Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

More on Method

October 29th, 2002 · No Comments

Well, I realize I’m not really “responding” to Eve any more, in the debater-y sense of a rebuttal or riposte. Maybe this is just sort of a riff-on-Eve which may or may not contain points of disagreement. Partly because I found myself nodding along to a good bit of that last post, and partly, I suspect, because I’ve been infected to a fair extent by Nozick’s own sort of meta-method, if that’s not too self-flattering a comparison. Anyway, a couple of desultory thoughts sparked by all this.

Is metaphysics really at issue here? Because we’ve been framing the conversation in terms of Eve’s original blogpost about the “birthday cake of existence” model of philosophy, and used the phrasing of ethical judgments conflicting with metaphysical ones. Well, as far as the particular cases we’ve been discussing goes, I’m pretty sure that’s not quite accurate — at least not immediately. Rather, what we’ve been talking about are cases in which a specific ethical judgment conflicts (or seems to conflict) with ethical criteria or a more general moral theory. So, to make it concrete, the intuitive sense that destroying a late term embryo that looks a heck of a lot like a human person is wrong conflicts with the (i.e. my) conception of moral value that holds certain clusters of mental traits, not exhibited by the embryo, as the sine qua non of personhood. There aren’t yet any really metaphysical questions involved, as I see it. Well, fine, but mightn’t (mustn’t?) metaphysical notions come into play in resolving at least some such conflicts?

Well, I don’t know. I may actually reject the “birthday cake” model more radically than even Eve does. I’m not sure that we need metaphysics to do ethics, or even that it makes sense to speak of ethical and metaphysical views “conflicting,” any more than it makes sense to think of my dislike of anchovies as either in “agreement” or “conflict” with, say, Euclidian geometry. (I’m influenced to a large extent here by Rawls’s essay “The Independence of Moral Theory,” for you footnote-checkin’ pedants.) To get a sense of what I mean here, consider how some people have thought that the question of whether we have free will or not is of dire importance to moral theory. “Why, if we don’t make genuine, radical, physically uncaused choices,” some have felt, “we aren’t really responsible for what we do after all, and can’t properly be held accountable! How can we blame the murderer if he was preordained by physical processes to act as he did?” I tacked on that last question to make the flaw in that approach clear. The person who worries in this way is implicitly exempting herself when she contemplates the possibility that there is no free will. There’s an old line about the thief who complained to the guy punishing him that he was destined to steal. “Yes,” says the punisher, “and to be whipped.” In short, our conclusion about the ultimate reality of free will is morally inert. We do ethics “from the inside” — from the first person perspective of practical reason — not from that of some fictive neutral observer. A philosophical conviction that determinism is true doesn’t help you decide what to have for breakfast. You’re still “condemned to be free,” as the Parisian clove-smokers liked to say.

I remember a response made by, I think, James Woodward to an argument by Derek Parfit (I don’t remember the precise context, and it doesn’t really matter) that was, in effect, the question: what metaphysical fact could you learn about the kind of entity you really are — an ethereal soul as opposed to a temporally extended physical process or whatever — that would make you think your life didn’t really have value after all? I mean, obviously the prospect of an afterlife might affect the way your time on earth were charged with meaning; that’s not what I’m talking about here. Hold stuff like that constant and ask whether buying into one conception or another of the underlying “base” of your mind could lead you to think that your pains and aspirations and all the rest don’t matter after all, or that being in love isn’t wonderful, or to change any number of other such judgments. Maybe I’m trapped in too persistently secular a perspective, but I doubt that it would make a difference. Other sorts of things might admittedly cause you to reconsider the importance you attached to any one of those things, but your theory of mind doesn’t seem like the right kind of candidate. As you may guess from this, I also don’t go with Eve on the relevance of a God’s existence or non-existence to ethics. For reasons familiar enough to readers of Bertrand Russell or, to a lesser extent, the Euthyphro, I’m inclined to think that either ethics can be well grounded without God, or that if it can’t, adding Her into the mix won’t get you there either. Or more precisely put, I don’t see any ethics-grounding move you could make employing God that couldn’t at least in principle go across without God, though some of the moves in question might involve nearly-equally weird posits. I don’t know if I quite want to imply that ethics is hermetically sealed off from the rest of philosophy, but at the least, I doubt whether we should be thinking of “deriving” our ethics from our metaphysics in even the looser, un-cakelike, bidirectional sense Eve has in mind.

Ok. Put that (partially) aside for a moment, and one last observation about if-thens and the theory/judgment connection, tangentially connected to all this. We’ve been talking about these conflicts between judgments at certain levels as a kind of binary problem. We say “If there is no God, then everything is permitted,” and we face the question of whether to reject the “everything is permitted” or to conclude there must be a God after all — do we reject the ethical or the “metaphysical judgment.” Well, as Eve doubtless realizes (and I just want to make explicit, to the exent that the preceding paragraphs haven’t already), there is one more judgment in question: the conditional linking the two. We are, in cases like these, “faced with a choice,” as Eve puts it, but we may, instead of rejecting either the antecedent or accepting the conclusion, reject the choice. That’s a pretty standard move in logic: you introduce an assumption, show that it leads to a contradiction (i.e. we’re pretty sure for independent reasons that both the antecedent is true and the consequent is false), and you’ve falsified the assumption. This didn’t really come up in the case of the mentality/fetus-destruction question because the link is pretty tight — approaching a pure syllogism, granting some plausible assumptions about fetal inner life. When the link’s not so tight (as I think this one isn’t, since I think it’s wrong), we should pry at gaps in the conditional at least as readily as we look for reasons to reject the propositions it connects.

Tags: Uncategorized