Moral Tragedy?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

MaskTragedy168It was probably Aristotle who first took careful notice of the special role that the concept of happiness plays in our thinking about how to live. Happiness, he argued, is the final end of human activity, that for the sake of which every action is performed. Although it makes perfect to sense to ask someone why she is pursuing a college degree, or trying to master chess, there is something decidedly strange in the question, "Why do you want happiness?" Aristotle saw that when explaining human action, happiness is where the buck stops.

Aristotle's insight seems undeniable, but nearly vacuous. To identify happiness as the ultimate aim of human action is simply to assert that we tend to do what we think will bring us happiness. It is to say that when we act, we act ultimately for the sake of what we take to be happiness. As appearances can be deceiving, all of the deep questions remain.

Perhaps this is why Aristotle affirmed also that happiness is the culmination of all of the good things a human life could manifest. He declared that the truly happy person not only derives great enjoyment from living, but also is morally and cognitively flawless. In fact, Aristotle goes so far as to affirm that the happy person necessarily has friends, good looks, health, and wealth. And, as if these advantages were not enough, he holds further that the happy person is invulnerable even to misfortune and bad luck. According to Aristotle, then, happiness is not simply that for the sake of which we act; it is also that which renders a human life complete, lacking nothing that could improve it. It is no wonder that Aristotle also thought that happiness is rare.

Few today subscribe to the view that complete success in every evaluative dimension is necessary for happiness. Surely a person could be happy but not especially beautiful or wealthy. It is important to note, however, that those who affirm this more modest view often take their insight to show that things like wealth and beauty are not really the incontrovertible goods that they often appear to be. That is, the claim that one might be happy in the absence of wealth and good looks is most often accompanied by the rider that these latter attributes are not especially valuable after all. Consequently, the core of Aristotle's second claim is retained, albeit in a moderated form: the happy life manifests not every good that a human life could realize, but all of the really important goods that a human life could realize.

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A Problem for Intellectual Pluralism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Cheering-concert-crowd-john-revitteDisagreement is a pervasive feature of our ordinary lives. We disagree with family members over what would make for a good Tuesday night dinner, with colleagues over how to solve some thorny problem, and with neighbors over whether the new highway off-ramp is a good or bad thing for the neighborhood. News stories are often about disagreements, and their online comments sections are sites where the disagreements may continue to be aired.

In some cases of disagreement, we may know more about the issue than the other person. And in some cases, the other person may know more. Call these asymmetric disagreements, and a regular thought is that in these cases, the less knowledgeable person ought to defer to the more. However, it's possible for there to be symmetric disagreements, where both sides are roughly as knowledgeable of and capable with the evidence on the issue. The individuals in these instances, then, are peers, at least epistemically.

In these symmetric cases, how should these peers view their own and their disagreeing interlocutors' commitments? By hypothesis, the two opposing views are based on the same evidence, so it's not that one can view one side as better informed or less knowledgeable than the other. And it seems dogmatic, or at least unfounded, to say that one just knows (without more evidence) that one's view is better off than one's opposition.

A background question to this matter is whether it's possible for a set of evidence to justify more than one view about an issue. One take on the question is that, given a set of evidence, there is only one attitude a person may take about it – one may accept a proposition as justified, one may reject it and hold its denial as justified by the evidence, or one may be justified only in suspending judgment on the matter. Of these three options, only one of them would be rationally responsible. Call this view the Uniqueness Thesis – that there is only one attitude that any set of evidence justifies.

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The Emptiness of Pluralism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

1274595994XBH6HaxIn last month’s post, we argued that value pluralism is the view that there are objective and heterogeneous goods, goods that are distinct and irreducible. To hold that there are distinct and irreducible goods is to hold that there is no summum bonum, no ultimate good that explains the goodness of all other goods. It also is to hold that there is no master good against which to measure the value of the other goods. According to the value pluralist, then, there is at least one pair of objective goods, A and B, such that A is neither better than B, worse than B, nor equal in value to B. This is to say that, according to value pluralism, some goods are incommensurable with other goods. Value pluralism thus is the three-pronged thesis that (1) there is a plurality of objective goods, (2) of these goods, some are irreducible to any other good, and (3) these irreducible goods are incommensurable with other irreducible goods. That’s pluralism in a nutshell. Pluralism about anything comes to this tripartite thesis, mutatis mutandis.

When presented in this way, value pluralism may seem an esoteric view. The meager degree of precision introduced above suffices to dampen the halo effect of the term. Now the term no longer seems like a catch-all for a collection of virtues or term of approval for a moral disposition. Rather, what we have with value pluralism is a philosophical thesis about the nature of value.

