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Quine Meets Aquinas

October 23rd, 2002 · No Comments

Something like a week ago, I promised a reply to Eve Tushnet on the latest round of cloning and moral-status-of-the-fetus arguments. I’ve been remiss, but am actually even more interested in a sort of methodological meditation she posted right afterwards, inspired (it seems) by that debate. She starts by setting up as a sort of foil the Objectivist model of philosophy as pure deduction from first premises: the metaphysics implies the epistemology implies the ethics implies the politics. This, she says (and I agree) is not a very useful model. Rather, we may find that a â??lower levelâ? conclusion conflicts with a â??higher levelâ? theory, and choose to resolve the conflict by rejecting the latter. This is, in a sense, a point made in reverse by Quine when he pointed out that, by adding the equivalents of the â??epicyclesâ? pre-Copernicans used to attempt to salvage their model of the universe, one could hold on to a hypothesis â??come what mayâ? in the face of recalcitrant facts.

Eve then goes on to observe that, whether or not her specific argument for thinking fetuses are persons stands, the conviction is more strongly held than its base. In other words, making an argument which appears to show that fetuses arenâ??t persons is just a way of refuting your premises. Now, maybe thereâ??s something to this. Probably we cannot do without intuition in ethics â?? one must, after all, start somewhere. One canâ??t even really do without intuition of a sort even in the most rigorous and formalistic realms of philosophy. Try a non-circular proof of logical rules of inference if you doubt this. But if intuition is the end as well as the beginning â?? except, perhaps, in the case of those pesky rules of inference, where I donâ??t know how else one proceeds â?? what youâ??re doing is no longer really philosophy, itâ??s rhetorical ornamentation for your instincts and prejudices. Icing on the existential birthday cake, so to speak.

Some of you are probably familiar with Rawlsâ??s method of â??Reflective Equilibrium,â? a process wherein we move back and forth from particular moral judgments to theoretical principles, making adjustments to each as seems appropriate. Itâ??s a generally useful method, but the question is how the revision gets done. In applied ethics especially, we have powerful reasons to be quite suspicious of even some of our strongest gut feelings. That is, we can easily identify powerful reasons, both biological and cultural, why we would have certain intuitive reactions whether or not they were accurate. So, for instance, consider two potential sets of mutations an organism might exhibit. One causes the creature to be especially protective of its offspring, to be alarmed at any attempt to harm them, and so on. The other produces a less strong reaction, maybe indifference. Itâ??s pretty clear which disposition tends to be selected, though clearly there would be some limit point at which willingness to sacrifice began to bite into the potential for future reproduction. Creatures with the former trait are much better ancestor material, and likely to have given rise to equally baby-lovinâ?? descendants. Folks like, well, us. But you canâ??t draw any normative implications from that fact. In other words, whether or not fetuses or young babies have any moral worth, weâ??d almost certainly be predisposed to feel like they do.

Of course, we can tell stories like with respect to any number of other moral intuitions â?? including many Iâ??m inclined to say are right. The question is: what use do we make of an intuition? For reasons like those cited above, if you resolve a conflict just by just asking which you feel more strongly about â?? the principle or the specific conclusion â?? the principle will lose consistently. If itâ??s going to be useful, intuition needs to act as a flashlight. As when, for example, the classic objection to utilitarianism (â??Would you secretly cut up one healthy vagrant to save five patients in need of organs?â?) calls our attention to an aspect of the situation that seems likely to be wrong. But here, too, I think it would be pretty weak to say â??oh, that must be wrongâ? and consider that a satisfactory reply to the utilitarian. You are, after all, purportedly willing to let five people die who might be saved on the strength of that feeling. Isnâ??t it grossly irresponsible to do that if the objection is just the product of a conditioned habit, like the trained aversion most educated Americans once felt towards miscegenation or homosexuality? The intuition needs to be cashed out: we need to get behind it and see what feature of the case is causing us to have that reaction. Maybe itâ??s that it makes clear the difference between â??doing and allowing,â? or the idea that, as Nozick put it, harming one person to help another harms one person and helps another â?? no more or less.

The point of those intuitions is to serve as guideposts in the revision of theory. They have to push us in a direction that makes independent sense. That is, we should make revisions on the prompting of an intuition only when we can find an internal motivation in the theory for making that change. So, to borrow Eveâ??s example, you might well be led to reject dialectical materialism by the realization that it justifies purges, of which you disapprove. But the process of rejection can and should involve seeing whatâ??s wrong with it as a theory. Otherwise, the whole process of thinking about those moral conclusions seems transparently superfluous. If the particular judgments are unassailable, why do we need a theory at all? The theory wouldnâ??t be any help in supporting or systematizing the judgments, since, by stipulation, the judgments are more well grounded. The ethicist then becomes like an astronomer with two data tables, one for recording â??empirical observations,â? which fit with his theory, and another for recording â??telescope malfunctionsâ? â?? anything that doesnâ??t.

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