Philosophy, science and expertise

expertiseby Mark English

Let me make a very simple — and, I hope, uncontroversial — point about expertise and authority before looking at some questions pertaining to the current (increasingly bitter) debate about the nature and status of philosophy and its relation to the sciences.

Expertise implies epistemic authority: the expert — by definition — speaks with authority within his or her area of expertise. If the expertise is recognized, the authority automatically follows and doesn’t have to be claimed or argued for.

But the word “expertise” normally applies only to reasonably narrow, clearly defined and recognized areas of knowledge, theoretical or practical. And general philosophy (encompassing all the traditional sub-disciplines) is just too broad and ill-defined for the word to apply in any natural or straightforward sense. Its meaning must be, as it were, stretched to fit.

There is even disagreement about what philosophy is about — or if it is about anything at all.

Some see it as the normative study of rationality. But it is simply not plausible in my view that philosophy (or any single discipline) could effectively encompass the entire realm of reason or rationality. Logic perhaps, but reason is a much broader concept.

Massimo Pigliucci prefers to see philosophy as being concerned with the exploration of conceptual as distinct from empirical space (the sciences being focused on the latter)[1]. But, again, conceptual space is just too vast an area to be subsumed by any one discipline. Besides, unconstrained by empirical (or mathematical) considerations, conceptual space is really not all that interesting. And of course, the sciences are just as much about model-building (i.e., exploring conceptual space) as they are about empirical evidence; and mathematics is pretty much all about exploring conceptual spaces of certain kinds.

If philosophy had a center or a core sub-discipline things might be different. Arguably metaphysics once played this role. And, in the middle years of the 20th century, a humbler, scaled-down version of philosophy focusing on logic and science prevailed and appeared to many to be viable. It may still be viable.

But there is as I see it a problem for academic philosophy as it is currently constituted (even apart from the various well-known and long-standing internal disagreements and divisions about the nature of the subject). However you look at it — and even limiting the picture to analytic philosophy — the loose amalgam of disciplines and activities which goes under the name of philosophy in academic contexts is not and is no longer generally perceived as a unified area of activity or knowledge.

So it is no surprise that general philosophy and philosophers in general are losing authority and status, even as certain sub-disciplines of philosophy — notably those with a scientific focus, like the philosophy of physics for example — manage to thrive.

In other words, in areas where the philosophizing is tightly constrained by a clearly specifiable body of scientific (or similar) knowledge to which the word “expertise” can be naturally applied, insidious questions about authority or status simply do not arise.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece expressing doubts — based largely on historical factors concerning how the nature of philosophy has changed over time and its links with religion — about philosophy’s future viability as a stand-alone, secular academic discipline [2]. And though my claims about philosophy’s historical and continuing dependence on religious ideas were understandably contested by many, the main thrust of what I was saying — concerning the crisis of identity and credibility facing philosophy — was not, I would have thought, particularly controversial. Many within and outside of the discipline take a similar line.

For example, after my essay appeared, Laurie Shrage’s ideas on a more empirically informed philosophy were brought to my attention. Though her background and general perspective are very different from mine, she also recognizes the huge problems which academic philosophy is facing and tends to see them in surprisingly similar terms. Shrage looks at the way the discipline has developed historically and acknowledges its sometimes surprising links with religion [3]. Her approach is refreshingly pragmatic, down to earth and open to what other disciplines — notably history and the social sciences — may be able to contribute to a new model of philosophy.

Other philosophers — most notably perhaps Richard Rorty, Paul Horwich and Peter Unger — have taken their cue from the later writings of Wittgenstein. Though there are marked differences between their views — between Rorty’s (very negative) and Unger’s (positive) attitude towards science, for example — all three men share the view that analytic philosophy as it has been and is still largely being practiced is profoundly misguided. Rorty’s views have been elaborated at length (for example, in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) and are well known. Horwich set out his position very concisely in a piece published last year by the New York Times entitled, “Was Wittgenstein right?” [4]. And lately Unger has come out with a surprisingly blunt and scathing assessment of analytic philosophy. He too traces his basic ideas back to Wittgenstein.

“In a way, all I’m doing,” says Unger, “is detailing things that were already said aphoristically by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations” [5]. He sees the only real hope for the discipline as lying in the direction of collaboration with the various sciences.

Unger’s approach is somewhat abrasive, but at least he draws attention to what is a real and ongoing problem. All too often philosophy’s defenders see no problem; or, if they see it, they think that acknowledging it will only give comfort to their detractors. For example, a commenter at Scientia Salon spoke (seriously, I think) about Unger having “gone over to the dark side” and others have spoken in similar terms. Such “them and us,” Manichean-sounding talk and thinking signals that philosophy has become for some less an intellectual discipline than a kind of religion or ideology.

Such approaches often involve inflated claims, and it is just not possible nowadays to articulate a broad and ambitious vision of philosophy which will be persuasive to a wider audience. Stirring rhetoric about philosophy’s intellectual grandeur and moral importance won’t get you anywhere. In fact, you could make a pretty good case that it’s precisely this grand, over-reaching, overblown view of philosophy which more than anything else is bringing it down.

Massimo Pigliucci’s contributions to this debate are neither Manichean nor merely rhetorical. He is seeking on this site — and, I understand, in a forthcoming book — to mount a rational and coherent defense of a very broad and, in effect, traditional view of the subject (incorporating ethics and standard metaphysics, for example), but I have the sense that such a line is not only in tension but also in conflict with his other main preoccupation: namely, to bring philosophy and the sciences closer together.

He believes that this rapprochement can happen even as philosophy continues to assert its status as an independent and so, in a sense, unified discipline. My view is that this unity and independence are not sustainable — but that this does not greatly matter because the most worthwhile philosophizing is focused closely on particular (usually scientific) areas of knowledge and inquiry and engaged in by those with appropriate levels of expertise in the areas in question.

It’s also worth noting that the very spectacle of scholars devoting a lot of time and effort to trying to define and defend their discipline is a sure sign that all is not well with the discipline in question.

But the signs are not all negative. As I have suggested, positive lessons can be drawn from the fact that there is far less controversy about the worthwhileness of science-oriented philosophizing than about more general and scientifically (or mathematically) unconstrained approaches. Does this not point the way to a brighter future — as well as signaling that empirically and mathematically unconstrained approaches may need to be jettisoned?

On the border lies some technical philosophy which engages closely with formal logic, and so is logically — though not empirically — constrained. I am thinking of the sort of metaphysics engaged in by Timothy Williamson or David Lewis and their respective followers, which has led to some good things but also to a lot of (in my view) meaningless speculation — as well as to the articulation of some pretty dubious ideas (such as modal realism, for instance). There have been useful contributions to work in linguistics (model-theoretic semantics, for instance), but I remain very skeptical of the value of any metaphysically-oriented work which is disconnected from empirical science.

Other types of philosophizing based on informal reasoning about science-fiction-like thought experiments — Twin Earth or zombie or brain-in-a-vat talk, for example — may be seen as empirically constrained to some extent, but its problem also is that it does not engage closely enough with real science. What this means is that the issues are often simply not resolvable in the terms in which they have been presented. Thought experiments just become talking points or discussion generators in the absence of any real — or at least prospective — engagement with actual science.

