Truth, Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and Deliberation by Cheryl Misak

Cheryl Misak is an expert on America’s pragmatist philosophers (Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, et al.) and a practicing pragmatist herself. This book grew out of her doctoral thesis. It argues that the philosophical position known as pragmatism best explains how the idea of truth applies to ethical judgments. This is a “cognitivist” position in ethics, as opposed to the “non-cognitivist” view that ethical statements merely express feelings or preferences and should never be considered true or false (non-cognitivists think that saying something like “Generosity is more ethical than greed” is like saying “I prefer generosity to greed and I want you to feel the same way”).

On the face of it, it isn’t obvious that ethical statements can be true or false. Most of us think of truth as correspondence to reality (this is the “correspondence theory”). “The cat is on the mat” is true if and only the cat really is on the mat. But there doesn’t seem to be anything real for ethical statements to correspond to. How can they be true (or false)?

However, there is more to truth than correspondence. After all, what do true statements of arithmetic correspond to? And how about logical statements like “it is not the case that P and not P”? Pragmatists like Professor Misak don’t accept correspondence as the basis for truth. Instead, they view truth in terms of successful inquiry:

It is not that a true belief is one which will fit the evidence and which will measure up to the standards of inquiry as we now now know them. Rather, a true belief is one which would fit with the evidence and which would measure up to the standards of inquiry were inquiry to be pursued so far that no recalcitrant experience and no revisions in the standards of inquiry would be called for. Only then will pragmatism preserve the kind of objectivity that might suffice to attract those philosophers and inquirers who insist that truth is more than what we happen to think correct [68].

The basic idea here is that people (which people depends on the case) can try to figure out if a statement is true, whatever kind of statement it is, using appropriate methods (direct experience, scientific research, philosophical discussion, etc.) and if it looks like they wouldn’t be able to proceed any further in their inquiry, without it being a complete waste of time, the statement is true.

It’s easy to see how this approach can be applied to simple factual statements like “the cat is on the mat”, but also to statements of mathematics and logic, as well as judgments of value, such as deciding which is the most practical course of action in a given case, the ethical thing to do or the best economic policy to adopt. What isn’t easy is to know when all reasonable avenues of inquiry have been exhausted, so that no further inquiry would make a difference.

Misak discusses many issues that her position raises, and many possible objections. I found her explanations and arguments to be quite convincing. I think her hopes for the book are fulfilled:

What I hope to have shown is that there are some good reasons for thinking that we can make assertions or have genuine beliefs about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, cruel and kind; that we can inquire about the correctness of those beliefs; that our moral deliberations aim at the truth. And I hope to have shown that if we are to make sense of this, we must conduct ourselves via democratic principles — ones which encourage tolerance, openness and understanding the experiences of others [155].

If we want to answer questions in the most effective way, and have good  reasons for our answers, we need to look at issues from different perspectives. That is how the pragmatists believe we should search for truth.

I want to mention one other thing. It’s common to think that the best way to find out what is true is to confront reality head on. Is the cat truly on the mat? Look at it. Make sure other people see it. Verify that it’s a cat — not a mouse — and that underneath it is a mat. Does the cat purr? Will it run away if you bother it?

Reading this book, I wondered what kind of reality can be confronted when deciding if a statement of ethics is true. It’s harder to say what the reality would be to make true a statement like “generosity is generally more ethical than greed”. Isn’t that a statement about how the world should be, how people should behave, and not how the world is (or how some mystical, supernatural realm of ethics is)? Misak’s answer is that if we try to figure out whether an ethical statement is true, we eventually get to a point where we can’t think otherwise. We end up being confronted with the brute reality of what our ethical beliefs are in the given situation. We will eventually say to ourselves “that’s simply right, it’s as simple as that” or “that’s just wrong, and there are no two ways about it”. I don’t recall hearing anyone give that answer before. It’s worth thinking about.

Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by R. J. Hollingdale

After reading Sue Prideaux’s biography of Nietzsche, I Am Dynamite!, I wanted to read something from the philosopher himself. I hadn’t read anything of his since On the Genealogy of Morality — or Moralsseven years ago. I wanted to understand better what was bothering the poor man. And how he thought people should live.

