May 2, 2012

A Dialogue

My dear Calvin, I don't agree with Bharath's point that in philosophy classrooms there is a pretend doubt phenomenon. Contrary to how Bharath makes it seem, when the professor raises the doubt "Are all values subjective?" she isn't speaking for herself. Rather, she is raising a doubt which someone might raise, for example, someone who is a moral skeptic. And why is the professor doing this? Because by raising the question she is challenging the students' conception of the world, and  forcing them to rethink their deepest assumptions.

But, Hobbes, there is a simple response to the moral skeptic who worries if all values are subjective. Suppose I am talking to The Moral Skeptic. Either she acknowledges that our interaction is governed by values of civil discourse or she doesn't. If she does acknowledge such values, then she isn't actually a moral skeptic; she is just saying some words without realizing that she doesn't believe what she is saying. And if she doesn't acknowledge such values, then she and I are not going to be able to have a pleasant conversation anyhow. If we can't take for granted that while talking she can't use me as a punching bag, I sure as hell am not going to be able to have a simple philosophical conversation. I will then be seriously worried for her and for myself. If I come across a real moral skeptic, my worry wouldn't be that I wouldn't be able to convince her by argument. My worry would be: what if she steals my money, or stabs me? This is a loose cannon I am dealing with! Suppose she isn't actually a moral skeptic, but is toying with the position, and seriously wondering about it. Then I would assume that she is feeling really estranged from society and must be feeling very lonely and hurt, and I would see how I can help by bringing her off the ledge of such deep pessimism. The point that a professor can't be a moral skeptic because she is a professor applies in a sense to everyone. A father who aims to be even a decent father can't be a complete moral skeptic; for being a father means being committed to guiding one's child in some ways which will help the child when she grows up. Similarly with anyone who aims to be a neighbor or a friend, or any of the normal identities we as people strive for. There is no magical person we will come across to whom we have no bonds as people, and with whom one can discuss moral skepticism as if it were a purely theoretical issue. As I see it, this settles the worry of moral skepticism. What is there to go on about for a whole semester?

It doesn't settle it. Maybe it settles it for you. But the philosophical problem of moral skepticism goes on. It is a deep issue people have been struggling with for thousands of years. After all, the issue goes back in one form or the other to the debate between Socrates and Thrasymacus in 4th Century BC, and it has been going on since. By giving a chance for students to engage with this issue, the professors are enabling them to engage with questions that all human beings have struggled with. It makes the students connected to the course of human history. That is the real benefit of the philosophical discussion. And that requires not just a semester, but a whole life time.

I love Plato's Republic. But there is a clear difference between the conversations in that book and the conversations which happen in classrooms. After all, Socrates is not a professor, and Thrasymacus isn't his student. Like many of Socrates' interlocutors, Thrasymacus is a fully fledged adult who is successful in society, and who presumes to speak as an adult about what constitutes a flourishing life and how society should be structured. Socrates is an intellectual gad-fly because he challenges adults in power, such as priests, politicians, professors, artists, and so on--people who think that because they are an expert in a given domain, that makes them experts at how to live life or about the largest questions about humanity. Socrates challenged this by showing that there is a certain kind of expertise--philosophical expertise, expertise at living!--which doesn't follow from any professional expertise. Socrates famously said, "I know that I know nothing." What does this mean? It sounds absurd on the surface. "It's a contradiction," one wants to cry out. One can write a book (or 10!) about what the statement means, connecting it to the latest academic work on self-refuting statements or knowledge skepticism. But read it as a commitment Socrates is making, and it is simple, inspiring stuff: "The knowledge I have gained about living life, I don't presume to be able to teach that; it is not the kind of thing that can be taught, but which each person must come to through their own reflection; I commit to not taking on the role of an expert of philosophy. Though it is tempting, I will resist it. Because philosophical knowledge comes not from teaching others but from teaching oneself."

In comparison to such a grand commitment, it is a pity that in our time the Socratic method has been reduced to a process of the professor asking students questions. Or a professor asking other professors questions in a professional essay. Where in this modern understanding of Socratic practice is the challenge and the risk and the ruffling of feathers? When the professor has the power in the teacher-student relation, how can the professor be Socrates and the student Thrasymacus? Or the professor Socrates and the student also Socrates? If the classroom isn't a good analogue to the situation in which Socrates practiced philosophy, how can students be connected to the tradition of Socratic thinking? Acknowledge your own Socratic ignorance; make that commitment. Connect yourself first to Socrates. Not: "I have gotten a philosophy Ph.D., and so I am now well qualified to teach what Socrates meant."

