by Daniel A. Kaufman


Both religion and philosophy endeavor to provide us with objective standards for our moral and aesthetic and other judgments, as well as our actions. Religion does it by stipulating a supreme authority in the person of God, while philosophy does it by appeal to reason and rationality, the authority of which is expressed by justifications or “warrants.” Some examples:

[A] A Christian tells you that he condemns same-sex romantic relationships. You say you’re fine with them. He says that you are wrong, and objectively so. On asking why, he tells you that God forbids same-sex romantic relationships and that God is the ultimate standard of right and wrong. He goes on to provide the appropriate scriptural and creedal evidence in support of his judgment.

[B] You are about to enjoy your shrimp scampi, and a philosopher tells you that it is wrong to eat it and that you should become a vegan. You tell her that you disagree, but as you prepare once again to tuck in, she tells you that you are wrong and objectively so. On asking why, she tells you that our ultimate obligation is to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, and your shrimp scampi is in violation of this. Unconvinced, you ask why you should accept this understanding of our ultimate obligation, and the philosopher tells you that rationality compels it and goes on to rehearse the reasoning step by step. (This example can be reconfigured to include any moral philosophy one wishes, as it will make no difference to the analysis.)

Now, both of these examples are explicitly about values, but this is incidental. After all, we could add:

[C] You’ve expressed sympathy with metaphysical anti-realism. A philosopher tells you that this is a mistake and that you should be a metaphysical realist instead. When you ask why, he explains that truth entails realism, and since you think your anti-realism is true, then you are really a realist. Unconvinced, you ask why you should accept this alleged relationship between truth and realism – or the account of truth presupposed in it – and the philosopher tells you that rationality compels it – that “it’s impossible to formulate any version of Anti-Realism that doesn’t immediately collapse into Realism” – and goes on to take you through his reasoning. [1]

In all of these cases something is invoked (God in one instance, rationality and reasons in another) that is supposed to provide an objective standard; something that commands you, rather than something you command. And the language is indicative of this ambition: “warranted”; “permissible”; “legitimate”; “justified”; all such talk connotes a scenario in which a person is authorized by some external authority to think or do something.

I’m afraid, however, that all of this is illusory or, as Anscombe put it with regard to the moral imperative: It has nothing more than “mesmeric” force. [2]

The issue is not that God’s existence and attributes are unverifiable and can only be stipulated (though this is a problem). Nor is it that different, equally qualified people may or may not find the same reasoning and appeals to rationality compelling, with no way to adjudicate amongst them other than by further appeals to rationality and reasoning (though this also is a problem, which I addressed in my most recent “Bits and Pieces”). [3]  It also is not a matter of my examples involving disagreeing interlocutors trying to persuade one another, as I could easily develop examples that involve just one person considering competing positions and which would have identical implications.

Several years ago, I wrote about the force that written and uttered imperatives are alleged to have, and what I am going to say here is meant to supplement that analysis, not amend it. [4] The short of that piece was that the only imperatives that have any real force are the non-written, non-uttered ones: the imperative to go to the bathroom; the imperative to breathe; the imperative to digest food one has swallowed; and the like. But spoken and written imperatives? They only have force if the person to whom they are directed accepts them, and this remains true, even if these spoken or written imperatives are delivered under threat. One must care about the thing being threatened – or not care more about something overriding of it – for the threat to be of any good to the threatener in compelling the threatened.     

This does not change, when we talk about standards that serve as a basis for imperatives. One may like to think that God or Rationality represents a standard, on the basis of which people are compelled to think or do some thing or other, but unless those people accept the standard, it does no such thing. The thing to notice, with regard to our current discussion, is that if they do accept it, that means that it satisfies their own standards.

A person cannot be compelled merely by way of written or uttered standards. If, after listening to the metaphysical realist, I agree that he is right and I should be a realist too, it’s because the standard he’s appealed to – in this case, “rationality” and whatever reasons he’s followed up with – is one that I accept, which means it satisfies my own standards. If, after listening to the Christian, I come to agree with him, it is because the standard he has presented – God and his commandments – is one that I embrace, again, according to my standards. 

Part of the problem here involves conflations of the Manifest and Scientific Images and the illicit importing of concepts from one into the other. I can make – in the sense of ‘cause’ – your body move by shoving you, but I cannot “make” (in the same sense) you think something or act in a certain way by nothing more than an utterance or a scribble. That may only occur once I’ve interpreted and accepted the utterance or scribble, so some of our confusion in this area is mixed up with our more general tendency to conflate actions and events, which I’ve written about quite a bit. [5]

Believing and acting are among the chief modalities of agents, and the notion that one could be commanded or compelled by the mere contemplation of an utterance or bit of writing, without having first accepted it — on whatever basis one accepts and rejects things — is a very strange one. Indeed, our common practices in this regard suggest that we already know this, which is why we go to such lengths to come up with sanctions and penalties and rewards and reasons that people will care enough about or find suitably convincing (again, in light of whatever standards they operate under) that they will think or do the things we want them to.