But what I want to focus on here is the issue of philosophers engaging in non-technical writing on general topics. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, of course. Anyone should be allowed to express their views on questions of general interest. But my question is: what is it that philosophers bring to this sort of writing as philosophers? In other words, what kinds of general problems are philosophers really equipped to address, and on what basis?

I recall a seminar I attended in which a philosopher, someone with real expertise in ancient Greek language and culture and ancient philosophy generally, read a paper in which he applied Aristotelian concepts to the question of sexual perversion. His focus was not historical, however, but rather on what Aristotle might teach us on the matter. During the coffee break, chatting to the woman (a non-philosopher) sitting next to me, I expressed the view that modern psychology might be able to throw a little more light on these matters than Aristotle. She sagely agreed. (I only found out later that she was the speaker’s wife.)

This sort of thing, philosophers implicitly or explicitly claiming expertise in areas beyond their real areas of knowledge — usually on the basis that the topic is an ethical or a metaphysical one, and ethics and metaphysics are a part of philosophy — is widespread.

Let me just mention, by way of example, three books by philosophers on general topics which have prompted (I think appropriate) skeptical responses.

One is the book The Meaning of Disgust by Colin McGinn [6]. McGinn actually has a solid background in psychology but he gave it all up for a very old-fashioned, metaphysical version of philosophy. He was one of philosophy’s stars in the late 20th century and most famous for presenting, in a clear and accessible style, arguments that certain problems in philosophy — like consciousness and free will — are real problems, but problems that we are simply incapable of answering because of the limitations of our brains. In The Meaning of Disgust he seeks — believing as he does that all philosophy is logic (or the a priori analysis of concepts) — to isolate (by thinking very hard) the essence of disgust (whatever that might be). His approach is a mix of conceptual analysis, phenomenology, confronting rhetoric and self-indulgent psychological and metaphysical speculation. McGinn totally ignores the extensive body of science on the topic. The best that can be said of the book is that it elicited some gloriously scathing reviews [7].

The second book I will mention is Thomas Nagel’s notorious Mind and Cosmos [8]. As in the McGinn case, there has been so much savage criticism of the book that I will not add to it, except to say that Nagel’s self-confessed ignorance about evolutionary biology, physics and other sciences relevant to his themes does tend to undermine his credibility from the outset.

It might be objected that philosophers themselves have turned on McGinn and Nagel, essentially ostracizing them.

But the fact remains that Nagel and McGinn were both leading lights in later 20th-century philosophy and their work is deeply interwoven into the major debates of that time. Further, the roots of their current ideas are clearly visible in their early, more respected work.

The third book is by someone who, in his earlier philosophical writings engaged with the ideas of both McGinn and Nagel. A.C. Grayling’s recent work, Friendship is a rather rambling essay on the subject [9]. Grayling draws on selected philosophers and writers, but the selection of authors is arbitrary and the work is shaped by the author’s (necessarily limited) perspective and includes reflections on his own personal experiences [10].

It is not a bad book — certainly not embarrassingly bad or as flawed as the other two I mentioned. And Grayling is yet (so far as I know) to stumble intellectually or professionally and face the wrath of his colleagues. But this pedestrian little pot-boiler on friendship provides yet another example of a leading philosophical light exposing the — how shall I put it? — ordinariness of his insights on a general topic.

It seems to me that if you are writing seriously about a topic like friendship, broadly speaking you have three main options: a history-based approach, a science-based approach (social psychology, evolutionary psychology, etc.), or an intuitive, “writerly” approach. Grayling explicitly renounces the first two:

“Note that this is not a history of friendship, not a sociological or psychological treatise on friendship … [R]ather it is a discussion of the idea of friendship, a philosophical (in the broadest sense) exploration of views about it”[11].

Philosophical in the broadest sense: what does this mean exactly?

Grayling tries to explain, but in effect concedes that there is a lack of intellectual rigor: “I range widely through philosophical, historical and literary sources for my materials, not methodically and systematically, but as occasion and need suggest. As when sinking one’s instruments into ocean currents at various places, one eventually gets a sense of their drift: that has been a part of the technique here” [12].

Despite the attempt to liken his explorations to those of an oceanographer, the comparison is not convincing. In fact the simile is utterly literary and I would characterize Grayling’s general approach here as literary-philosophical [13]. And, judged in these terms, the work fails to impress.

Many writers have said interesting or challenging things about friendship — and Grayling quotes some of them (Oscar Wilde, for example, who defined a friend as someone who stabs you in the front). But without some kind of intellectual framework to provide rigor and coherence or a strong perspective to provide subtlety and depth, what one is left with is superficial and unsatisfactory and uncomfortably close to desk-calendar wisdom.

True essayists or fiction writers can — like Proust for example (whom Grayling doesn’t mention) — challenge our ideas of friendship in subtle and serious ways that Grayling’s approach misses entirely. Not only does he fail to bring to the subject any original thoughts of his own, he fails (in my opinion) as a guide to the most worthwhile and original thoughts of others.

Grayling had the option, presumably, of taking a more rigorously historical or scientific approach. But he chose instead to play the role of the philosophically-oriented man of letters, an approach which is both difficult to play well and — whether played well or not — guaranteed to annoy people of certain types and temperaments. As my mother used to say: “Tell me something I don’t know why don’t you!”

So, overall, it seems to me that philosophy and philosophers are trading on the past glories of the subject, as well as on misunderstandings on the part of sections of the general public concerning what words like “philosophy” and “metaphysics” might signify. Peter Unger makes the point rather poignantly.

Characterizing (quite plausibly in my opinion) most contemporary metaphysics, as well as “some epistemology, a fair amount of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language” as being either parochial or trivial, he claims that potential students are in effect being misled or shortchanged.

“People who are signing up for philosophy don’t think they’re going to end up with this kind of stuff. They want to learn something about the ‘ultimate nature of reality,’ and their position in relation to it. And when you’re doing philosophy, you don’t have a prayer of offering even anything close to a correct or even intelligible answer to any of these questions” [14].

Behind Unger’s remarks is an awareness of the disappointment and disillusionment that many students experience when they take their first courses in philosophy and realize what thin gruel most of it really is. I personally have found myself in the position of trying to justify the discipline to skeptical students [15]. (My usual line was to try to get them to see philosophy more in terms of the history of ideas, emphasizing the importance of knowing something about the way our cultures and our science have developed over time.)

Given that — whatever happens to philosophy departments — meta-questions relating to the sciences and other disciplines will continue to be addressed by practitioners of those disciplines, why does it matter so much to some that philosophy should survive as an independent discipline?

It may be that many of philosophy’s defenders are motivated by a belief in the need for a synoptic view.

There’s no doubt that an integrated approach to knowledge and understanding can be valuable, providing stability and a broad framework for thinking. And there is no doubt that religion and philosophy were once able to provide such frameworks. (Whether the frameworks were soundly based is another question, of course.) Religion still does play this role for some, but philosophy not so much.

Again, questions of expertise and authority arise here. Who these days (apart from religious leaders) would presume to offer a comprehensive intellectual framework? As I suggested above, I think the best we can do in the context of academic teaching is to point out how others have addressed these grand issues in the past. And such courses would perhaps be more appropriately designated intellectual history than philosophy.

