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April 25, 2007


Joyless Moralist

I don't disagree with much here, but I should note that, even though the whole original position and Veil of Ignorance bit is the part of Rawls that is most popularly familiar, you can't really use that same device yourself and identify the results as "Rawlsian"; or anyway, no professional philosopher would classify yours as a Rawlsian position.

You've got your finger on the most ridiculous part about Rawls. (One of them, anyway. There are lots of ridiculous things about Rawls.) It's sort of similar to the problem of Descartes, who embraces radical skepticism, sets out to radically rebuild all knowledge from the ground up... and ends up "proving" in just 50 pages that the world is more or less exactly as he already thought it was! Rawls is if anything even sillier. "If people filtered out all their unreasonable prejudices and considered things perfectly rationally, they would all embrace... exactly the social order that liberal academics like me favored all along!" Yeah, that's plausible. Most people, when doing the whole Original Position thought experiment candidly, would probably take it as support for whatever moral outlook they already held. Rawls is obviously preaching to the already convinced, or at least the 80% convinced, when he runs this "argument".

Which is why nobody in philosophy would call a view like yours "Rawlsian." They would take the Difference Principle to also be a necessary, definitional element of Rawls. The Original Position is really just a patch trying to paper over the fact that Rawls, like most contemporary moral theorists, has no good justification for prescribing his preferred social order as normative.


It seems generally assumed by anti-feminist men that feminism does damage to the male position or that the primary advantage offered by feminism to men is increased chances to "score". Sadly, theoretical feminism spends enough time talking about the "patriarchy" that this belief can seem obvious to some.

However, if one looks at the thread of the feminist arguments on here, there's a great deal of advantage to men that has nothing to do with sex and indeed under a number of circumstances the primary disadvantage to the feminist position for a man was that it called into question expectations of intercourse in some contexts.

All assuming one accepts any of our arguments.


In refutation of intrinsic purpose or telos:


Let's say we have an alien artifact, a black box, and we want to know what it is for. Did the aliens build it to sit on, if they can sit at all? Is it a piece of artwork, a sculpture perhaps? Is it a container, and is there something in it? Does it have any value to aliens at all, or is it just a waste product? These questions are all asked with a creator in mind; something created this black box to satisfy some purpose. In this sense the black box has a purpose (as given by the aliens), but is that purpose somehow intrinsic to the black box?

Let's say the aliens 'created' the black box to be fuel for their spaceship. The purpose of the black box is thus to be a (very specific) kind of shapeship fuel. However, the aliens, as far as we can tell, are dead and gone, and their spaceships are no more. We can have no idea that the black box was ever used for fuel, unless we ourselves develop that as a use for it. Until that happens, what is the use of the black box to *us*? Most likely its purpose would be like that of the pyramids: a great mystery to study and to base stories and artwork around. If we were able to reverse engineer it exactly, to what purpose would we consign it?

What if no one ever discovered this artifact, and it was left for the rest of eternity in obscurity? Would it still have a purpose? What if aliens never even developed it, though it was technically possible for them to construct, and if they had, it would have been used as spaceship fuel? Would the metaphysical form (qua Plato's Forms) of the black box intrinsically have as its purpose use as fuel, or would its intrinsic purpose be something that we imagine aliens would use it for?

We could find any number of uses for the black box. Perhaps it even has several 'best' uses. If we find a use for it, isn't it satisfying a purpose we give to it? If we sit on it, aren't we giving it the same purpose as a chair? If we eat it, aren't we giving it the same purpose as food? If we suppose it has a creator, aren't we giving it some unknown or hypothetical, intentional purpose of that creator?

Intentional purpose, actually, is redundant, because purpose cannot be void of intention. Purpose must always be with reference to a 'whom'. Some thing has a purpose as given by someone. Absent an agent to consider it, an object has *no* purpose, ie there is no intrinsic purpose of an object. Even if aliens did create the black box with some purpose in mind, the black box does not have that purpose without aliens (or other agents) to consider it.

Basic agents, such as monkeys, may find a purpose for the black box, say as a crude sort of shelter from the elements. More inferior agents, such as birds, may use the black box as a nesting place. Descending to the pits of agenthood, uses can be found for the black box, and purposes thus acrued by it. At the very cusp of agenthood, where intentions are as basic as can be possible, the 'use' of the black box will be correlated to the 'use' (or perhaps an 'use') of the agent, and their 'purposes' towards that mutual utility will also be correlated. Thus the evolution of agenthood is facilitated.

What *is* the purpose of the black box? Its purpose is whatever you can (or imagine you can) use it for. Use it well, because you only have one ;)

Nathan Smith

Brilliant, Tom! I was always a little uneasy with the arguments about telos and this helps me to understand why. Although, on the other hand, I understand why telos helps to reverse the is/ought divorce, and (if accepted) helps to see off the threat of moral nihilism or subjectivism or relativism.

The concept of purpose seems always to be relative to some stated or implied intentional agent. The same object can have different purposes for different agents. If we assert a telos of man, we open ourselves up to the question: What if I find this telos you speak of irrelevant to what I want to do with my life? What if I want something else?