That a standard cannot compel without first having been accepted according to the standards of the compelled person renders standards, both effectively and per se, subjective and (informally) paradoxical, because that which is accepted cannot be rightly characterized as compelled. I’m not sure the concept of a standard can be sustained without some element of compulsion in it, that class of things being what we call “recommendations.”



[2] G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958), p. 6.





  1. Good stuff! I’m really enjoying the philosophy content EA is pumping out. It is highly appreciated, especially for a layman like me.

    If I may, I’ll prod a bit.

    The last podcast you did with Robert and Kevin, combined with Robert’s latest essay, seems to overlap with your essay here. I’ve said I’m caught somewhere in between, that I’m a squish, etc. So, while I gave Robert a hard time, I’m going to dip my toe in his kind of objection. Like I hoped to avoid getting caught in a loop of accusations of performative contradiction in pushing back against Robert’s claim against anti-realism, I hope to avoid engaging in “gotcha tennis” here as I prod.

    First, I believe I understand your view, and I agree with it. I’m only wondering how far it goes. That I’m wondering how far it goes, whether I’m going further than you, or vice versa, gives me a little hesitation in my agreement. The hesitation is related to this proposition, paraphrased:

    “The only justificatory epistemic force that a worldview can apply to a person is dependent on whether that person has accepted the worldview under discussion.”

    Having said that, is there any external weight at all to our assessments of people who partially or fully reject certain worldviews? That is, maybe we have no tools in talking **to** them, but what of the endeavor of talking **about** them? When we talk about them, are we able to speak externally then? And ofc no gods, no karma police, nothing like that. No blunt external force.

    But, for example, I believe part of the reason I agree with your view on internal reasons is that it has a kind of appeal that’s akin to logical or conceptual inherency. You wanna fly Delta? You have to abide by their rules. You don’t feel like abiding by their rules? Drive, or take a bus, or hitchhike. If you sign up, you’re bound, if you don’t, you’re not. You could use this form with many other substantive examples. I feel the appeal.

    But in us both finding this argument appealing, are we already inside a specific worldview for even this consideration to have weight? Is my perception of this relatively bare-boned type of conceptual inherency illusionary too, ultimately ending up like the views of the philosopher-vegan or Christian Fundamentalist? Or would it transcend that? In other words, let’s say we have a friend who decides to become a full-on irrationalist, rejecting science and reason, and even conventional moral values, in favor of irrationalism, romanticism and hedonism. I certainly agree that external reasons won’t convince, and even lacks the proper logical relationship to convince a committed hedonist. But it’s not hard to imagine our friend succumbing to misinformation and failing to get proper medical care and so forth, and this state of affairs (that we could all unfortunate) relating back to the decision to become an irrationalist.

    Now, does the claim that our friend’s decision to embrace irrationalism caused many injuries and poor care and ultimately preventable disease and early death, come only from within our motivational reasons, or is that claim accurate regardless of what our friend thinks? Our friend, after all, having long ago embraced an irrationalist worldview, doesn’t agree with us on the state of his life and on what caused what.

    Perhaps certain forms of realism come built-in with too robust a conception of the overriding force of reasons, then again, to quote the great philosopher Ben Shapiro, facts don’t care about your feelings? 😉

    1. Jay,

      I can’t speak for Dan, of course, but in this area it does seem like he and I often agree. So, I’d be intersted to hear what he has to say. But here’s what I have to say.

      I am not sure if I got a chance to voice it in the podcast, but the types of questions you are (understandably) asking is why I am more and more convinced that reason should be seen as a specie of rhetoric. We somehow got it into our Englightened heads that reason had a force that was just shy of God, that like God, reaon could command, permit (in a way where we can’t do unless Reason permits), and give us permission to make all sorts of judgments that we’d lack authority to without that permission.

      So, you ask qestions like “Having said that, is there any external weight at all to our assessments of people who partially or fully reject certain worldviews?” And “ut in us both finding this argument appealing, are we already inside a specific worldview for even this consideration to have weight?” You seem to be equating reason with weight, and ‘external’ weight at that. Your concern seems to be that if reason doesn’t have weight more substantive than that of wholly inter-personal persuasion – something more ‘external’ than that – then we are in big trouble.

      To me, that is asking reason to do what reason simply can’t do, stand in the shoes of some ‘permitter’ and ‘authorizer’ god. It’s why I say that we’d be best to return to the vview of reason as a specie of rhetoric, a type of argumentative performance that aims to persuade PARTICULAR sets of ears by making cases for stuff that they are increasingly likely to accept. That means reason has SOME force – the better an attoney crafts her case, the more likely people are – and the more people who are likely – to be persuaded. But it doesn’t have some ‘external weight’ sort of force. It has the same – and no more – force than a sad movie’s ability to ‘make’ us cry (but only if we are compelled by the plot and characters.)