What other reasons or motivations (apart from matters of material self-interest, self-image and identity) might people have for wanting to maintain philosophy as an independent discipline?

Ideological and moral motivations clearly play a part. Just as implicit religious, ideological, political and moral commitments lie behind and motivate particular philosophical views, so such commitments motivate particular views of philosophy. In fact, only the existence of such commitments could explain, in my opinion, the crusading passion which many bring to these debates.

I specifically singled out religious perspectives for attention in my earlier essay and there was — perhaps unsurprisingly — a high degree of hostility regarding my suggestion that philosophy has been dependent on religion in various and complex ways in the past and continues to be. Non-religious supporters of philosophy did not want to see their favored discipline as being in any way dependent on religion; and religious supporters of philosophy felt perhaps that only a discipline seen to be entirely free of religious presuppositions or influences could be used convincingly to defend a religious point of view.

Political and moral and other broadly ideological commitments are also in play, of course, and a broad-based, normatively-oriented version of philosophy is inevitably attractive to those who seek to influence the values and behaviors of others.

But perhaps even more important than specific political and moral commitments is a general conviction, almost religiously held in some quarters, that scientism (conceived as a too-narrowly-scientific view of the world) needs to be actively resisted, and that the arts and humanities — including philosophy — should play a central role here.

To the extent that I recognize the desirability of a respect for ideas, a sense of history and a broadly critical perspective, I’m on board. But seeing such qualities as being in any way dependent on the fortunes of a single academic discipline would be a mistake.


Mark English has a background in the history of ideas, linguistics and philosophy. He has a PhD in philosophy from Monash University and he blogs at Language, Life and Logic.

[1] “Are you sure you have hands?” Scientia Salon, June 18, 2014.

[2] “Does philosophy have a future?” Scientia Salon, May 26, 2014.

[3] See, for example, her 2008 paper “Will philosophers study their history or become history?” Radical Philosophy Review 11(2): 27-52.

[4] Here is Horwich’s essay.

[5] From an interview with Unger at 3 Quarks Daily.

[6] Oxford University Press, 2011.

[7] Daniel Kelly’s review is relatively sober and restrained, but it effectively exposes the absurdity of McGinn’s approach to the question.

[8] Oxford University Press, 2012. Here is Nagel’s own summary of the basic thesis of the book.

[9] Yale University Press, 2013.

[10] Grayling’s sources reflect his classical and philosophical background; he virtually ignores modern literature.

[11] Grayling, op. cit., p.15.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Grayling could be seen as a modern incarnation of the 19th-century man of letters. I can think of a number of 20th-century English philosophers who played this kind of role (especially in their later years) or saw themselves in these terms. Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer were prominent examples, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Grayling saw himself as following in their footsteps.

[14] Unger, op. cit.

[15] I mean here students expressing doubts about the worthwhileness of the discipline, but it was often the case that these students were also religious skeptics. In my experience, students with religious affiliations are less inclined to question the discipline and are more likely to find it interesting — and challenging.

305 thoughts on “Philosophy, science and expertise

  1. Again, I’m coming in late here, and Richard’s response seems good to me. But here are a few more thoughts.

    lqrvy’s description of how philosophers usually operate seems accurate but the question is always going to be how valuable to non-philosophers is this intellectual “resource” which they represent?

    What strikes me is that the resource seems to be more about knowledge about arguments about particular topics than about knowledge of the topics. The focus is on the ‘game’ of argument (which some people enjoy). But is this game a way to deeper or sounder knowledge? (To a point, perhaps…)

    And, oddly, the talk about knowledge of particular arguments (arguments about moral realism perhaps?) and the standard counter-arguments and counter-counter-arguments reminds me of a game like chess where you learn openings etc.

    A philosopher friend for whom I have the highest regard has a strong background in moral philosophy and meta-ethics but won’t buy into the realism/anti-realism debate at all as he sees it as wrongly framed. He has his own way of framing moral questions.

    But then doesn’t almost every philosopher who concerns him/herself with meta-ethical questions have (to a greater or lesser extent) his/her own unique take on the issues and how to frame them? And isn’t this just a bit of a problem? (It isn’t so chess-like after all: the rules are not set and it’s kinda hard to figure out who has won…)

    In the end, the resource may be just too vast and varied to be useful except as a training ground for playing the game for those who have a taste for it.

    (This overstates things a bit, of course. The truth is always boringly qualified.)


  2. “I beg to differ, it does explain what — in essence — human morals are.”
    That is not what the question asked! Nobody asked for your explanation of what morals are! in a discussion of possible ethical theories or practical behavior the questions have to do with ethics and decisions, not your ‘meta-ethical’ explanations!

    “Just because you *want* objective morals” – Don’t tell me what I want, you have not the slightest idea what I want, beyond that I wanted a discussion about ethics to be a discussion about ethics and its place as a discourse in philosophy – and not your ‘meta-explanations.’

    I have not said one word about my own ethics or from whence they’re derived. I might have shared that had you shown any interest, but you were more concerned with your (frankly useless) ‘meta-explanations’ and with some bugaboo about moral realism.

    In your brief remarks on people agreeing to a social contract, and agreeing on some moral scheme from shared values, you at last appear to be discussing issues involving ethical reflection and theory. Unfortunately, it’s too late, the conversation is over.

    (BTW,the word “wrong” is defined in the dictionary – look it up.)


  3. Note: ” ethics and its place as a discourse in philosophy” – because that addressed one perspective on Mark’s article, supposedly the article we were commenting on.


  4. No, my argument does not end there. People want society to have norms, and they essentially enter into a social contract where society’s norms are imposed on everyone. People do not want an every-man-for-himself anarchy. Is this really news to you?

    And so if said slave-master is adhering to the norms the society that he inhabits does the argument end there?


  5. More than just “meaning ain’t in the head.” I find the idea of the linguistic division of labor to be amenable, in many ways, to a broadly Wittgensteinian view of language, particularly in the way that it “privileges” the sociological, in matters of meaning and understanding.

    I suspect we *don’t* view Wittgenstein that differently. I am simply saying that Putnam’s *conclusions* in “Meaning of ‘Meaning'” and other places don’t seem antithetical to Wittgenstein’s views on language. My claim was intended to be relatively weak.


  6. No, not at all. All that I meant was that a basic understanding of the subject involves understanding that normativity is at the heart of it and that one must, therefore, give some account of it. Hume understood this — indeed, in both his writing on morals and on aesthetic values, he identifies the main problem, in each case, with reconciling the apparently obvious subjectivity of values with the equally obvious normativity of at least some aesthetic judgments.

    One way for a subjectivist to make sense of normativity, without committing to objective values, is by way of some sort of “competent judge” account. It’s the route that Hume goes, in the aesthetics, and that Mill goes, in explaining why higher pleasures are *better* than lower ones.

    But what you cannot do is simply ignore normativity — it defines the subject matter that you are purporting to explain (moral and other forms of value).


  7. I think that most moral theories are quite comprehensible to the public. In the US, most people are Utilitarians, with strong Kantian intuitions.