Val Larsen

Nathaniel writes:

"If we assert a telos of man, we open ourselves up to the question: What if I find this telos you speak of is irrelevant to what I want to do with my life? What if I want something else?"

The critical question, of course, is whether the proposed telos really is our true end. If it is, then it constitutes or expresses the natural law of our being. Or put alternatively, the natural law of our being will have within it an implicit telos. One can wish that natural laws were other than they are, but our wishes notwithstanding, willfully violating them brings us to no good end. Certainly, with respect to the natural laws we call physics or chemistry, it is easy to demonstrate that a person who imagines some other reality and acts in harmony with their fantasy can seriously injure themselves or others. Presumably, the same would be true if we shift to the domain of human relationships and social morality. An imagined nature and end for humanity that is false (e.g., Marx’s vision enacted in communism) leads to much misery.

MacIntyre argues that the true end of man is to seek the true end of man, in other words, to discover our true telos or the natural law of our being. There is an easy and a hard path to that end. The easy path, in principle, is revelation from God Who already knows the full truth. To build upon Thomas’ metaphor, God can tell us to use the black box in a certain way that produces good results for us even though we don’t know how/why it does what it does. The hard path is experience, the school of hard knocks, in which people imaginatively propose an end and pursue it, most often unsuccessfully, but sometimes with success.

People who reject the traditional conception of the human good that is embodied in revelation or tradition because they “want to do something else with their life” are humanity’s social entrepreneurs. As such, in terms of happiness and other goods, they will be net losers, but at the same time, the benefactors of humanity. Most entrepreneurial ventures fail, and in the aggregate, entrepreneurs do not recoup the value of their investments. Society nonetheless benefits from their aggregate loss because the few who win big produce profits for millions of people who didn’t bear the risk but nonetheless share in the winnings of the few entrepreneurs who get things right (e.g., the many employee millionaires created by Sam Walton and Bill Gates). The same is, presumably, true in the management of our personal lives where we can learn wisdom by avoiding the failures and copying the successes of social entrepreneurs.

So, my less conventional brethren and sisteren, I salute you. My happiness (and the larger happiness of human kind) is firmly rooted in your misery.

Nathan Smith

Glad to be of assistance.


I'm quite happy, actually, and have never felt this "misery" that you speak of. You could say my happiness and knowledge/wisdom are divinely revealed to me through the application of reason. Could you refute me in that claim?

Val Larsen

Thomas writes:

"I'm quite happy, actually, and have never felt this ‘misery’ that you speak of. You could say my happiness and knowledge/wisdom are divinely revealed to me through the application of reason. Could you refute me in that claim?"

On whether or not you are happy, I will cite the Greeks. A man is not happy until he has been dead for several generations. Their point was that it is not apparent that things have turned out well for us and our family until our lives (and the lives of our children and grandchildren) are fully lived. Are the Europeans--who have broken with tradition in pursuing a hedonistic, non-religious life, and who will live to see (or will reliably anticipate) the disappearance of their civilization through demographic collapse--happy? Is Lenin happy in this Greek sense? His success was short lived and his life/legacy proved to be a curse to his people. When we live within a tradition and inculcate that proven tradition in the lives of our children, we can reliably anticipate the pattern of their lives if they adhere to the legacy we have given them. We have a chance at happiness in the Greek sense.

As to your happiness being a function of reason, I will refer you to MacIntyre on that point. He demonstrates that modern reasoners rely upon a pastiche of disconnected moral aphorisms that do not, today, have a coherent ground. On this reading, while you may, by chance, live a happy life because your particular random assemblage of moral maxims--inherited from the morally more coherent past—still delivers some benefit, your life is not, in fact, rooted in reason. You will not be able to demonstrate that your various maxims are logically connected and that the maxims of other moderns who have different views and live different lives are less rational than your own. In a word, the function of your reason is merely local, disconnected, not comprehensive, and cannot, therefore, be the ground of the happiness you *may* be enjoying.


"He demonstrates that modern reasoners rely upon a pastiche of disconnected moral aphorisms"

I missed the part where MacIntyre discussed Tom's position.


Your post is quite ironic. The Christians of the past would most likely be horrified by the Christians of the present, and visa-versa. Your implication that Christian tradition has been passed down faithfully and without substantial modification is naive. Western Europe went into its darkest period during the hight of Christian hegemony, and they only escaped when they rediscovered the old ancient Greek and Roman traditions of reason and philosophy. The Renaissance and Enlightenment were both due to the good ol' reasoners of ancient history, none of which were Christian. It seems that the Greeks and Romans should be very happy, as their grand traditions live on in secular American society!