Beyond Good and Evil has nine parts. Each part is composed of aphorisms or sections, sometimes a page or two, sometimes a single paragraph. Overall, it was rough going. I often had no idea what he was complaining about (he mostly complains). There were also passages like this, the meaning of which seems clear at first:

Today, … when the herd animal alone obtains and bestows honours in Europe, when “equality of rights” could all too easily change into equality of wrongdoing: I mean into a general war on everything rare, strange, privileged, the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, creative fullness of power and mastery — today, being noble, wanting to be by oneself, the ability to be different, independence and the need for self-responsibility pertains to the concept “greatness”; and the philosopher will betray something of his ideal when he asserts: “He shall be the greatest who can be the most solitary, the most concealed, the most divergent, the man beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, the superabundant of will; this shall be called greatness…. [sec. 212].

Nietzsche’s fundamental idea is that the most important fact about human beings is their will to power — their desire to control and create. He was convinced that Christian morality, the morality of “the herd”, with its ideas like “turning the other cheek” and “the meek shall inherit the Earth”, interferes with humanity’s will to power. In particular, it interferes with the will to power of those blessed with genius, the greatest among us. He was well aware of Goethe, Beethoven, Napoleon and Wagner, all towering figures in his opinion, but he apparently believed there would be more such tremendously accomplished figures if only everyday morality didn’t hold them back. In order to achieve greatness, a person must go beyond the standard ideas of good and evil. If one is to achieve greatness, the transvaluation (or reconsideration) of all values is necessary.

But what values should a genius live by? Is it necessary to ignore the Golden Rule? Sacrifice everything else to one’s art or projects? Ignore common courtesy? Trample other people however and whenever it feels right? After reading Nietzsche’s biography, two of his books and several summaries of his ideas, I still don’t know. I also don’t understand why he was so bothered by everyday morality. He seems to have taken the existence of common beliefs about good and evil as a personal affront.

He offers a clue when discussing what “a born, unavoidable psychologist and reader of souls” is confronted by:

The corruption, the ruination of higher human beings, of more strangely constituted souls is the rule: it is dreadful to always have such a rule before one’s eyes [sec. 269].

If anyone has ever been one, Nietzsche was a born psychologist. Perhaps he was speaking for himself in this passage. He must have viewed himself as “strangely constituted”. After he lost his mind, he suffered from extraordinary delusions of grandeur, describing his frequent contacts with the leading statesmen of Europe and sometimes referring to himself as God.

Scholars have determined that Nietzsche was not a German nationalist or an anti-semite. Some say the notion of the Übermensch was not central to his philosophy. So it was surprising to read some of his strongly-worded views. For example:

… that what is right for one cannot … by any means be right for another, that the demand for one morality for all is detrimental to precisely the higher men, in short that there exists an order of rank between man and man, consequently also between morality and morality [sec. 228].

Every elevation of the type man has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society — and so it will always be: a society which believes in … orders of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other [257].

The noble caste was always in the beginning the barbarian caste: … they were more complete human beings (which, on every level, also means … “more complete beasts”) [257].

The essential thing in a good and healthy aristocracy is [that it] accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of innumerable men who for its sake have to be suppressed and reduced to imperfect men, to slaves and instruments. Its fundamental faith must be that society should not exist for the sake of society but only as a foundation and scaffolding upon which a select species of being is able to raise itself .. to a higher existence [258].

One has to … resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation… Exploitation … pertains to the essence of the living thing … it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power [259].

There is master morality and slave morality … The noble type of man feels himself to be the determiner of values, he does not need to be approved of, he judges “what harms me is harmful in itself”, he knows himself to be that which … accords honour to things, he creates values [260].

A morality of the rulers [says] that one has duties only toward one’s equals; that towards beings of a lower rank, towards everything alien, one may act as one wishes or “as the heart dictates” and in any case “beyond good and evil” [260].

The grander, more manifold, more comprehensive life lives beyond the old morality; the “individual” stands there, reduced to his own law-giving, to his own arts and stratagems for self-preservation, self-enhancement, self-redemption [262].