      It is why when folks ask if this means reason has no force to, say, prevent someone from murdering just because it feels good to them, my answer is something like this: “I’d be entirely surprised if people like the one you describe deliberate about what reason demands of them before they decide whether to murder.” Reason doesn’t have that sort of ‘external weight.’ Never will. Expecting it to is a cateory mistake.

      1. Thanks for that, Kevin,

        Now I’m starting to feel like I was too quick to criticize Robert in the comment section of his recent essay (“My Philosophical Temperament”). The “but is it true?” question at the end of the anti-realist’s spiel in y’all’s podcast did also strike me a little like a gotcha. As I explained in the comment section, it seems to me that every philosophical POV has a gotcha of some sort waiting at some margin of the explanation. But after your reply here, maybe my question is also a gotcha (with the apparent implication that we might be in big trouble that I didn’t mean to convey).

        Hopefully, I can just put this in the language of prodding how far your view (or Dan’s) goes, rather than trying to assert that it doesn’t work on some level. In other words, after all is said and done, I don’t have a gotcha waiting. But I do want to see where the stopping point is, and I perceive that at least some of Robert’s motivation in his prodding on your recent podcast was in not seeing a full embrace of a noticeable philosophical option.

        For example, Rorty said justification or warrant (at least according to Putnam) is merely sociological. So that’s a full shift of work, a whole conversation, etc. Of course, many people (including me) would say that warrant has a heavy sociological element. In fact, I’m struck by how much of it is sociological when I see how philosophers behave on twitter. But Rorty didn’t stop there. He said it’s **merely** sociological. I don’t have a gotcha waiting at the end of that. In other words, I don’t have a question like “But what of *this* claim? Is it too sociological??” I’m fine allowing any view the elbow room to be expressed fully, like Rorty’s. But there’s the rub. It has to be expressed fully (I don’t mean in a long, drawn-out fashion, btw) to scratch the itch that I think at least partially moved Robert and is moving me here. For me at least, the itch will be fully scratched, and a kind of final visceral satisfaction achieved when we see where our views diverge at what is surely some relatively deep or fundamental level. I don’t expect any persuasion or gotchas to achieve anything after we reach that level of conversation.

        Having said that, my prodding on Dan’s piece here involved me conceding completely that there’s no interpersonal force. No gods, no karma police, nothing. If someone chooses to simply go their own way, no reason I can offer will by itself have any force. I conceded that and I concede it now. Moral realism, for example, is too robust in its view that a certain form of overriding force is present when IMO it’s not. What I did to try to tease out a factor that could help me see whether I agree fully with Dan’s view re internal and external reasons or on the other hand where we diverge, namely, to nestle a question about the characteristics of accuracy inside of a discussion about external force. Again, to see how far this goes.

        “Force” is a term that gets used a bit, I’m not so sure about “weight.” But what I was trying to convey was that weight is less ambitious than force. So, while I’ve said that I’m caught somewhere in between you and Dan and Robert, when I feel Robert being the most robustly realist in epistemic or moral matters, I lean toward you and Dan. When I feel you and Dan being the most Rortyan, I lean toward Robert. I perceive myself to be a kind of realist about the external world that is so weak that it if it got any weaker it wouldn’t count as realism any longer. So hopefully planting that flag will help me not come across as cagey. Maybe it’s like being a Joe Manchin Democrat or something, not sure about the best analogy.

        In any case, let me give this nestling question another try:

        Let’s say there’s a game where the point is to distinguish A) square pegs failing to fit into round holes from B) pegs and holes with proper fit. When a participant finds (A) the point is to tell “No!” and when a participant finds (B) the point is to yell “Yes!” There are judges lurking all around to verify the participants’ answers and there’s a time limit that pressures the participants to hurry, and if you like, let’s say it’s a kid’s game.

        To be very clear, if a participant gets frustrated and throws some game pieces on the floor and stomps away, I am definitely not saying that we have any ultimate real reason-claim of force (beyond the literal force of picking the kid up and putting the kid in time out) on this participant. Regarding any supposed force of reason, no one has to care about the rules regarding point-scoring, winning, or losing of this game.

        Rather, I am saying that it appears very much to me that this game involves an external claim about the world – that in order to fully explain the game, one would have to refer outside the game to features of grooves and holes in material and such – features that exist whether or not we were ever to devise or play this game, and that have a claim outside the game (the internal game itself doesn’t create this meaning, even as the game created the point-scoring meaning). IF I am right about that, then it does not follow from the fact that reason has no force that it has no weight, (as I’m using this term “weight,” I’m happy to use a different term).