    There is a difference between being able to explain, fully, what makes ones moral convictions true and being a perfectly competent moral actor. Moral discourse, overwhelmingly, is part of common, ordinary language and moral belief is overwhelmingly part of a common, folk psychological template. I don’t see that the public is in any way alienated from the various moral orientations — be it Utilitarian or Kantian or Aristotelian — simply because not everyone can explain the theories that seek to describe those orientations.


  8. Hi Carl

    I don’t think it’s contradictory for Wittgenstein and Unger to agree on the negative thesis and disagree on the positive thesis.

    It is contradictory, as I pointed out, because if Ungers positive thesis is correct then the type of philosophy by which Wittgenstein reached the negative thesis, with which Unger agrees, would not be a reliable method for establishing any thesis at all.

    The fact that he has agreed that Wittgenstein has said something valuable implies he sees value in the type of philosophy Wittgenstein was doing.

    But if that type of philosophy has value then Unger is wrong about his positive thesis, which would entail that the only hope of philosophy is to abandon the sort of philosophy Wittgenstein was doing, which implies that type of philosophy has no value.

    How can that not be a contradiction. If the type of philosophy Wittgenstein was doing was so valueless that the only hope of philosophy is to abandon it then Unger can hardly rely on the negative thesis arrived at by that method.

    If I say that I have reached a conclusion using Bayesian Inference and that conclusion has demonstrated that Bayesian Inference is not a reliable method of reaching a conclusion – would I not be contradicting myself?


  9. John.
    “He doesn’t contradict himself after that, as far as I can see, and his ensuing discussion seems to stick to meta-ethics.”
    It takes some time before one realizes that Coel has a tendency to ambiguate his terms. I’m not sure how that happens.
    But the real problem here is that this supposedly began as a discussion of ethics, not a ‘meta-ethics.’ The discussion Coel wants to pursue belongs to the topic of ‘origins of consciousness/ decision-making in the neurological development of the brain,’ or some such. That’s a valid topic for discussion but it is not a discussion concerning ethics.
    But Coel wants it to be, because he wants knowledge to be reducible to the empirical sciences. That is why his position seems to change when pressed on obviously ethical issues, and his apparent fear that, barring reduction to empirical science claims, something might pop up that really would not be so reducible. So he has to keep pressing the claim, ’emprical science can tell us this of (the origins of) human morals,’ which unfortunately doesn’t actually tell us about how we think or talk about ethics.
    Consequently it I get suspicious when he says that he says that philosophers have an expertise in ethics – what expertise does he think they should claim? Notice that at the beginning and the end, he referenced Hume and Darwin; but he rejects Hume’s important ‘is/ought’ distinction; and Darwin was not an ethicist, he was a scientist. (His own ethics were primarily utilitarian.


  10. @Aravis –

    Whoa, I just got a sense of Deja-Vu there. I think I previously misunderstood you on another thread in exactly the same way.

    Yeah, I see what you mean now. To me, that’s completely uncontroversial. I also think it’s precisely what Coel and DM are not absorbing in this whole discussion (although I’m obviously at a loss how to get the idea across).


  11. Robin,
    As I noted elsewhere, the history of the debate over ethical theory is part of our cultural inheritance.
    We are surrounded by Humeans, Kantians, Utilitarians, Libertarians, Anarchists, Nietzscheans – most of whom have may have read a book or two of a favored philosopher, but many may not even have had that experience.
    Hegel used to be one of my own bugaboos. Were you aware that Walt Disney’s original “Fantasia” is actually structured on Hegel’s dialectic? that John Wayne produced “Hondo” because he thought it expressed a moment in the dialectical history of the expansion of civilization cancelling out a primitive native culture?
    We’re all aware of the influence of Marxism on the arts before WWII; but what does this actually mean? It means, for instance, that Dashiell Hammett’s mysteries can be read as a radical critique of the corruption of capitalism (“Red Harvest”) and the necessity of false consciousness in a capitalist culture (“Maltese Falcon”).
    H. G. Wells’ “Shape of Things to Come” argues for scientism; Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” implicates a fierce rejection of it.
    Jack London’s major work has been read as a depiction of the (Social) Darwinian struggle for survival; Gertrude Stein was a student of William James.
    H.L. Menken’s first book was a the first critical text on Nietzsche published in America. Despite his criticism, it’s clear that he absorbed much of Nietzsche, and passed it along.
    Deweyan educators not only teach according to Deweyan principles, they are actually also teaching Dewey (without ever mentioning his name).
    The general public may get its ethics second hand; but it gets it nonetheless. That’s partly the function of art; but it is partly the function of the circulation of values in common discourse. Once strong ideas go into play, there’s no stopping their circulation and adaptation to experience.
    “Is there any viable moral theory which can be useful to the general public?” – Is there any viable moral theory that they’re not using?


  12. BTW, “BTW,the word “wrong” is defined in the dictionary”:
    That is one of its social validations. Without at least that, we might as well quit talking.
    But, after all, we are now done talking. So define it as you choose.


  13. Asher,
    “”I’d say the real reason for the “Coel Hellier Show” syndrome is that commenters continue to engage in the same discussion with him repeatedly. Why *that* is (and I am just as prone to it as anyone else) is the really interesting question.“”

    It is an interesting question. I think it is because he persistently injects a contrary view that reflects a strongly held ideology. That very idea contradicts what philosophy is about. Philosophy is not a means of propagating an ideology, it is rather a thoughtful means of considering various ideas. The manner of his conduct is felt as an abrasive contradiction of the spirit of philosophy. The immune system is responding to and trying to contain a foreign irritant.

    Then there is the worry that he does this so frequently and loudly that he is changing the perceptions of other observers. This is a serious concern because it is damaging to the goals of Scientia Salon, which is to advance the cause of philosophy.


  14. Coel,
    “”Asher: My point is that Coel’s explanation is ridiculously simplistic and doesn’t actually explain anything.

    Coel: Yes it does, it explains the origin of morals, and thus what morals actually are. That account is widely accepted in science.“”

    It has repeatedly been pointed out to you that origins are not the same as epistemic warrant but you never engage with this point.

    If I want to see the origin of morals in nature I need go no further than my dogs. They will happily steal from each other, savagely beat each other up and ruthlessly assert dominance. No matter how closely I observe them I can see no evidence of morality in their behaviour. In fact all I see is determined, ruthless, egotistical self interest. We know why this is so. As you pointed out, this is a Darwinian selection process and survival is the only rule. Morality has no place in the Darwinian order.

    Now let’s turn to human society. We see a remarkable difference. We see a highly developed capacity for moral behaviour. We also see that we have imported our Darwinian nature in the way we evidence criminal behaviour. Some of us behave just like my dogs do and that clearly has evolutionary roots. We have this conundrum in our behaviour. Morally we are two people. One has recognisable roots in our evolutionary history and that is the side of us that we are trying to eradicate(with enormous difficulty). It is responsible for for crime, violence, war and all the other great moral wrongs that plague our species. This is what we inherited from our evolutionary past and in that respect I agree with you.

    But on the other hand we have an astonishing capacity for good, for highly developed moral behaviour of the most admirable kind. You claim this comes from our evolutionary past. But on what evidence? Nature most certainly does not behave like this. Its only moral rule is ruthless self interest, so how can you claim our moral behaviour has evolutionary roots?

