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.

The American Pragmatists by Cheryl Misak

This is an entry in a series called The Oxford History of Philosophy, written by an expert on the philosophical school known as “pragmatism”. Here’s how Oxford University Press describes the book:

Cheryl Misak presents a history of the great American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, from its inception in the Metaphysical Club of the 1870s to the present day. She identifies two dominant lines of thought in the tradition: the first begins with Charles S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright and continues through to Lewis, Quine, and Sellars; the other begins with William James and continues through to Dewey and Rorty. This ambitious new account identifies the connections between traditional American pragmatism and twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy, and links pragmatism to major positions in the recent history of philosophy, such as logical empiricism. Misak argues that the most defensible version of pragmatism must be seen and recovered as an important part of the analytic tradition.

According to Professor Misak, “the most defensible version of pragmatism” is the version initiated by C. S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright in the 19th century and carried forward by C. I. Lewis, W. V. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars in the 20th. She argues that it is more defensible because it considers truth to be less subjective. In the caricature or simplification of pragmatism as set forth by William James and criticized by G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, true statements are those that “work for us”. If religious beliefs make your life better, for example, they’re true. By contrast, the tradition that began with Peirce treats truth more objectively. Statements may “work for us” even though they’re false. The Peircean pragmatists see a stronger relationship between truth and how the world is, regardless of human goals or interests.

It isn’t easy to briefly explain what pragmatism is, but Prof. Misak gives it a try in the Preface:

Pragmatists are empiricists in that they require beliefs to be linked to experience. They want their explanations and ontology down-to-earth (natural as opposed to supernatural) and they require philosophical theories to arise out of our practices. As Peirce put the pragmatic maxim, we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order to understand them….

[But] pragmatists reject the part of empiricism that says that all of our beliefs originate in experience and that our beliefs can be linked in an atomistic way to discrete experiences…. They reject any naturalism that gives ontological priority to matter or physicality — they want to consider whether value, generality, chance, etc. might be part of the natural world. They are holists, taking their view to encompass all of science, logic, mathematics, art, religion, ethics and politics. Unlike most of their empiricist predecessors, they fence off no realm of inquiry from the principles they set out.

In the Conclusion, she adds:

The core pragmatist thought is about the human predicament. We must try to explain our practices and concepts, including our epistemic norms and standards, using those very practices, concepts, norms and standards. This is the pragmatist’s task and we have found that, within the pragmatist tradition, there are different ways of trying to fulfill it.

I’ll finish with a brief example of pragmatist thinking. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume is sometimes viewed as a skeptic (e.g. he believed there is no rational basis for ever thinking that one event causes another). The pragmatist John Dewey, however, saw Hume as a predecessor:

While in his study, Hume finds skepticism compelling, but as soon as he leaves that secluded place of theoretical philosophizing, skepticism loses any force it might have had. The skeptic’s doubts, as Peirce would put it, are paper doubts [107].

According to the pragmatists, what matters, even from a philosophical perspective, is how our ideas connect with our lives outside the philosophy class.

Update (January 2020): Without realizing I’d already read it, I read it again. More here.

Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism by Paul Boghossian

Boghossian is a professor of philosophy at New York University. This is a short, well-argued book, although its title is misleading. Its subject is doubt about knowledge or the dismissal of knowledge. The idea that anyone is afraid of knowledge is only mentioned once on the next to last page.

Boghossian’s main target is constructivism: the idea that “knowledge is constructed by societies in ways that reflect their contingent social needs and interests”. He points out that constructivism comes in different varieties. The benign version simply notes that we gather knowledge about topics we’re interested in or need to investigate. He is concerned with versions that lead people, often academics, to say that no group’s or culture’s beliefs are more valid or accurate than anyone else’s. From the epilogue:

There look to be severe objections to each and every version of constructivism about knowledge that we have examined. A constructivism about truth is incoherent. A constructivism about justification is scarcely any better. And there seem to be decisive objections to the idea that we cannot explain belief through epistemic reasons alone.