        Again, I’m happy to use another term, but if you follow my half-layman’s terms take, there are people (not sure enough about Dan yet to place him) who

        *Accept both the weight and force of reason (Robert)

        *Accept the weight but reject the force of reason (Jay)

        *Reject both the weight and force of reason (Kevin)

        Does that look right to you in terms of POV taxonomy? I don’t think that explaining the difference between A and B in the game I sketched above is like a sad movie making us cry, though I can acknowledge *some* overlap, it doesn’t close the circle completely, normatively speaking. Still, perhaps the rules from game itself (point scoring) have a (emotive, social, imaginative, etc.) force that is like a sad movie making us cry, or at least I have no objection to that here.

        Again, I don’t expect that on this margin I’ll be able to pop out with a gotcha because it’s pointless at the end of the day, but if it appears that I’m using gotchas it’s because I don’t yet understand the position being embraced. In regard to Internal and External reasons, maybe this means I don’t agree with Dan after all, or maybe it means there are branches of the tree even among people who otherwise agree on Internal and External Reasons. The most I hope to accomplish here is for us to agree on the taxonomical picture in regard to the points of view and that the points of view are clear, not necessarily that we’ll agree on the views themselves.

        1. 1. I actually agree with Rorty (shocker!) that it is “just” sociological. Justification deals with standards of and for argument that can be drawn differently by different people. If your standards are radically different than mine, either I can try to craft an (dishonest?) argument that meets your standards, or anything I (honestly?) argue will fail to compel you. What’s wrong with saying that’s all there is? It ‘s not like language becomes unspeakable and anything-goes if we admit what all linguists know: that grammar is sociological convention all the way down.

          2. I’m not sure I see the distinction you are making between weight and force. My temptation is to lump them both under “authority through persuasion.” Agian, if I fail to meet your standards in my argument – or my argumet relies on some intuition that I strongly have and you don’t – we hit an impasse. The best I can do – what most every philosopher actually does in their writings – is imagine that others SHOULD be convinced and mistakenly say that this means others WILL BE and ARE convinced (or that if they’re not, the fault is theirs for not feeling the force that actually inheres in the argument). That’s great to help us sleep at night knowing that we had the better argument even if our interlocutor was confused and thought we didn’t. But if the goal is ACTUAL convincing, that falls well short.

          3. Say we are playing the game you talk about. Suppose realism is untenable and reason’s weight is ‘merely sociological.’ We are still unlikely to come to any radical disagreements about whether any particular rod was round or went through a hole. Unless we take the bizarre idea that humans are infinitely variable, it is safe to say that most or all the time, we experience the samee world in what appears to be the same way. Second, say we do disagree; I say the hole is square and didn’t fit in the hole, and you say it is round and did. NOTHING is solved by a third party coming along and saying “Let’s resolve this by allowing ourselves to honestly feel the weight of reason!” The weight of reason is probably part of what led us to different conclusions. Same with “I know. Let’s reseolve the thing by taking and honest and objective look at the actual rod and hole to see what is really there!’ Again, the fact that such a view is impossible except through the partial imagination is precisely the problem.

        2. The only other thing to follow up with is a sketch of how I see this dilemma:

          We are a whole bunch of humans who exhibit a bunch of variation: in the way we sense the world, the way we think about, explain, and believe in the world, our interests in the world, etc. And this variation causes strife. At best, it prevents us from coordinating with each other or being able to regularly predict (or control) what others do. At worst, it creates turmoil, conflict, and war.

          So, we do not want the variation to be real. We want it to be apparent. We thus search for ways to convince ourselves that the variation is apparent. Religion is one way, but even if viable, the variation just reappears in what gods we are convinced of, how we interpret their commands, etc. Philosophy seemed like it offered another way: find out how we can access “the way things really are” so that we can resolve all the disputes about it. Again, the variation just shows up there the way it did in religion: we differ in what we think the Really Real is, etc.

          My solution: let’s just give up on the idea that the variation is apparenet, come to terms with the fact that it is real and there isn’t a damn thing we can do to ‘resolve’ it. Given that, let’s bring our goals down a tad to figuring out how we can best live in this world of real, rather than apparent, variation.

          1. Thanks again, Kevin,

            But I still feel like we’re talking past each other a bit here. I will make an even further concession that if someone resolutely expresses disagreement on a specific case of square pegs and round holes, then there is no final Platonic appeal to the judges that will satisfy everyone.

            But even you say that we’re unlikely to come to radical disagreement because we all experience the same world in the same way, so it appears to me that you are making a claim to the outside world.

            Now, I am not trying to be coy or clever, but based on what you’ve said so far, I literally do not know what you mean by the “world.” If we all experience the same world in the same way in a way that I would have understood that statement, then we’re already at a point where we’ve made a basic commitment to an antecedent beyond mere sociology. This is not a gotcha. It might be a stopping point at which our views become incommensurate, but it’s not a gotcha because at some margin, IMO, it all breaks down no matter which way you go.