    We will never really know for sure what gave birth to this second person in us, the moral person capable of such self-sacrificing good. But this person did not come from our evolutionary roots. It must come from the birth of language and cognition. Moral thought requires both a capacity for language(to create categories and relationships) and a capacity to envision the future. This enabled us to envision categories of good behaviour and project them into the future so that we could imagine favourable outcomes. It also enabled in us the capacity for understanding the mind of the other person and being sensitive to his needs.

    Morality then is the outcome of our language and cognitive abilities. It is in conflict with the Darwinian imperative that was passed through to us from our evolutionary origins. We can see that conflict still playing out in our society today, which is why we have such a high prison population.

    Finally, lets take as an example, a well written novel, such as one of the winners of the Booker Prize. It is a highly imaginative construction of the mind that conveys marvellous insights. If you tried to explain this as being the product of our evolutionary past you would be saying precisely nothing useful. It has to be explained on its own terms in the context of language, cognition and society. An evolutionary explanation is unintelligible and useless at this level. And this is true in exactly the same way of morality. It is a construct of our mind in just the same way that mathematics is a construct of our mind.


  15. Coel,
    “”Aravis: Then go ahead and publish it, in a peer-reviewed ethics journal. That is the standard of credibility in our profession. (Please try. I look forward to hearing all the hilarious rejection letters you get.)

    Coel: Sadly, Darwin beat me to it (“Descent of man” 1871). Nowadays his ideas on this are pretty much mainstream and accepted in the relevant fields of science.“”

    The quality of your reply speaks volumes. You gave a trite reply that completely failed to engage with Aravis’ point. Darwin did not explain what we are talking about. What has been accepted in science does not explain the subject.

    Aravis is right. Your theories of morality have no hope of passing muster in academia. You also know this and giving a trite reply is an avoidance tactic. Dodging the issue with trite replies is simply not in the spirit of philosophy or serious debate.

    To repeat a point I made before. You are a scientist. You are engaged in a project that requires the collection of evidence. You know exactly the importance of evidence and evidential thinking. You are also an academic and know the importance of the accumulated thought in a given discipline. Then you go ahead and make sweeping assertions about morality on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. You disregard the accumulated thought in the discipline. This is not useful or productive and it is a denial of your training.

    There is useful work being done to understand our moral behaviour and I can recommend the writings of Dan Ariely(among others). If you want to discuss the scientific basis for morality you should confine your contributions to the work that is really, actually being done. Naturally this will require that you do quite a lot of reading but then at least you can make an informed contribution.

    For example. Ariely wanted to investigate the effect of moral priming. One group was given neutral reading before a test of cheating behaviour. The other group was asked to read the Ten Commandments before taking the test for cheating behaviour. The Ten Commandments group showed a dramatic improvement in moral behaviour and this result was independent of the participants belief system.

    Now this is fascinating stuff with so many implications. Even atheists responded very strongly to reading the Ten Commandments. Why was the priming so effective? Why was its effect transient? Will repeated priming still be effective? What does this mean for society? This is evidence based thinking and this is the kind of thing I expect from a scientist. As a scientist you are well placed to understand the power of evidential thinking. If you want to make a serious contribution to this forum I invite you to use your strengths to do this, not to ignore them.


  16. Morning everyone,

    Aravis:At a minimum, any adequate account of morals has to be able offer some rational reconstruction of the fact that from “x is wrong” it follows that “one ought not to do x.”

    At an even more basic minimum, any adequate account of morals has to be able to tell us what “one ought not to do x” actually means. By “x is wrong” we mean that “one ought not to do x”. Why ought we not do x? Why, because X is wrong! And why is X wrong? Because we ought not to do it!

    Hume realised that the way to break this circle was to anchor it in a human value judgement. Later, Darwin explained why humans have these moral sentiments (in his 1871 Descent of Man he devoted a chapter to the “evolution of the moral faculties”). Since then the ideas have been developed into a whole area of science, which nowadays focuses on game-theoretic approaches to understanding the evolution of morals (ideas of kin selection, evolutionary stable strategy, reciprocal altruism, et cetera, developed by William Hamilton, Ernst Mayr, Robert Trivers, E. O. Wilson, etc). These ideas are not wacky stuff that I’ve invented, they are mainstream science (Nobel prizes have been awarded in this area). What I’m saying would be accepted as mainstream and obvious in large swathes of science.

    Asher:But when we say, “that is wrong”, we are not saying, “that violates a society-wide convention”. And we are not simply stating the existence of feelings about the matter.

    Then what do you mean by it? Please tell me straightforwardly what “is wrong” is supposed to *mean* in your eyes. See above for the possible circle one gets into, and how I (following Hume and Darwin) break that circle.

    People are frustrated with me, but I’m equally frustrated with the tactic of avoiding the question six times with non-answers, and then declaring that the answer has been given multiple times and you’re bored with re-hashing it.

    ejwinner:BTW,the word “wrong” is defined in the dictionary – look it up.

    Have done! All you’ll find is a circle, with “wrong” being defined in terms of what is “immoral” or “unjust” and those terms being defined, if you follow it through, in terms of what is “wrong”.

    Asher:If you want to hold that our sense of morality is based on “feelings”, then you need to account for how those feelings came to be, and why there are wide consistencies in people’s moral intuitions. This is not answered by just saying the words “evolution” or “social adaptation”.

    Saying the word “evolution” is a shorthand that refers to the large amount of scientific literature on how morals evolved. People are accusing me of not knowing the philosophical literature, but it seems to me that some are just as guilty of being oblivious to the vast amount of science on this topic. Do you really think that scientists have spent the last 150 years totally uninterested in human morals and where they come from and what they are?

    As for the “wide consistencies”, well, humans are very genetically similar! Lots of human nature is similar across humans. Lots of leopard-nature is consistent across leopards. This sort of thing is a characteristic of species.

    I’ve several times mentioned to Coel that moral realism can be consistent with an evolutionary account … But there’s no interest in that discussion.

    Have you? I may have missed your comments, so can you link to them?

    Massimo:Coel, actually, Harris is very confused about his position on morality.

    Yes, I would agree on that. I don’t think his scheme is sound.

    Robin:And yet scientists keep using the term the same way as moral realists. Take Richard Dawkins, for example. In a discussion with Peter Singer he says things like “It is morally permissible to…” or “We have an obligation to…” etc.

    Yes, and such statements can be interpreted as offering an opinion. Morals are human value judgements. Any of us can and do make such judgements. And, yes, such statements are usually expressed in the usual language for them. (Having said that, I don’t know what Dawkins’s position on this is, he seems to have been seduced by Sam Harris to some extent.)

    Well it says that people who do not believe in an objective right and wrong are still using the language that developed among people who did believe in an objective right and wrong.

    Yes, that is so. The same happens over compatibilist free will and other issues. The language did indeed develop among people who were mostly dualist, vitalist, theistic and moral realists. It is way too much trouble to re-invent the whole language, it’s better to re-interpret it.

    And so if said slave-master is adhering to the norms the society that he inhabits does the argument end there?

    Arguments over morals never end! People always have opinions about how people treat each other, and often try to persuade and influence others. Where did I say anything about this process “ending”?

    ejwinner: I wanted a discussion about ethics to be a discussion about ethics and its place as a discourse in philosophy – and not your ‘meta-explanations.’