On the positive side, we failed to find any good arguments for constructivist views…. At its best, … social constructivist thought exposes the contingency of those of our social practices which we had wrongly come to regard as naturally mandated. It does so by relying on the standard canons of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become a general theory of truth or knowledge. The difficulty lies in understanding why such generalized applications of social construction have come to tempt so many.

He believes that the appeal of constructivism is mainly political, although misguided:

Constructivist views of knowledge are closely linked to such progressive movements as post-colonialism and multiculturalism because they supply the philosophical resources with which to protect oppressed cultures from charges of holding false or unjustified views. [But] if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful.

Apparently, Boghossian doesn’t recognize the appeal of oppressed groups being on an equal footing with the powerful (“your views are merely a matter of perspective and no more valid than ours”). He concludes:

The intuitive view is that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, binding on anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence regardless of their social or cultural perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it is a mistake to think that recent philosophy has uncovered powerful reasons for rejecting them.

When Balance Is Just Wrong

Jeff Zucker is in charge of CNN. Before that, he helped the Orange Monster become a reality TV star. More recently, he helped the Orange Monster become President-elect. Zucker gave the O.M. millions and millions of dollars of free advertising. CNN broadcast unfiltered everything the O.M. had to say. They broke away from other news, including other candidates talking, to show the empty podium where the O.M. might later share his thoughts.

This explains why Zucker was yelled at by both Republicans and Democrats at a recent conference. The angry Republicans had worked for the O.M.’s opponents in the primaries. The angry Democrats had worked for someone who actually loves America. But they all agreed that Zucker and CNN had given the O.M. special, advantageous treatment.

Here’s what Zucker said in response:

Half the people want to blame us for Trump, and half the people want to say that we’re terrible to Trump. That’s how I always think we’re doing the right thing.

Zucker has made a lot of money in his career, so he must have a brain in his head. But that is one lazy, dumb justification for misbehavior. The correct, honest answer would have been:

We gave him special treatment because he’s so damn entertaining. We make money by getting people to watch our so-called “news” network and people watch that bastard whether they like him or not.

But isn’t it fair for Zucker to parrot the journalistic cliché, according to which half the audience says we’re too mean and half says we’re too nice, so we must be doing something right?

Imagine a country that takes ice cream very, very seriously, much more seriously than the Germans take beer. The whole country loves ice cream. It’s the official national food. Then along comes an ambitious politician with a brilliant idea. Let’s have a referendum! Let’s choose our nation’s official ice cream flavor! The nation erupts in controversy. Should it be chocolate or should it be vanilla?

Conscientious journalists air both sides, delving into the pros and cons of each flavor. Nevertheless, the vanilla-lovers are angry because they don’t think the journalists are being fair to the flavor that’s clearly the best. The chocolate-lovers are angry for the very same reason.

When the votes are counted, one flavor comes out slightly ahead (I hope it was vanilla). A bunch of journalists, hanging out in their favorite ice cream bar, look back and decide they must have done a pretty good job. After all, half the people thought they were terrible to vanilla and half thought they were terrible to chocolate. Fair enough.

But suppose there’s a country that’s less concerned with ice cream and more concerned with the shape of the Earth. The flat-Earthers look around and see the Earth is flat. The round-Earthers, well, you know. So they decide to take a vote! Journalists report and analyze. Both sides are heard from and criticized in equal measure, because the journalists want to be balanced. One side wins (if it were modern-day America, it would be a close election), but neither side is happy with the news coverage. The flat-Earthers hated hearing they were wrong, especially by smarty pants scientists. The round-Earthers hated that anyone took the flat-Earthers seriously at all. But the self-satisfied journalists look back and say, well, we must have done something right!

To make a long story short, the assumption that you must be doing something right if both sides are displeased only applies when the subject is a matter of taste. Vanilla is better than chocolate! No, everyone loves chocolate! Or a matter of vague philosophy. Small government is better than big government! But a big country needs a big government! Or with the unknown. We aren’t alone in the universe! So where is everybody?

When you’re dealing with known facts, however, balance isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s seriously bad.