            I would definitely not say this if you made some everyday reference to the world as we were having a beer in the backyard. But, as we’re trying to have the kind of conversation where we exhaust all our arguments, in this kind of “academic” discourse, there is a real disconnect between your use of “the world” and mine. The world by itself can’t be an antecedently causal reason, at least not after we’ve foresworn any external reference at all beyond sociology (not only claims involving force but involving any claim that carries any epistemic burden beyond sociology at all, no weight at all).

            Now, if you were to shrug (the famous Rortyan move) and say something like, “OK fine we aren’t using key terms closely enough to have a commensurate conversation,” now **that** would make sense to me. Similarly, I remember hearing of Rorty saying something like, “Our beliefs are not about by the world but caused by the world,” and I had the same reaction. The problem to me is that to say the world causes our beliefs IS a claim **about** the world. Maybe it’s not a very comprehensive or deep claim, but it’s still a claim about something (and surprisingly self-conscious and leading with the chin about making the claim even after sloughing off the merely internal view) and the weight in carries is in being about something external. But it has no force if I say I’d rather not believe it and to leave me alone, or something like that.

            Even if my quite weak realism eventually boils down to some kind of Transcendental Idealism (we’re always only in the noumena) or some kind of “psychologism” (our brains seem to have evolved in a particular universe with certain kinds of limits, leading to a certain level of universality in the form of human reasoning, but who knows really what lies beyond that structure of reasoning) that would still maintain a kind of universality in the kinds of reasons we offer and what humans normally respond to as incorrigible.

            If I’m right about that, it means that it’s possible to break internal rules (or at least mis-describe them) by making sweeping denials of the possibility of sturdiness of external claims that are made even whilst taking the internal view (even if “external” here were ultimately contained within the boundaries of the noumena or shared cognitive structure, the utter consistency alone is all I need).

            In any case, since we’re still commenting under Dan’s post on Internal and External reasons, what is your take on that? Mine is that I agree with the distinction and find it important, but if I were to try to approach the distinction with only the sociological lens, I’m not sure that I would find very much useful in that philosophical distinction, even just when doing philosophy. Now, there are a couple of directions that could go, so to be clear, of course the external offers no motivation, but why does the internal? To put a finer point on it, we’re not inhabiting the motivation here. That is, Dan doesn’t love the Arkansas Razorbacks the way I do, so he’s not inside the internal motivation of that. Instead, he’s sitting stop the process and saying that I have an internal reason. He’s saying I have a reason.

            To me it seems like there’s a kind of conceptual inherency to this idea about internal and external reasons. If I swear that off, I don’t know how I could generalize across cases so efficiently. Don’t get me wrong, I still notice that when people tend claim to be motivated by a certain system of rules or thinking, there tends to be cluster where they also go a step further and start living by that system of rules. Even here I have to be careful, because I don’t have any tools to notice that the rules have a shared inherent structure to the proclaimed motivation, only that they tend to say things like “I am doing this because as the prophets say, X, Y and Z,” and as I don’t embody their internal view, I simply nod and note this clustered correlation.

            But it can no longer be that I agree that internal reasons motivate because I grasp a kind of inherent, instrumental, logical structure to it – to strapping in for the ride and taking it, to signing the contract and abiding by the terms, to volunteering for the war and fighting it, etc.

            I can see a few replies to this,

            *You’re right, the internal/external reason stuff doesn’t look so hot through a Rortyan lens (in this case my confusion is easing.

            *Hey idiot, of course there’s an inherent logical structure there and it’s good to notice even from my point of view! (in this case I’m back to being confused).

            *Yes, internal reasons motivate but we can only *ultimately* make that observation in the clunky descriptive way you described via noticeable clusters over time. There is no normative force from within, any more than from without, unless this is just another way to say that people happen to be motivated in a certain way that forms patterns we’ve noticed. Perhaps your highly evolved brain has tricked you into thinking there’s more to it than that (in this case my confusion is easing again).

            Other perhaps some other option re Internal and External Reasons?

          2. I like the distinction between apparent and real variation. Yet …

            We all share one world. We all share one human nature. Human nature is well north of 95% the same across the species. Modern medicine is founded on this fact. So while it makes sense to consider and speak of our evident variation, it also makes sense to spend considerably more time speaking of what we hold in common in order to peacefully coexist.

            This includes ideas held in common. In terms of humanity, that would mean embracing humane, humanistic, and humanitarian ideas/philosophies. These are much needed in our world.

            That is the dialogue that seems to have been lost in our current hyper-individualistic modern culture that excessively focuses on variations and differences. I think philosophy is uniquely positioned to provide leadership in helping the culture evolve beyond excess individualism and become more balanced, reasonable, and humane.

    2. Certainly one can talk “about them” however one likes. But once again, they’d have to care for it to make any difference to what they think or do.

