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.

Democracy: A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Crick

The Wikipedia entry on the author begins this way: “Sir Bernard Rowland Crick [1929 – 2008] was a British political theorist and democratic socialist whose views can be summarized as ‘politics is ethics done in public’. He sought to arrive at a ‘politics of action’, as opposed to a ‘politics of thought’ or of ideology”.

This explains why his introduction to democracy often deals with the responsibilities of citizenship. He traces the history of democracy from ancient Athens, when propertied men were expected to vote but also periodically hold public office, all the way to his leadership of a committee charged with improving “education for citizenship” in British schools, when many more of us qualify as citizens but we just want the government to leave us alone.

I’m having trouble summarizing this short book, so I’ll quote the publisher’s synopsis:

This book is a short account of the history of the doctrine, practices and institutions of democracy, from ancient Greece and Rome, through the American, French and Russian revolutions, and its varieties and conditions in the modern world.

Crick discusses the use of the term “democratic” by authoritarian governments, Alexis de Toqueville’s study of democracy in 19th century America, the meaning of “populism” and how majority rule doesn’t guarantee good government. Overall, it’s a nice little book that is best summarized by the author when he concludes that “all discussions of democracy are inconclusive and never-ending” [116].


Highlighted Passages From 40 Years Ago

The Culling of the Books has begun again. It’s the process in which old friends and acquaintances (and a few new ones) are (1) put up for sale on eBay, (2) offered to used bookstores, (3) left at the city’s book exchange shed, (4) recycled or (5) even consigned to the trash. It happens as regularly as an atomic clock ticks, but not quite so often.

Some will survive the process, only to be assessed at the next CotB. No one will be safe forever!

This is why I picked up my 1975 paperback edition of Fields, Factories and Workshops this afternoon. First published in 1898, it’s a classic statement of anarchist principles written by Peter Kropotkin, more formally known as Prince Pyotor Alexeyevich Kropotkin.


Kropotkin was a Russian aristocrat who favored the overthrow of both capitalism and the state. He envisioned a future in which small communities, linked together by modern technology, would grow much of their own food and do much of their own manufacturing. He championed cooperation over competition and rejected the authoritarian socialism of the Bolsheviks.

This is the kind of book I was reading in the 1970’s when I started wondering why our economic system leaves so many people idle when there is so much work to be done.

But now, before deciding on this old book’s future, I’m going to share two paragraphs I highlighted back then. First, here’s Kropotkin predicting a future that now seems unlikely:

Each nation – her own agriculturist and manufacturer; each individual working in the field and in some industrial art; each individual combining scientific knowledge with the knowledge of a handicraft – such is, we affirm, the present tendency of civilized nations.

And here’s Kropotkin on the purpose of education:

Be it handicraft, science or art, the chief aim of the school is not to make a specialist from a beginner, but to teach him the elements of knowledge and the good methods of work, and, above all, to give him that general inspiration that will induce him, later on, to put in whatever he does a sincere longing for truth, to like what is beautiful, both as to form and contents, to feel the necessity of being a useful unit amidst other human units, and thus to feel his heart at unison with the rest of humanity.

Finally, to quote from the editor’s introduction:

Fields, Factories and Workshops is one of those great prophetic works of the nineteenth century whose hour is yet to come…His book is really a thesis … on the economic consequences of the humanization of work.

Libertarianism Again

While writing about libertarianism a few weeks ago, I came across a 2011 article at Slate by Stephen Metcalf called “The Liberty Scam”. Its subtitle is “Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired”. Having finally gotten around to reading it, I highly recommend the article if you’ve ever considered yourself an economic libertarian or tried to argue with one. Or if you have an interest in politics or the recent history of ideas.

Metcalf points out that modern, generally right-wing economic libertarianism relies on a very selective view of capitalism. In particular, Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain argument equates all economic activity with the special case of an extremely talented basketball player who can negotiate a stratospheric salary. Nozick claimed that someone like Wilt Chamberlain should be able to negotiate whatever salary the market will bear, and that forcing Chamberlain to pay taxes in order to benefit other people is forced labor (“Need a gardener allocate his services to those lawns which need him most?”). The rest of us, presumably, are a lot like Wilt Chamberlain.

After demolishing the Chamberlain argument and briefly explaining why Nozick came to appreciate that society is more than a random collection of individuals, Metcalf tries to explain why someone as thoughtful as Robert Nozick would make the arguments he did. Metcalf’s theory is that in 1970, when Nozick published Anarchy, State and Utopia, America and places like Harvard had benefited from decades of enormous government investment:

The GI Bill was on its way to investing more in education grants, business loans, and home loans than all previous New Deal programs combined. By 1954, with the Cold War in full swing, the U.S. government was spending 20 times what it had spent on research before the war.

As a result, members of the academic elite, including Harvard professors, were sharing in the general economic prosperity, even if their salaries hadn’t matched Wilt Chamberlain’s. Unfortunately for their bank accounts, however, tax rates were much higher than today. In 1969, when Nozick was writing his classic book, the highest federal tax rate was 77%, almost twice what it is now. It’s no wonder that Nozick saw virtue in a political ideology that considers taxation beyond the bare minimum a kind of theft:

By allowing for the enormous rise in (relative) income and prestige of the upper white collar professions, Keynesianism created the very blind spot by which professionals turned against Keynesianism…. Many upper-white-collar professionals convinced themselves their pre-eminence was not an accident of history or the product of negotiated protections from the marketplace but the result of their own unique mental talents fetching high prices in a free market for labor. Just this cocktail of vanity and delusion helped Nozick edge out [the liberal philosophy of John] Rawls in the marketplace of ideas, making Anarchy a surprise best-seller. It helped make Ronald Reagan president five years later. So it was the public good that killed off the public good.

One day the tide will turn (maybe). In the meantime, I was going to sum up with that well-known quote to the effect that we in the modern world are ignorantly walking in the footsteps of some obscure academic of the past, but couldn’t find the damn quotation (clearly, search engines haven’t got artificial intelligence quite yet). So I decided to go with a remark attributed, probably incorrectly, to Abraham Lincoln:

The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.

But while writing the previous paragraph, a key word popped into my head, namely, “scribbler”, which is the term John Maynard Keynes used when he wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 35 years before Robert Nozick wrote Anarchy, State and Utopia:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back….Sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.