Egoism pertains to the essence of the noble soul, I mean the immovable faith that to a being such as “we are” other beings have to be subordinate by their nature, and sacrifice themselves to us … “it is justice itself” [265].

Nietzsche’s ethical theory might be called “aristocratic egoism” — self-centered behavior for the natural aristocrats among us (not the aristocrats with hereditary titles); a reasonable amount of respect for other aristocrats; and everybody else knowing their place. Who knows how many impressionable readers have taken these ideas seriously enough to have acted on them? The man wasn’t joking when he wrote: “I am dynamite!”

In conclusion, the best thing I can say about Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is that I no longer feel the need to understand its author.

Adam Smith: Father of Economics by Jesse Norman

I’m very glad I read this. I mainly knew of Smith that he wrote The Wealth of Nations and a rarely read book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments; that he explained how productive a division of labor can be; that he was a very good friend of David Hume; and that he is viewed as a champion of “the free market”, especially by libertarians and so-called “conservatives” (who sometimes wear Adam Smith ties around their right-wing necks). The most important thing I learned about Smith was that he wasn’t a libertarian at all. He understood that a market economy cannot work properly without government regulation. He also knew that economic decisions cannot be divorced from politics or morality.

I’ll quote from the book’s last chapter, “Why It Matters”:

How can the benefits of markets be safeguarded and extended, and their ill-effects contained?… We need a new master-narrative for our times. We need better frameworks of public understanding, better explanations … through which we can come to terms with these issues. But to create them, we must return to the dawn of our economic modernity and to Adam Smith himself. Not to Smith the caricature one-note libertarian alternately celebrated by his partisans and denounced by his detractors, but to what Smith actually thought, across all his writings, from ethics to jurisprudence to political economy…

The real Smith was not an intellectual turncoat who switched from altruism in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to egoism in The Wealth of Nations. He was not a market fundamentalist, an economic libertarian, or in that strong sense a laissez-faire economist. He was not an advocate of selfishness, … the creator of homo economicus or the founder of predatory capitalism… He is rightly called the father of economics, conceptually because he was the first to put markets squarely at the center of economic thought, and practically because there are few if any economists … who do not stand in his intellectual debt….But his political economy ranges far wider that economics alone, and he could with equal justice be considered one of the founding father of sociology….

For many people, Smith’s political economy will always hold center stage; both as a model of economic analysis and for his specific insights into human behavior, markets, trade, specialization and the division of labor, taxation and the negative effect of subsidies, bounties and protection. Others will admire his moral egalitarianism, his feeling for the underdog, his belief in the importance of dignity and respectability to people’s status and sense of self, the way he minimizes inequality within his “natural system of liberty”, his devastating attack on crony capitalism, his … theory of human development, his historical analysis of the supersession of feudalism by commerce and his extremely subtle exploration and defense of commercial society… Still others will recognize the foundational importance of his theory of moral and social norms….

We have a president who ignores moral and social norms, whose greed is without limit and who fully embraces crony capitalism. But he’s a Republican, so most people would say he’s following in Adam Smith’s footsteps. That does Smith a disservice. The truth is that a progressive Democrat like Senator Elizabeth Warren is much closer to Smith. She believes in capitalism but understands that the government has a crucial role in making sure markets work for the benefit of society as a whole. That is pure Adam Smith.

Religion and I (Continued)

Somewhere along the way, I got interested in the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, the great rationalist thinker of the 17th century. Spinoza argued that “God” and “Nature” are two names for the same thing. That one thing is the universe as a whole. It’s the only thing that truly exists. Everything else (atoms, thoughts, you, me) is a mode or modification of that one infinite substance, God or Nature (Deus sive Natura).

Reading Spinoza made me try to think about the universe (the whole of nature) in a religious sense, as a sacred thing, a worthy object of worship. Obviously, there have been nature religions since prehistoric times. But the idea didn’t work for me. The universe is totally amazing and the Earth is our treasured home, but I never got close to thinking of nature in religious terms.