  2. Tangentially, but not entirely off topic, I found this lovely remark from Santayana, from his essay on “The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell,” which I reread this afternoon:

    “I cannot help thinking that a consciousness of the relativity of values, if it became prevalent, would tend to render people more truly social than would a belief that things have intrinsic and unchangeable values, no matter what the attitude of any one to them may be. If we said that goods, including the right distribution of goods, are relative to specific natures, moral warfare would continue, but not with poisoned arrows. Our private sense of justice itself would be acknowledged to have but a relative authority, and while we could not have a higher duty than to follow it, we should seek to meet those whose aims were incompatible with it as we meet things physically inconvenient, without insulting them as if they were morally vile or logically contemptible. Real unselfishness consists in sharing the interests of others. Beyond the pale of actual unanimity the only possible unselfishness is chivalry — a recognition of the inward right and justification of our enemies fighting against us. This chivalry has long been practised in the battle-field without abolishing the causes of war; and it might conceivably be extended to all the conflicts of men with one another, and of the warring elements within each breast. Policy, hypnotisation, and even surgery may be practised without exorcisms or anathemas. When a man has decided on a course of action, it is a vain indulgence in expletives to declare that he is sure that course is absolutely right. His moral dogma expresses its natural origin all the more clearly the more hotly it is proclaimed; and ethical absolutism, being a mental grimace of passion, refutes what it says by what it is. Sweeter and more profound, to my sense, is the philosophy of Homer, whose every line seems to breathe the conviction that what is beautiful or precious has not thereby any right to existence; nothing has such a right; nor is it given us to condemn absolutely any force — god or man — that destroys what is beautiful or precious, for it has doubtless something beautiful or precious of its own to achieve.”

  3. “– on whatever basis one accepts and rejects things — ”

    There’s the rub. Since the piece tends toward skepticism, I’m reminded of Hume’s. In particular,

    “… that belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures”


    “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

    If divine standards and rational standards are alone inadequate, then perhaps it is by further understanding how passionate sensitive standards are an essential part of our reason that we can further a discussion of the values that underlie our moral and aesthetic judgments and actions. This will involve a discourse beyond that of linguistic “utterance or a scribbles” and into one that includes the feel and sense of things, the realm recorded with aesthetics regarding the beauty of things. This is the emotional realm that inherently conflicts with the rational. Again Hume,

    “As the emotions of the soul prevent any subtile reasoning and reflection, so these latter actions of the mind are equally prejudicial to the former.”

    A thought. Creating peace in this conflict and philosophically exploring further how our emotions constitue an essential part of our cognition and reasoning together with our rationality provides a path fowrard beyond skepticism.

  4. Several of my friends and I have been talking along this path. The crux of the conversations is something we used to call status quo. Seems to us relevant to your treatment here. Both religion and philosophy offer guidance and guideposts on living a better life. These are helpful to us individually. Collectively, they have value in assuring order—a code of conduct, or something of that sort. In this way, they encourage and support stasis; adherence to rules, morality and so on. A status quo or ‘state of quo’, as suggested by my sibling, a Canadian poet. Our group consensus is that these two schools fulfil an unspoken obligation, in helping assure things do not go to far off track. We don’t think this is—or was—intended. But they appear to be, in the language of the late Stephen J. Gould: overlapping magisteria. They do seem comfortable, on the same couch, in university humanities structure.

  5. But you’re writing this for us to read, and you think must share a sufficient overlap in our standards of rationality (eg doxastic norms that we accept because of their efficacy in the domain of practical rationality) that we will either accept your argument or at least reach the conciliationist conclusion that we should defer a final decision.

  6. I think I concur in expressing it as: a moral argument being better understood not as imperative in itself, but as an explanation of how the listener is compelled by their own beliefs, in some way they had not realised.

    So there is still an imperative at the physical root: if you visit me on mars, I will peremptorily demand that you crank a handle, but then explain that it drives the machine that makes the air, that flows out of the vents, that we breathe. There could be arbitrarily complex indirect such processes which bottom out in something you, we, agree is needed, and conformance to each part of which therefore carries that imperative force.

    That formulation encompasses cases that are as imperative as anything can be (breathing), but it will also range across degrees of uncertainty and disagreement. Some qualities of air, eg, are not so required by your health as others. So the character of the moral proposition shifts from only imperative to partly an empirical test: if we find many agree, then we affirm the rule (more) objective and compelling.


    I meant to say “phenomenal” both times I referred to noumena above in my reply to Kevin. W/o an edit option, and it appears I’ve run out of Reply options on that sub-thread, so posting it down here. Noumena is what we can’t confidently say anything about, and what I was saying is that I’m willing to operate just within the boundaries of the phenomenal if that’s helpful or necessary to explaining how weak my realism is.

  8. Not to whip a dead horse or be obsessive about this comment thread, but as I have some openings today that I might not have again this week, I’ll (yes, somewhat obsessively) clarify something and lay out where I’m coming from just a tad more, then go touch some grass, as it were.