    Well ok, but I’ve been talking about the meta-ethics (about which some here disagree with me). I’ve already told you that I don’t disagree on anything you’ve said about applied ethics.

    Thomas Jones: Massimo has already identified the substance of Coel’s argument as one of reduction to illusion.

    I wouldn’t use the word “illusion”, I’d use a term such as “brain states”. Brain states are real and important. Indeed, everything important to us involves a brain state (love, hunger, anger, satisfaction, sexual desire, fear, happiness, et cetera).

    This would seem to impart something of an objective nature (“product of the natural world”) to morals …

    Sure, moral feelings do exist; brain states do indeed exist. And they are important to us.

    jarnauga111: The reactions to Coel are ones of frustration and exasperation given the interminable number of times he has been corrected/challenged, to no avail.

    I can assure you that the feeling is mutual. The outright dismissal of everything that science has learned about human morality is rather amazing! The evasion over simple questions such as what “is morally wrong” actually means is also rather amazing.

    Coel, I’m still waiting for substantive, non-question-begging answers to the following … Massimo’s tongue-in-cheek response to this general argument was something along the lines of “Fine, since everything involves thinking, science is really philosophy.”

    Yes, I agree. It really is all philosophy. Happy now? I have already explicitly given that answer the last six times that point was put to me. I then went on to explain what I *do* *not* *care* what we call it.

    What I *am* saying is that the philosophical account of morals does need to mesh with the scientific one. We cannot have one account of human morals in philosophy and a totally incompatible one in science, since after all we are discussing the very same phenomenon — human morals.

    That is why I am trying hard to advance a view that sees all this as part of the same enterprise of understanding humans, and why I get frustrated by the attitude that philosophy is a parochial, compartmentalised little area where all they need to do is talk to each other.

    For example, Aravis openly admits that he has little interest in science, yet adopts the supercilious attitude that he is the one who understands human morals — well, my honest opinion is that the scientific ethologists understand it better. For starters, they can answer questions such as what “X is wrong” and “we ought to do X” actually mean.

    Yes I do understand that my attitude can seem threatening to the health of philosophy departments and to what Aravis has spent his career pursing, but — to make a comparison — are such considerations a reason for philosophers and others to refrain from criticising string theory? Or Krauss’s book? Philosophers do want for themselves the right to comment on other fields and “hold them to account”.

    2. A substantive answer to Aravis regarding Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment (i.e., not what *you* think, but what you think of what the discipline thinks). …

    I’d actually deliberately avoided pursuing that, partly because of being busy with other things and partly because people are complaining that interactions with me dominate too much, so I was replying only to the stuff on morality. I may indeed be mis-understanding Twin Earth. I’m happy to discuss the matter further if people want to. If so, it’d be good if someone could summarise what the Twin Earth thought experiment is supposed to establish and why it does so. I’m also happy to drop it if people prefer.


  17. Coel, just for a bit of moral support, I don’t think you’re being treated very well here.

    I think you are intellectually honest and I think you’re really just trying to understand other viewpoints. People are frustrated with you because from their point of view you have been “corrected” many times and haven’t changed your views. But of course that is a very biased interpretation of events. From your point of view you have not been corrected, people have been missing your point and interpreting you uncharitably. You keep repeating yourself because your points have not been adequately addressed.

    So, just to say that I at least think you’re a good guy. We may not always agree, but I think your heart is in the right place. I think maybe you could ameliorate things by trying a little harder to express yourself in a way that those who disagree with you will be less likely to misinterpret. For instance, I think I may have been able to clarify your views on the immorality of slavery for a few people, unless of course I misunderstood you myself. I know you’re trying, but you may need to try harder?

    Easier said than done, I know.


  18. DM,
    “”So, just to say that I at least think you’re a good guy. We may not always agree, but I think your heart is in the right place.“”

    I agree with that statement.


  19. Hello again,
    Trying to minimise replies, for above stated reasons, but:


    The quality of your reply speaks volumes. You gave a trite reply that completely failed to engage with Aravis’ point. Darwin did not explain what we are talking about. What has been accepted in science does not explain the subject. Aravis is right. Your theories of morality have no hope of passing muster in academia.

    Your dismissal of the entire field of ethology is noted. Just interested, have you read what has been written on the evolution of morality by people such as William Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, Ernst Mayr, Robert Trivers, Robert Axelrod, E. O. Wilson, and many others, or are you dismissing it entirely unread?

    If I want to see the origin of morals in nature I need go no further than my dogs. […] As you pointed out, this is a Darwinian selection process and survival is the only rule. Morality has no place in the Darwinian order.

    Some who have studied dogs disagree with you. See here and here for example.

    Your view of Darwinian evolution is way too simplistic. If people would benefit from cooperation then Darwinian evolution favours cooperation. For example, suppose 5 people banding together to go hunting will bring back 8 times as much meat as each hunting on his own. Then Darwinian evolution favours cooperation.

    Of course if that happens you then need ways of policing the cooperation, you need ways of divvying out the meat, you need a notion of fair shares. You need ways of stopping people taking from the communal stash of meat while not contributing to obtaining it. You need notions of group loyalty and betrayal and of ostracisation, and of contrition and forgiveness. In short, you need morality. All of this arises in evolution when cooperative activity is favoured over individual activity. This is why evolution programs morality into us. As I said, there is a whole scientific literature on this.

    Further, we get into the concept of the Evolutionary Stable Strategy (a concept from game theory similar to the Nash equilbrium). This says that either pure nastiness or pure niceness is unstable. If a gene for nastiness was 100% dominant then it would be nasty to other copies of itself, and there would be no benefits of cooperation. If, however, genes for niceness were 100% prevalent, then they would vulnerable to invasion by nastiness, being parastical on the communal goodness. Therefore, the only “evolutionarily stable” solution is one with a balanced tension between niceness and nastiness — much like human nature actually is.

    This stuff is not my invention, the Nash equilibrium got a Nobel Prize for example (though admittedly the economics one). When you say that “your theories of morality have no hope of passing muster in academia”, you do realise that you are talking about vast swathes of mainstream and accepted science?


    Coel, just for a bit of moral support, I don’t think you’re being treated very well here.

    Your support is welcome, thanks! But I can cope! The behaviour from the philosophers is similar to that of theologians when atheists challenge theology — all you get is an airy dismissal that atheists are unfamiliar with the theological literature, along with them pointing to other theologians as validation (as though that amounts to anything). I’ve actually been surprised by the parochial attitude of many here, as though philosophy is a self-validating enclave of its own that does not need to relate to the wider world. It’s not surprising that philosophy “has a PR problem”, as Massimo put it.

    The more charitable way of putting it is that the illusion of *objective* morals (note that I said the illusion of *objective* morals, not the illusion of morals) is so strong that people really do have a hard time even understanding the alternative.

    I can entirely sympathise with that from my own situation — having dispensed with a theistic account of morals in early teens I progressed to a utilitarian account of it in late teens (reading Mill etc); of course I then read about all the problems with utilitarianism, but tried hard to make it work, since of course it had to work somehow. It was only later that I realised that from the evolutionary point of view there was zero reason to expect there to be any realist morals. It really does take a lot of re-training of intuition to properly accept that — I know, because I’ve been through it.

