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January 16, 2011

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nato

I suspect Nathan misunderstands Nietzsche, though of course I don't see any point in reading enough Nietzsche to determine what he really did mean, if that's even possible. I think modern analytical philosophers find some of what he says sort of interesting, like a crazed mathematician who posits interesting theorems that might be true without proving them, but I've never encountered one who regarded his philosophy highly. That's part of why I immediately recoiled from MacIntyre as someone beating a strawman. If an anti-communist looked to Stalin for a distillation of modern communism, I would immediately be able to tell they were only talking to the echo-chamber and not engaging actual communists. Referring to Stalin as an example of what happens when one tries to go down that path is one thing, but that's not what communists thing they're doing. Really, no communists regarded Stalin in a positive light after the 50s, so if they're still communists, it's in spite of Stalin, not because of him. Likewise with Nietzsche: he provides an example of confused and rootless secular morality that stands as a warning to others seeking a secular morality.

To me, virtue ethics seems like an attempt to replace one incoherence with another. He is, of course, correct in that there can be no rationally-discoverable final ethics, but I don't see how that gives cover to (what seems to me to be) so much time-honored question-begging. Further, I think that he's just mistaken to think that one should view the achievement of final ethics to be the legitimizing goal of rational discovery proceeding from something like first principles. Just because we can't reach final ethics doesn't mean we can't arrive at meaningfully true findings. In fact, I would say that approaches like virtue ethics are exemplar findings, very much in the same way that Newtonian physics were (and are) meaningfully true findings.

Nathan Smith

Hmm. I haven't read *After Virtue* in years-- for this post I only re-read a few passages-- but isn't MacIntyre's ethics secular? His project of situating the virtues in the context of *practices* is not an appeal to religious authority.

I'm not sure what is meant by the phrase "rationally-discoverable final ethics." In view of Hume's critique of induction one may question whether there is a rationally-discoverable final physics, even of such a basic kind as one needs in order to drink a cup of tea. On the other hand, if one uses "reason" in what I have called a more "latitudinarian" sense, one might be able to derive an ethics from an apprehension of purpose in nature, including human nature, and call that "reason." Which I think is what MacIntyre does.

I'm not sure what the difference is between "final ethics" and "meaningfully true findings."

nato

In a general sense, secular could be defined as 'not belonging to a particular time,' and I think MacIntyre's point was about working with practices tied to particular times as opposed to attempts to anchor one's morality beyond history/received ideology/religious doctrine. Then he (as best I can tell) went back in history and ideology to select virtue ethics as a practice. The details on MacIntyre's thought process aren't necessarily relevant to what I'm trying to claim, which is that we can usefully strive to anchor morality in reason (i.e. beyond any particular viewpoint) without expecting to be able to derive anything like a total manual of right and wrong. If we are suitably modest about the meaning and applicability of the answers to which we reason, I think we can legitimately say we can come to "know" the "right" answer.

So that takes two parts: deciding what will count as a true moral derivation, and deciding over what domain the derivation is true. I won't get into the first part because it's messy as well as familiar. The second part might be a more novel addition the the usual moral argument.

Murder is wrong, one of the wrongest things possible. We know this (let's say) because it obviates the possibility of any more good things for/from the murdered person. However, if in the future it became possible to reverse a murder, then the badness of murder would be massively ameliorated. Not by any means eliminated, but it's sufficient to say that if the conditions change enough, then the stability of moral evaluation changes. At the same time, if we discovered that there was a sequence of words that could drive someone irrevocably insane, then saying those words would assume something like the same moral status once occupied by murder.

None of this is very interesting in some respects - of course specific moral dictates change for different circumstances, but the underlying premises don't! What's more interesting, though, is that we can have both stable premises and unstable applications, without them seeming to threaten each-others' legitimacy. Murder where people don't stay dead hardly seems like murder, and inducing irrevocable insanity may as well count as assassination. Further, when premises don't make it obvious how to think on a novel situation, I don't see that as a refutation of those premises. I would expect good moral foundations to allow us to frame questions in ways that they can in principle be answered, but I wouldn't necessarily expect to be able to answer them.

I don't know if that really clarifies things because I leave a lot of distinctions unexplained, but hopefully it gives at least a fuzzy idea of what I'm trying to get at.

Nathan Smith

Your examples seem to assume a utilitarian standard. Do you think your position is vulnerable to the usual critiques of utilitarianism, e.g., the incommensurability of goods, the ends justifying the means? What if the person to be murdered is very unhappy?

nato

"Do you think your position is vulnerable to the usual critiques of utilitarianism...?"

The short answer is "yes." Just because I think McIntyre is going in the wrong direction doesn't mean I think straight-ahead utilitarianism wins by default. In fact, it is clearly broken in some fundamental respects. That is part of the reason why I think conflicts in political philosophy (e.g. Nozick vs. Rawls) feel morally inflected: just as politics is the art of the possible, so, too, is morality. I strongly suspect the problems of simple utilitarianism are exactly the source of 'natural rights' in a manner that's very like the way 'e' drops out of interest equations and 'pi' is just a fact, be it ever so irrational (and arbitrary-seeming), of geometric existence.

This may seem to be mystical mathematicalism, but game theory and agent dynamics are (I believe) ontologically antecedent to actual agents instantiated by the universe. Our conditions cleave to that mathematics because they are a fundamental part of existence*. It would not really be that amazing to find that truly sophisticated dynamical agent systems started to exhibit regular features related to natural rights wherever they arise.

*Which contrasts with our own highly-contingent ontology.

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