    This has to do with what I would call the Push and Pull in arguments between realists and skeptics.

    The harder realists push, the more they risk getting knocked out with a haymaker because they’re leading with their chin. That is, the more they accuse the anti-realist of something incoherent, the more they risk being asked to produce their own deeply coherent Realist view of the world, and there they’ll run into trouble, because we’re all in some kind of theoretical trouble somewhere.

    From the other side, the more skeptics pull away the tools of normativity from realists, the more they risk confounding reason itself, even in its normal function, as reason and normativity are so intertwined, even leaving interpersonal force aside.

    I try to balance these forces, but the rent I pay for that is in staking out a super moderate stance that’s so barely noticeable as a view that it’s constantly getting mistaken for something else, and I’m constantly on the edge of seeing both vices and virtues on all sides, which can be disorienting.

    Now, Putnam was big on the difference between real and manufactured doubt, but we still have the apparently large area of inevitable agreement that even Kevin who has gone full Rorty has noticed. In other words, when Kevin said we experience the same world in the same way, I agree wholeheartedly with this, I just think using the word “sociological” to describe the huge overlaps in our agreement, on perhaps what we can call the things that “hold fast,” that includes things like finding that some kinds of pegs fit certain kinds of grooves and other kinds don’t, etc. “Sociological” is way too weak a word for all that.

    Also, to clear up a bit of possible confusion. I agree with Dan on the lack of force when we’re talking about external reasons. I am prodding for more here, in seeking why we agree, and also perhaps shoehorning a bit of recent EA content re podcasts and articles involving Dan, Kevin, and Robert. So, when I say that even the internal refers to the external, I am not speaking merely of motivation now. I am speaking of internal and external frames a bit more generally. Here, on epistemic claims about the world. Even those relatively weaker claims about the world carry a kind of weight, I am saying, even if we put interpersonal motivation aside.

    So, my objection holds even if we’re stuck in the phenomenal (which I mistakenly called noumena above, my apologies, as that lies beyond the phenomenal) or perhaps in our own cognitive structure that was (for all we know) bestowed from evolving in the same universe (IIRC there is a view like that called “psychologism”) or linguistic idealism (Bernard Williams went as far as calling this the later Wittgenstein’s view, not that I’m endorsing Williams there), or whatever you want to call it. Yes, robust realism has this universal feature too, but what I’m doing is stiff-arming robust realism and saying that if there is a 99.99% inevitability to the things that hold fast and structure our world that contains instinctively knowing things like “squares pegs and round holes just don’t fit,” then “sociological” is not a good word for that area of inevitable quasi-universal agreement.

    This holds even if we’re brains in a vat. It has the same form. Now, you might find it strange that I claim to be a realist and I’m willing to countenance that we might be brains in a vat, but again I want the weakest realism that the realism store has ever put on the shelf. In the end, I want to do the same thing with the phenomena or cognitive structure that Putnam did with the brain in a vat, which is to ultimately say it doesn’t matter. Our world is our world

    Whatever to call this quasi universal seemingly inevitable agreement on the things that hold fast, it certainly appears to transcend social clique, or the rules of children’s games at summer camp, or the desires of individual ego selves, or religions, or internal views in general.

    All I’m saying is that the internal is capable of, and often does refer to this external POV. Now, it sounds weird for me to say that there is an external reference even if we’re brains in a vat. I mean, what’s external to being a mere brain in a vat?! That’s why I felt moved to make this clarification. We have no idea whether we’re brains in a vat or not. My watered down brand of realism is completely consistent, strictly speaking, with us being brains in a vat. IMO Kant’s phenomena/noumena distinction has this characteristic as well, and what I’m calling psychologism. We never reach the edge of ourselves or the line between the brain and a vat, or the phenomenal and noumenal. Nevertheless, we have levels of incorrigibility even within that (strictly speaking possible) epistemic limit that for all we know blocks us from seeing things in themselves.

    I’m not saying it’s worth entertaining options we have no ability to really see, like trying to peer into the noumena, I’m just conceding that even if my weak realism doesn’t get to what’s **really** real, if we all already know that square pegs don’t fit into round holes because we all live in the same world, and I can place that quasi-inevitable belief into an internal game as I did above, then a significant part of the game isn’t explained merely by reference to the internal view.

    Words like “internal” refer to something below virtually all of humanity, or let’s say, internal is a subset of what virtually everyone inevitably believes, same with “sociological.” If 99.99% of people are bound to understand the mis-fit between square pegs and round holes because they all occupy the same world, then this and whatever else fits into this quasi-incorrigible category can safely be referred to as “external,” because it’s external to my individual ego, my social group, my larger culture, etc., etc., etc. This doesn’t rely on me believing in interpersonal normative force.

    To summarize, it matters whether this is all my philosophical temperament, or all **just** my philosophical temperament. But maybe that’s just my philosophical temperament!