    But science tells us that human intuition is not reliable. Part of being a physicist is re-training the intuition to cope with quantum mechanics and other highly counter-intuitive concepts. I’m coming to think that a big part of the difference between a scientific outlook and a philosophical one is this: scientists think that science is about trying to much better than human intuition, using evidence and reason to do so.

    Philosophers, in contrast, tend to see intuition as primary, and thus tend to see philosophy as being about producing an account in accord with their intuition. Thus, to completely overturn intuition by rejecting the normativity aspect of ethics is baffling to them and is then rejected as “not being about ethics”. The unwillingness to question the normativity aspect of ethics, but instead to treat it as primary, is clear in the responses of Aravis and others.


  20. Hi Massimo,

    Coel, it is simply not the case – though it is oft-repeated – that philosophers see intuitions as primary.

    Yes, I may well be wrong on that, it’s rather an impression I got (perhaps erroneously). If we ask what the evidence is that there is a normativity aspect to ethics (the thing that Aravis insists must be present if we are talking about ethics), then the answer is (1) intuition, and (2) …? (I’ll go and have a read of the link you supplied.)


  21. DM, I think the case is rather that “your heart is in the right place.” To use such a metaphor, as you do here, seems laughably ironic inasmuch as Coel would be the first in line to dismiss it as meaningless or perhaps to suggest that its meaning could only be assessed by applying the correct science to it.


  22. Hi Coel,

    I would like to clarify that though I am a moral anti-realist I see a value in the philosophy of ethics. I think the pursuit of “right answers” is like chasing the rainbow, but there are nevertheless better and worse approaches in my view.

    I feel deeply a desire to live morally, and that means I need to clarify what this means, if only to myself. I don’t pretend to be able to ultimately justify or derive any ‘oughts’, but I can at least decide how to interpret and develop my moral instinct.

    For instance, I would like an ethics to make as few assumptions as possible, to be as internally consistent as possible and to have something to say about how to approach moral dilemmas and to living life. I am not content to just say ‘to hell with it’ and do as I please.

    For me, utilitarianism seems to be the best approach, although I think virtue ethics is good too if the virtues are chosen so as to maximise utility.

    How about you? To hell with it or adopt some ethical system despite your anti-realism?


  23. When it becomes better appreciated that all views of reality are personal ‘brain states’, the conversation between philosophers, scientists and everyone else will become even more productive. There is, obviously, no thinking that occurs outside of the brain. The implication of this fact is that our single brains try to master our culture but will always come up short. Even in a relatively defined discipline such as medicine, available information far outstrips the capacity of a single brain. A further implication is that one should always worry when two individuals are in complete agreement on any complex subject. There probably is a collusion bias of some sort.

    (The above is an opinion contingent on further empirical evidence becoming available to me.)


  24. Hume realised that the way to break this circle was to anchor it in a human value judgement.


    Hume understood–as you do not–that normativity is at the heart of morals and strove to make sense of it, not dismiss it, as you do.


    Darwin explained why humans have these moral sentiments.


    As the chorus has already explained to you, where something comes from is a different question from what justifies it.


    With this, I am finished. You have utterly exhausted me. I cede the field. I’m sure, if you continue long enough, you’ll exhaust your other critics too, and will be the last man standing.


  25. I have to repeat that I find it selective argument to ignore the role of philosophy at large. Both Wittgenstein and Ayn Rand are physically dead, but I don’t think you can legitimately debate only the contributions of the one in preference to the other. September 11 is coming up which should remind us that the philosophy includes people like Hayek. Philosophy is not just debate but addresses another kind of actions in a National Stadium. But even in the cunningly chosen terrain of discussion this list is strikingly symptomatic. Maybe commentary would be enlightening? Also, maybe this commentator would find the perspective novel enough to consider? (By the way, the perspectives of philosophy at large are not arcane, but familiar, which is why those with different viewpoints are not convinced by mere repetition.They’ve already heard it.)

    1. If you think of morals as the way you treat other people, many ethical decisions are not conscious decisions but reactions. Even more are simply carrying out without question social expectations. Philosophy pictures “people” as disembodied spirits who exist only as reasoners. Thus it seems proper to conclude that ethical actions are preceded by a kind of theorem whose conclusion inspires the action, but this is false. The desire not to adhere to social expectations is commonly justified by such rational argument. It is when there are mixed feelings or unidentitiable feelings that people resort to thinking the problem through. The philosophical picture that they think that, therefore feel this, is the wrong one. The real problem is not misunderstanding evolutionary theory but incorrectly representing the role of ethical theory. (By the way, I think Coel is far too generous to the claims of evolutionary psychologists. But I believe even the uncredentialed can make valid criticisms.)

    2. The human body is not a closed system, even if philosophy disdains eating. And the environment is indeed open but the real question is in what sense it is a system. There are multiple ways to see “the environment” as a system and which is relevant to any genuine, i.e., specific, question. This is such a bizarre error i can only suspect a thorough training in philosophy.

    3. This is reductionistic, seeing only natural science as “science.”. Social sciences are well aware of social change, viewing it as explicable in thoroughly materialistic terms, not as inexplicable changes in thinking. The question is whether ethicists, who reject in principle the possibility that evidence is conclusive, can possibly address new problems in convincing fashion. The notion that some sort of working out of internal impulses are ethical progress is an extravagant claim.

    4. Unfortunately, the convergence may be due to the predetermination of goals. The forthright justification of the status quo is rarely unprofitable. The supposed demonstration that mere evidence is insufficient can serve to deflect criticism as well. Theoretical convergence is meaningless. Actual convergence in life isn’t, but that kind of thing is what is being rejected.

    5. Yes, the fact that people dislike slavery is an answer to why it’s wrong. The question of whether it might have been thousands of years ago a lesser evil than massacre or when it became an unnecessary evil weren’t actually asked. The Romanian whoremaster may use some sort of philosophy to justify himself but his victims’ distaste, which must be overcome with some sort of force, shows otherwise. The question is why philosophy had so much trouble even asking the ethical questions, then accepting the rather simple answers.

    5. Philosophy’s slow convergence on the agreement that slavery is bad after slavery after slavery was disappearing and abolition was beginning is not nearly as interesting as the previous convergence on the idea that slavery was not an issue.

    6. Unless you automatically assume that slaves approved of slavery or that their opinions, like themselves, are worh less, this is extraordinarily false. Violence, force and the threat of force is essential to all slave systems, precisely because people did not want to be slaves. Philosophy may find that some people are better than others, but science has found no evidence this is true. Philosophy may repudiate the notion that evidence provides knowledge as scientism, but I for one do not. Nor do I think it is unreasonable to be critical of philosophy as a whole for committing this enormity.

    7. Conclusions about what people want are indispensable to how you treat them. Absent any philosphical justifications about why some people’s or supernatural entities’ desires are more important, any guiding rules about social intercourse of equals have to be based on this. I’m not sure you’ve yet understood the perspective you’re arguing against. This certainly isn’t an argument.

    8. Nor is this an argument. Perhaps none of us understand what moral realism is, but I thought it was uncontroversial that it was the claim that morals are normative because they have an independent reality. This is another extravagant claim.