Neither of us being drawn to any of the standard religions, my wife and I began attending a local chapter of what’s often called the Ethical Culture Society. That was in the 1980s. The organization’s actual name is the American Ethical Union. It was founded in New York City in 1877 by a former rabbinical student named Felix Adler. Here’s an explanatory paragraph from their site:

Ethical Humanism, also called Ethical Culture, is an evolving body of ideas that inspires Ethical Societies. Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity (Humanist Manifesto III). For Ethical Humanists, the ultimate religious questions are not about the existence of gods or an afterlife, but rather, “How can we create meaningfulness in this life?” and “How should we treat each other?”

We didn’t stay in the neighborhood long enough to become serious followers of Ethical Culture, but some years later, in the 1990s, we began attending our local Unitarian Church. We both felt at home there. The minister was a scholarly man and an excellent speaker. He also doubted that Jesus was a real person, let alone the son of any god. Like the American Ethical Union, the Unitarian Universalist Association welcomes those who believe in God and those who don’t, because its principal focus is on ethical behavior. From the UUA site and the organization’s bylaws:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person; 
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; 
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

… Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

The high point of my time as a church-attending Unitarian was ten years ago. The church offered a class called “Building Your Own Theology” (the perfect title for Unitarian adult education). The culmination of the class was supposed to be a personal statement from each of us regarding our fundamental beliefs, which we could then present to the congregation as part of a regular service. I think only two of us chose to address the congregation. The minister helped me with some editing, I put my blue suit on and one Sunday morning I gave it a go. It made me happy that it was well-received.

Here’s some of the conclusion (rearranged a little – consider it a theology that’s still being built):

Is there anything sacred, anything I might revere instead of God? The answer is yes: personal ideals like rationality, curiosity and courage; ethical ideals like generosity, honesty and kindness; and political ideals like justice and democracy. Our ideals and actions, insofar as they exemplify our ideals, can be sacred.

My view is that, if a god existed, it would be a middle-man between us and what is truly sacred, the ideals we hold dear.

I fell away from the church as the years passed. I didn’t feel like I was getting much out of it anymore, especially after my favorite minister retired. But I still love some of the jokes:

Q: How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is wonderful. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

Q: Why can’t UUs sing very well in choirs?
A: Because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next verse.

The children in a UU church school class were drawing pictures. The teacher asked one, “What are you drawing a picture of?”
“I’m drawing a picture of God,” was the reply.
“But nobody knows what God looks like,” objected the teacher.
“They will,” said the child, “in a minute.”

And, finally, from the comedian Lenny Bruce: “I know my humor is outrageous when it makes the Unitarians so mad they burn a question mark on my front lawn.”

Again, almost certainly next time: I found a label for what I believe, and have begun reading the New Testament in a way I never thought of before.

An Open Letter to the Leading Democrat in the House

As foreign diplomats and business people begin funneling cash to the President-Elect by taking rooms and scheduling events at T—p’s new Washington hotel (see “kleptocracy”), someone shared the following letter with me. It’s addressed to Nancy Pelosi, the current leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives.

I am writing to you on the assumption that you will continue to be leader of the Democratic members of the House of Representatives, and am urging you and the Democratic Caucus to immediately start drafting Articles of Impeachment for our presumptive President, Vice President, and other executive positions subject to impeachment.

Like many Americans, I am deeply troubled by the results of the November election. Assuming the lobbying of the Electoral College comes to naught and we do end up with this amazingly unqualified individual as President, my feeling is that everyone should do whatever they can to minimize damage to the country during his tenure.

Impeachment of executive branch officials, both elected and appointed, is the domain of the House of Representatives. There is surely zero chance that Articles of Impeachment drafted by the Democratic Caucus would pass the Judiciary Committee. But I do believe a steady stream of draft impeachment documents presented to the committee would help keep the incompetence of the Executive Branch and its appointments in the public eye. Even if the majority party does not allow draft Articles of Impeachment to come under committee consideration, their existence and content can still be publicized.

When considering the President and Vice President, and the people who are being named for other positions subject to impeachment, there is no doubt in my mind that it would be no trouble to create a steadily growing list of impeachable offenses for several years to come.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Meanwhile, a few Republicans in the Electoral College can still interfere with the monster’s journey to the White House.