Val Larsen

Since I am a Christian restorationist (a Mormon), I do not hold as you suggest that the Christian tradition has been passed down faithfully and without substantial modification. You will have to argue with Joyless Moralist and Nathaniel about that. But in making your argument against them, it won’t suffice to show that medieval culture was cruel by our standards. Greek and Roman cultures were equally if not more cruel. After all, Socrates was killed by the Greeks, Christ crucified by the Romans. To challenge the continuity of the Christian tradition, you will need to show that medieval Christianity qua Christianity was somehow fundamentally different from contemporary Christianity qua Christianity in ways that would horrify us. I’m not sure that can be demonstrated, but in any case, showing it wouldn’t touch upon the tradition I follow.

In mentioning the “dark” ages, do you mean to suggest that it was the Christianity of the west that caused the civilizational decline after Rome collapsed? It is to the Abrahamic religions, not the inherent vitality of Greek and Roman culture, that we owe the survival and worldwide spread of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks. Virtually all major figures who participated in the Renaissance and many who were part of the Enlightenment were Christians. So it was in Christendom that the Enlightenment occurred and it was Christendom that spread it worldwide. Still today, the most vibrant and culturally influential nation in the West is also the most religious and overwhelmingly Christian. But then, none of this is all that germane to the point I was making, so let me close this post and open another to speak to that.

Val Larsen

My main point was that people who live their lives in harmony with a well established and tested tradition are likely to be more happy in both our modern personal sense and in the Greek multi-generational sense than are people who “want to do something else with their life.” While I have been greatly blessed by my own Mormon tradition, I am not making this claim only for it but rather for all well-tested traditions, including non-Christian traditions. As I argue above, the social entrepreneurs who make their lives an experiment that tests the hypothesis that there is a better way to live will mostly find that, yes, abandoning tradition makes a significant difference in their degree of happiness--but in the opposite direction than they had supposed. They will be less happy than traditionalists who lived a more conventional life. Empirical evidence supports my supposition. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that only 28 percent of liberals described themselves as very happy while 47 percent of conservatives said they were very happy. Conservatives (even poor ones) are also far more likely to exhibit the Christian virtue of Charity—donating time and money to various worthy causes. So they may be both more good and more happy. And the good/happy relationship is probably causal.

What is very likely to be true for personal happiness is almost certain to be true if the standard is the Greek, multi-generational standard of happiness. A happy traditionalist whose children are schooled in and adopt their parents’ way of life have a fair prospect of being as happy as their parents were. But someone who lives a non-conventional life and thus, by example if not also by word, encourages their children to find their own way, has a small probability of being happy in the sense that they were happy and those most dear to them—their children and grandchildren—are (or will) also be happy. If we assume that there is a 28% chance of being very happy when living a non-conventional life, then if the person has one child and one grandchild, there is only a 2% chance that parent, child, and grandchild will all be very happy. As the number of children and grandchildren increases, the odds of happiness in the Greek sense become vanishingly small. To be sure, the 28% is not a solid number, but I think it is more likely to be too high than too low, for reasons I won't go into here.


I wonder how one defines a conventional life. Using my own metrics (which I'll not attempt to define here):

My brother tried for some time to live a conventional life, and only in retrospect did it become clear to me that the tension I was beginning to perceive in him as he got older sprang from the fact that he was a gay man trying to live a straight life. Since he began living* as a gay man he's been very happy.

I too discovered that the conventional life I had picked out for myself wasn't going to work for me; sadly it took me several years longer than it should have to figure that out. I'd say I'm quite a bit happier these days, lingering Army-effects notwithstanding.

My sister started out in a fairly unconventional life in which she seemed very happy, and eventually settled into a more conventional life, in which she seems even happier.

My father lived a very conventional life in which he apparently became less happy over time, eventually doing some somewhat irresponsible things that broke it all up. Over the next several years he attempted to reconstruct the conventional life he had lived, but judging from his temper and the amount of drinking he did, I'm guessing that wasn't working out for him. More recently he seems to have settled into a slightly less conventional life in which he seems more satisfied.

My mother lived a fairly conventional life as well until my father's irresponsibility brought that phase to a close. Her attempts to reestablish a semi-conventional life were fairly disastrous and now she seems moderately pleased with her current less-conventional life.

Both sets of grandparents seemed satisfied with their more-or-less conventional lives, though those one my mother's side seem less conventional and more satisfied.

One uncle has lived a thoroughly conventional life and has seemed quite happy except for health misfortunes. Another uncle on the same side was also conventional, got restless and tried unconventionality, found it to be a serious mistake and returned as best he could to his previous life. A third uncle has never really been able to manage a conventional life but doesn't seem very disappointed.

My (presumptive) future mother-in-law tried living conventionally a number of times with highly unpleasant results and has settled into an unconventional life in which she seems quite happy, some health misfortunes aside.

My (presumptive) future father-in-law tried living conventionally quite a few times with little success but with pharmaceutical treatment has managed more recently to maintain a somewhat happy, somewhat conventional life.


It's quite plausible to me with my personal dataset** that conventional ways of living are the most common successful ways of living in any given society, but any given unconventional way might be more successful in proportion to those who chose it for themselves.

*Still somewhat conventionally; given a choice he would marry his partner and eventually adopt children.
**Of which I quote only familial relations in line with the Greek theme.

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