but that reasons aren’t compelling in themselves. Here I’m going to do this thing that no one likes, and ask: “why should I believe *that*?” Like, do you have an *argument* for it? And do you think it’s *true*. ”

      I do think I have an argument for it. And I’m not saying that because a recipient is ‘free’ to reject my argument, that the idea of argument-giving is a waste of time. I’m only saying that what we are doing in that process is, in my view, very different from what most western philosphers think is going on, that it has more to do with the psyches and partialities of the individuals involved than about any PERSON-IRRESPECTIVE reasoning process. So, I’ll just say that I can give my caes if you’d like it, but at the end of the day, I also can’t imagine you’d accept it if you are coming in already very deeply committed to philosphy as a truth-getting process. Maybe I can persuade with the right reasons, but we might also just see philosophy’s relation to the world in terms so different that I can’t persuade you.

  7. As I understand it, here’s Kevin’s idea:

    1. Reasons are not convincing in themselves.
    2. However, reasons sometimes convince.
    3. Given 1, there must be an explanation for 2.
    4. The explanation for 2 is that people find reasons convincing.
    5. And to say that “people find reasons convincing” is just to say, “people have mental states (broadly construed) in virtue of which certain reasons convince.”

    2 seems to me to be an observation. Now, of course, it’s a theory-laden observation: “reasons” is a term of art; they’re not things that are directly perceivable, in the same way that tables, etc. are perceivable. Rather to “observe” that reasons convince follows from interpreting reality in a particular way. Nevertheless, *I* certainly interpret reality in this way, and I think just about all of us do, so I have no beef with 2.

    I’d like a reason for 1. I think the thought has to be: “well, imagine the following: (a) reasons convince, but (b) not because people find them convincing; in virtue of what, then, would they convince? Are you saying that reasons literally force us to do stuff?” To which I say: well, sure. Sometimes they do literally force us to do stuff. Example: I’m walking down the street; I hear nearby gunshots. I start running to my house. My starting running was an automatic response. It’s just something I did. Later on, if you ask me, “why did you start running?” I’ll say something like, “I didn’t want to die!”

    Now, you could say, if you want, “well, that’s all I mean when I say that people *find* reasons convincing. If you didn’t care about wanting to die, then you wouldn’t have run. The reason you found a gunshot to be a reason to run home is because of other beliefs, values, etc., you have. In other words, it’s because of those beliefs, values, etc., that you find certain reasons convincing and not others.”

    The first thing I can say to that, though, is that I’m not sure I *have* to agree with what you’re saying (if I did have to agree, would that be because your reasons forced me to?). After all, I could respond, “well, you’re just assuming that if I do something as a result of something else, it’s because I have values and desires and that move me to treat that thing as a reason. But that’s a story. I mean, how do we know that I valued my life? Presumably, because this was what I told you after you asked me. But who says my story is correct? Maybe there really was no reason. Maybe it was purely a causal process.”

    The second thing I’ll say is that “ok, if that’s all you mean by ‘people find reasons convincing’, then whom are you arguing with? Which philosopher, in the history of the world, has disagreed with you? If the answer is ‘no one’, then I wonder what the importance of your point is. If the answer is ‘lots of people’ then I want to know: which people? Once you tell me that, I’ll see whether we have anything to disagree about.”

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