    Thanks again,


    grass touchin’ time …

    1. Jay:

      Thanks for these comments. They are wonderfully lucid. Also they would express my own “philosophical temperament” if I had one.


    2. Jay,

      At the risk of being in a wonky order, I think I’ll respond here to the last comment you wrote above. We may well have been talking past each other at that point. I really appreciate and enjoy your comments.

      Here are the two themes in the last one: “But even you say that we’re unlikely to come to radical disagreement because we all experience the same world in the same way, so it appears to me that you are making a claim to the outside world.”

      Not sure if you saw it, but I addressed this in comments to Rob Gressis’s recent article. First, I was a bit careful in how I worded the thing: I said that we appear to be similar enough to be experiencing the same world. If we drill down, I can’t really say THAT we are except that given our behavior (and reasons to think humans are as similar as different), it seems we are.

      But also – this is what I addressed in the comments to Rob – we may ultimately be ‘fated’ to be realists of some sort; that is, it may be that human thinking needs to operate on a model of the world which treats that model as the real one. That doesn’t alleviate any of the problems with realism itself; I have strong reasons to think that the type of correspondence realism wants is not possible for us to have. But it may be that in the end, I HAVE to think about the world in a realist way, even though I have reason to think that we can never live up to the promise that sets up for us.

      “In any case, since we’re still commenting under Dan’s post on Internal and External reasons, what is your take on that? Mine is that I agree with the distinction and find it important, but if I were to try to approach the distinction with only the sociological lens, I’m not sure that I would find very much useful in that philosophical distinction, even just when doing philosophy.”

      Not sure I understand the point of such a distinction other than to get beyond it and show that there really isn’t a great way to make it. I go to a movie. I am moved by the characters, the script, and the plot. I cry at the end. How much did the movie make me cry – its script, etc – and how much did I – my being moved by it – make me cry? Hard to say, right. Had either my experience goinig into the movie, the movie script itself, or circumstances at the movie – maybe I had a sad day – been different, the crying wouldn’t have happened. There isn’t a good way whether my crying was externally or internally motiveted – except in a controlled experiment, but now you are getting into population-level statistics, and that changes the subject.

      I see reason as being similar. Obviously, arguments can be constructed in ways more and less likely to compel. But, there always has to be a key personal internal element to being persuaded, something like Kierkegaard’s subjective truth. If an argument fails to persuade, many philosophers assume either that the argument wasn’t good – in some abstract and seemingly objective sense of ‘good’ – or that the listener failed to detect the goodness inhering in the argument. I suspect that like movies and reactions, reasons and ears are in an interactive process where it isn’t entirely clear where the role of one ends and the other begins.

  9. Kevin,

    I appreciate your reply regarding Internal and External reasons. That does comport with my expectations of what you would answer based on what’s been said so far.

    I think part of what we’ve been doing is re-playing the Putnam-Rorty war. A couple disciples bound the have the same fights over and over!

    Good chat!

  10. Logic won’t be convincing unless someone accepts your premises. So the philosopher or theologian can give you reasons/premises why they believe something but if you don’t believe their premises then it won’t work. Two people can try to find premises they agree on and if they do reasoning can lead to agreement. And I would say that sometimes after hearing utterances or scribbles I was “compelled” to accept certain positions. By that I mean I realized reluctantly that they made a good point. Descarte’s skeptical arguments were like this for me.

    Some people talk about “objective proof” and you talk about “objective standards”. It is unclear what you mean. Sometimes people talk about “objective evidence.” Which again can mean a variety of things but I usually take to mean evidence that the public generally has access too. But if that is what is meant then objective evidence is usually worse than subjective evidence.

    All proofs are subjective in that the same “proof” may not “prove” the case to everyone the same amount. That is why as a lawyer I want to know if I am to prove this case to a judge or a Jury and I also may want to know which judge or jury and I will shape my arguments accordingly.

    I think professors sometimes lose track of this inherent subjectivity of “proof.”

    Mavrodes wrote about this and explained the limits of even sound arguments. I realize some people said he was begging the question but that is beside the key point. The key point is premises being true does not guarantee they are believed. There is no rule of the universe that fairly places the burden of proof on someone, because there is no rule of the universe that says people will believe premises just because they are true. People will find a proof convincing – or at least evidence of the conclusion – if they believe the premises. Whether the premises are in fact true is irrelevant to the effect the proof has on the person hearing the proof. (and here I mean “truth” in the sense that a proposition is true if it accords with reality)

    So When you say well you can’t prove that this is how I should live then I would say ok I can’t prove it *to you* but that doesn’t mean you are correct or that I should change my belief. You may just be holding on to false beliefs. And you likely think I am holding on to false beliefs. It is not irrational for either of us to refuse to adopt what we think are the false beliefs of the other just for sake of agreement.

    I go into this a bit here:

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