Imagine, for example, that a pathological liar runs for President. Or a strange old man who knows next to nothing about America’s history and government. Let’s call him Donald. When Donald spends 30 minutes in front of an enthusiastic crowd telling lies and making crap up, journalists broadcast every word, even though they know he’s plain wrong about so much. News networks even pay people to come on the air to repeat his fabrications, because it’s hard to find anyone who will lie in public for free. In the spirit of journalistic balance, however, they also let Donald’s opponents appear. Journalists even point out that Donald is often careless with the truth.

And what’s the result? Both sides are unhappy. Donald’s supporters are unhappy because they didn’t like hearing bad things about their hero. Donald’s opponents are unhappy because so much of what Donald said wasn’t challenged and he was treated with respect he didn’t deserve. Nobody is satisfied with the news coverage except the journalists. They congratulate themselves, citing “evidence” like this:  

Half the people want to blame us for Donald, and half the people want to say that we’re terrible to Donald. That’s how we know we’re doing the right thing.

If your goal as a news organization is to make both sides unhappy, all you need to do is what CNN and others did this year. Give a loudspeaker to a demagogue and his propaganda machine, but sometimes admit he’s a demagogue. Both sides will be unhappy, because your coverage is “balanced”.

On the other hand, telling the unvarnished truth would anger one side and please the other. Congratulations would be in order for the conscientious journalists, because they didn’t strike a balance between what was plainly true and what plainly wasn’t.

Eyes on the Street

I used to work near the big Family Court building in Brooklyn. One afternoon, as I was walking by, I saw a woman punch a little boy in the stomach. Presumably, it was her son and he’d made her angry. Maybe she had to go to court and was stressed out. I can’t remember if I said something, but I probably did, because I remember walking away and wondering if I’d made the little boy’s situation even worse by embarrassing his mother. Would she be even harder on him when they got home? Should I have done more or less?

Something that happened online this week made me remember that moment in Brooklyn. Somebody made a comment on a discussion board, claiming that supporting same-sex marriage means you probably aren’t a Christian. The comment wasn’t directed at me, but I thought I should respond and set the record straight. So I found a recent poll that says same-sex marriage is supported by most Catholics and white mainline Protestants. It’s evangelical Christians and black Protestants who are mostly opposed.

So I left my comment and hoped (but doubted) that would be the end of it. When I visited the site again later that night, it wasn’t a big surprise to see that the person I’d responded to had apparently responded to me. I don’t know for sure, since I didn’t read what he or she had to say. I didn’t want to get involved in one of those unpleasant “discussions”.

The next day, the whole thread was gone. Apparently, things had gotten ugly and the moderator had deleted my post and everyone else’s. Which was fine with me. I figured I’d done my bit and it was just as well the moderator had stepped in.

Online forums are like city streets. The moderators (the police) sometimes intervene when things get bad. But the rest of us (the people in the neighborhood or passersby) have a responsibility to keep an eye on things and sometimes get actively involved. It’s an idea called “eyes on the street”. Jane Jacobs wrote about it in her great book The Life and Death of American Cities:

… there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers, to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind…. the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.

Eyes on the street discourage bad behavior and sometimes lead people to speak up (or call the authorities). It’s the same on a discussion board, except for two differences. Nobody on a discussion board is in immediate danger of being robbed or physically assaulted. And the sole purpose of discussion boards, unlike city streets, is to allow people, even strangers, to speak up.

My tendency is to say something when I see a significant factual error. For example, claiming that support for same-sex marriage means a person isn’t a Christian. Of course, not every error (like being mistaken about when a TV show went on the air) needs to be corrected, but some deserve to be, even at the risk of getting into an argument. Preferring to avoid online warfare, I avoid getting personal in my response. I’ll say “X is Y”, but avoid “You are Z” (the third person is less personal than the second person).

And then I’ll usually go away. That means I may miss out on some fruitful discussion, or be corrected myself (unthinkable as that might be!), but reading further responses often leads to more of the same. It seems sufficient to make my point and then disappear, even though this allows someone else to get in the all-important Last Word! Will my silence suggest that I’ve given up? It probably will to some people, but you can’t have everything. And maybe the cops will show up.