We will not attempt here to determine whether value pluralism is true. Instead we seek to defeat a consideration commonly offered in support of value pluralism. Consistent with its status as a paradigmatic halo term, advocates of value pluralism often claim that their view is uniquely positioned to supply philosophical backup for a politics of inclusion, toleration, open-mindedness, diversity, and difference. In fact, the father of value pluralism, Isaiah Berlin, went further than this in his famous essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Berlin held not only that value pluralism entails a politics of toleration and individual liberty, he also claimed that value monism – the view that all good things are good in virtue of sharing some single property – fosters intolerance, tyranny, and despotism.

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The Pluralism Test

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse6a00d8341c562c53ef015436d5a90a970c-250wi

The commentary stimulated by our November post helps to confirm our view that pluralism is a paradigmatic halo term. Many of the respondents clearly want to claim the term for their favored purposes; but the details concerning the term’s meaning are as yet uncertain. Of course, most philosophical terms admit of multiple interpretations; looseness is inevitable, as often the issues are the meanings of the terms in use. Yet we should aspire to as much precision as is possible. Resting with multiple well-defined yet conflicting conceptions of pluralism is preferable to the current state of affairs, which is less loose than mushy. Our aim is to suggest at a very general level what pluralism is by articulating some simple prerequisites for clarifying the term.

There are two criteria that can be employed in our task. The first would be applicable to any proposed philosophical term. It has two components. First, if pluralism is the name of any view at all, it had better be possible to identify some definite philosophical claims that are distinctive of the view. This is not to say that pluralism must be understood to name some single, monolithic position. Pluralism can be a philosophically distinctive position, and yet be a view which admits of different varieties.

Sometimes it is helpful when characterizing a philosophical position to identify what those who adopt it are united in rejecting. So we may state the first component of the first criterion in the following way. Whatever pluralism is, it had better be a view that is opposed to some other identifiable philosophical position. To put the point slightly more strongly, whatever pluralism is, it had better be a position that thoughtful people could reject. A view that only the insane, thoughtless, deluded, and incompetent could reject is of little philosophical significance. If pluralism is a view worth talking about, it is a view that both says something distinctive and is philosophically debatable.

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More about pluralism and perspectivism

by Dave Maier

PluA couple of weeks back here at 3QD, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse told us about a certain contentious use of the term “pluralism” in philosophy, which tries to identify a particular conception of philosophical method with the institutional virtues of toleration, openmindedness, and cute little bunnies. In their opinion, however, that doesn't fly: “every conception of the scope of toleration identifies limits to the tolerable. And for every conception of toleration, there is some other conception that charges the first with undue narrowness[…. There] is in the end no way of eschewing the substantive evaluative issues,” i.e., in order to identify the virtue of toleration with a supposedly “pluralistic” method.

Well, yes – no slam dunk for the “pluralistic” side. But just for that very reason, it's worth a look at those substantive issues which we cannot eschew. This will involve making a few distinctions (mmm … distinctions …), so let's get started.

What kinds of “pluralism” are there in philosophy? First, as Aiken and Talisse indicate in referring to “the idea of pluralism as a political movement within Philosophy [my emphasis]”, one could be a “pluralist” by believing that the range of philosophers hired by university philosophy departments should be wide rather than narrow. Is the point of a philosophy department to be a center of research into a particular subdiscipline or issue or method, or rather to provide as broad a selection of courses for students as is practical given the department's resources? Notably, such a “pluralist” might come from anywhere on the philosophical spectrum. One could think of the university's educational mission in this latter way no matter how one pursued one's own philosopical agenda.

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Searching for Pluralism

by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

JellyBeanSome terms come with a built-in halo. We use words like inclusive, liberation, empowerment, and diversity to characterize that which we aim to praise. For example, when a murderer gets off on a technicality, we say that he has been released rather than liberated. A club that welcomes membership from all who should be invited is inclusive, whereas one which denies membership to some who are entitled to it is exclusionary. Importantly, a club that has a highly restricted membership but does not deny membership to anyone who is entitled to it is not exclusionary, but exclusive. A club is exclusionary when it unjustifiably denies membership to some; it is exclusive when its membership is justifiably limited. In short, many terms do double-duty as both descriptive and evaluative. Or, to put the matter more precisely, some terms serve to describe how things stand from an evaluative perspective.

This is not news. However, it is worth noting that a lot can be gained from blurring the distinction between the descriptive and evaluative senses of such terms. For example, when one succeeds at describing an institution as exclusionary, one often thereby succeeds at placing an argumentative burden on those who support it. Now supporters of the institution in question must not only make their case in favor of the institution; they must also make an additional argument that it is not, in fact, exclusionary. Sometimes what looks like argumentative success is really just success at complicating the agenda of one’s opponents.

The point works in the other direction, too. When one successfully casts a policy as one which furthers diversity and empowers individuals, one has already made good progress towards justifying it. Very few oppose diversity and empowerment, and so a policy which is understood to embrace these values is to some extent ipso facto justified; those who support the policy in question simply need to announce that it serves diversity and empowerment. This is vindication by association.

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