You are contradicting yourself! On the one hand, you say that moral skepticism is inconsistent, and that there is no problem like that. On the other hand, you say that Socratic skepticism is amazing and brilliant, and that somehow the professors have lost touch with it. How can moral skepticism be dumb, but Socratic skepticism amazing? Isn't moral skepticism implied by Socratic skepticism? If one says he doesn't know anything, then he also doesn't know if there are any objective moral values.

There are at least three ways in which a skeptical assertion ("I don't know about X") can be understood, given the context in which it is made:

1) As a way to justify one's doing selfish and bad things. "Why are you dealing crack to teenagers? Don't you know how horrible that is?" -- "Oh, who determines what is right and wrong? I don't know anything about that stuff. There is just each person trying to get by, and do what is good for them. Everything else is just things that some people made up to control others by making them feel guilty."

2) As a way to push oneself to get beyond one's own sense of limitations. "Are you out of your mind? You don't mind dying as punishment even though you are innocent? Aren't you scared of death?" -- "Oh, what is death? I don't know what it is. Maybe it is the greatest thing that a person can experience? I just don't know."

3) As mimicking either (1) or (2), without actually making either kind of assertion. "Are there any moral truths? If there are, we might need special moral vision to perceive such truths. But we don't have moral vision. Or do we? We don't know. Maybe there are moral truths. Maybe there aren't. We need to figure this out!"

Assertions like (1) matter in everyday life because they are corrosive and a bad influence. It is essential to counteract such assertions to show that selfish actions can't be justified so easily, or at all. A good philosopher who can show the limits of such a self-justifying skeptic is doing the community a service. Though Thrasymacus wasn't a skeptic, this was the form his nihilism took--it justified any actions as long as one is powerful. Socrates did a public service by showing that Thrasymacus was wrong (using the argument that Thrasymacus' view is inconsistent with Thrasymacus' commitments just in virtue of being a person).

Assertions like (2) matter in everyday life because they help people move beyond their own sense of reality, which can sometimes be limiting. Knowledge is always a good thing, but a false sense of knowledge can be a horrible thing. And assertions like (2) can help move beyond such a false sense. Socratic skepticism is inspiring because it helps in this way.

Assertions like (3) look like (1) or (2), but they are stripped of either context. A professor who says (3) (and it is only professors who normally say something like that) isn't defending selfish actions nor overcoming one's limitations, nor doing anything else which arises naturally in the context of life. They are simply making skeptical sounding assertions which arise from discussing other skeptical sounding assertions in books (such as The Republic or The Meditations, etc.). The assertions are iterations upon iterations upon iterations of sentences over thousands of years, and which in the process have lost their fresh and live link to the changing issues in society.

Since the link of assertions like (3) are mainly to other such assertions in other philosophy books, the main use of such assertions ends up being to affirm the need for such assertions. In effect, their main use is to keep the philosophy profession going, of providing a special kind of discourse which can be used to justify the philosophy profession.

Physicists talk like this: "A necessary part of understanding the intra-atomic to intermolecular forces is the effective force generated by the momentum of the electrons' movement."

Doctors talk like this: "The Pathobiological Determinants of Atherosclerosis in Youth Study demonstrated that intimal lesions appear in all the aortas and more than half of the right coronary arteries of youths aged 7–9 years."

And philosophers talk like this: "Ethical egoism is the normative ethics position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. It differs from psychological egoism, from rational egoism and from contractual egoism. These doctrines, though, may be combined with ethical egoism. One can distinguish five versions of ethical egoism..."

Ironically, assertions like (1) make more sense that those like (3). For, at least, one knows why (1) matters (even if it matters in a bad way). With (3) it is hard to know even that. The only way to know why assertions like (3) matter is to ask the philosophy professors. Who will then take on the role of teaching about its depth and importance. Which ultimately is the real use of assertions like (3)--to keep the philosophy professors in the role of the keepers of philosophical knowledge.

The use of an assertion is distinct from the intention with which the assertion is made. A philosophy professor might not intend to use assertions like (3) to keep the philosophy profession going; in fact, most of them most definitely do not intend that. If they intend anything, it is to seek the truth. But that doesn't mean that they understand the use of their assertions, or that they have some special privileged understanding of that use. They might have only good intentions, and still deeply misunderstand the use of the assertions they are making.

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