    9. First, it is true. I suppose technically that alone refutes your second point. But insofar as I can make any sense of your second point, you appear to be claiming that we need something besides the facts that people are equal and none want to be slaves to justify antislavery. You have a confuse and unexamined notion that a simple human desire is somehow independent of moral goodness. This is yet another philosophical enormity.

    10. This assumes there can be a suprahistorical, supracultural formulation of ethical rules. Here is yet another extravagant claim by philosophy.

    There are a handful of philosophers who’ve anticipated elements of a scientific view of society (which includes its moral life, which is the interactions of its members.) But like the phiosophers who anticipated atoms or materialism, they have never ever been representative of philosophy at large. And like the atomist philosophers, it is a real question whether one can properly identify their speculations as more than inspiration for the real science.


  26. labnut,
    Yes, it is clear that what we call ethical behavior can only come into being once we have a language to articulate it as such. And actually, Darwin agrees.
    After this argument with Coel, I went back to Descent of Man. A large part of it is engaged in ethical theory. However it is not really saying what Coel wants it to say ( he seems to be drawing largely from a single paragraph from Chapter IV). And it has problems.
    First it is deeply contextualized in the moral discussions of its own day, which Darwin is not trying to deny. Secondly, it is clearly an contribution to what we call the nature vs. nurture debate, his explicit target being Mill’s assertion that the ‘moral sense’ had to be acquired after birth. Third, Darwin is quite comfortable with the language of moral philosophy (e.g., “wrong,” “ought”) that Coel treats with such suspicion. Fourth, disappointingly, Darwin actually does lapse into a Social Darwinism, esp. in comments arguing that the lower classes should not reproduce, and that struggle (by which he may mean combat) is a healthy means of selecting the strongest of the species. Fifth, in making such claims, Darwin unwittingly suggests that evolution necessitates ‘the good of the species’ as a moral imperative, which cannot follow from his theory that sympathies form the basis of the moral sense and reasoning. (This gives him noticeable difficulty when he tries to address why we care for the sick and infirm when ‘the good of the species’ clearly indicates we ought to allow them to die.)
    In an effort to reflect on the ethics of the ‘civilized’ society in which he lived, Darwin’s text also includes an anthropological review of customs primarily of ‘savage’ cultures, apparently in the hope that these would reveal homologies to lower species behavior, esp. sexual selection. I didn’t get very far with this (and so my interpretation is shaky), since it seems badly dated. E.g., Darwin was a Victorian, and apparently assumed that sex was primarily, perhaps solely, about reproduction. We know now that this is not the case in the human species, which just by itself tells us that drawing analogies, let alone homologies, between behavior of humans and that of other species, can be a very risky business.
    Sorry about going on about Darwin here, but to be honest, I didn’t want to address Coel directly and get into another round of unnecessary clarification.
    Still, it’s always good to be informed.


  27. Ejwinner,
    thanks, that was very informative. Darwin’s genius did not extend to all his writing. There is a strong tendency among scientismists to assume that Darwinism is the only game in town. But it cannot be. The emergence of our mind has changed the playing field substantially and so there has to be a new game. There are no genes in our mind to be replicated. Dawkins unfortunate theory of mimetics fell afoul of this problem. Evolutionary psychologists are still trying to play the old game on the new playing field.


  28. Hi Everyone,


    How about you? To hell with it or adopt some ethical system despite your anti-realism?

    Why sure, of course I adopt a moral system! I’m a moral agent and have moral opinions like everyone else. About half the posts on my blog are moralising (the other half being about scientism). The whole point is that *people* make moral value judgements, but there is no non-human oracle prescribing moral oughts for us.


    Hume understood–as you do not–that normativity is at the heart of morals and strove to make sense of it, not dismiss it, as you do.

    It is a feature of intellectual advances that the thinker often shies away from fully accepting their own conclusions (intellectual leaps involve re-programing intuition and so takes time) and their writings can be ambiguous as a result. This is true of Hume, where he does indeed wrestle with the issue. Since then, plenty of others have gone the whole hog, and this is now mainstream in science. It is less so in philosophy, but has been adopted (for all your dismissals) by credentialed philosophers (J. L. Mackie is one).

    If a serious philosopher such as Mackie can regard morals as lacking the normativity you insist on then I suggest that you need an actual argument for requiring normativity, not just foot stamping (to use one of your own phrases).

    As the chorus has already explained to you, where something comes from is a different question from what justifies it.

    I agree. But, the origin is often a strong pointer to understanding something, and my critics here are remarkably coy about what does justify moral claims, if it isn’t human value judgements.

    Thomas Jones:

    To use such a metaphor, as you do here, seems laughably ironic inasmuch as Coel would be the first in line to dismiss it as meaningless …

    You really haven’t understood what I’m saying.

    ejwinner: (re Descent of Man).

    First, I agree with your general point that Darwin’s writing was a product of the time. He was also struggling with understanding these issues, and we’re a lot clearer on them today. However:

    Secondly, it is clearly an contribution to what we call the nature vs. nurture debate, his explicit target being Mill’s assertion that the ‘moral sense’ had to be acquired after birth.

    Yes, Darwin saw our moral faculties as the evolved product of Darwinian evolution. That was the main point I was citing him for.

    Third, Darwin is quite comfortable with the language of moral philosophy (e.g., “wrong,” “ought”) that Coel treats with such suspicion.

    I’m entirely comfortable with such language (and use it all the time myself) so long as it is regarded as referring back to a human value judgement.

    Fourth, disappointingly, Darwin actually does lapse into a Social Darwinism, esp. in comments arguing that the lower classes should not reproduce, and that struggle (by which he may mean combat) is a healthy means of selecting the strongest of the species.

    Does he? As I recall, he only discusses such things *descriptively*, never prescriptively (indeed he explicitly rejects such prescription on moral grounds). I may have mis-remembered, do you have a quote?

    . Fifth, in making such claims, Darwin unwittingly suggests that evolution necessitates ‘the good of the species’ as a moral imperative, which cannot follow from his theory that sympathies form the basis of the moral sense and reasoning.

    Can you give page quotes for this? It’s a while since I read it but my recollection is that he avoided this trap (i.e., “good of the species being a moral imperative”, which simply doesn’t follow, since it is going from a Darwinian “is” to an “ought” with no warrant). On a quick search of an online text of the book I can’t find the phase “good of the species” used. Can you quote the full sentences he uses?


  29. Coel,

    “if we are talking about ethics), then the answer is (1) intuition, and (2) …?”

    Reason? You know, just like for math and logic.


  30. I agree with DM, I think there is a more charitable way to interpret this debate. Is a fact that the social and cultural perception of slavery has been different across the centuries. Aristotle defended slavery for two main reasons; firstly he thought that some persons had to do some works to create spare time for the free ones, these were busy doing politic, commerce and war. The second reason was cultural, he supported slavery as a natural social fact that no free men ever considered unnatural, cruel and despotic.

    From his intellectual trench underpinned slavery as positive for the polis arguing that slaves and free men shared similar social objectives and reciprocal friendship. Obviously, this condition was frustrating for the slaves, they wanted to be free. The fight of the slaves against their condition pointed to the system but that system seemed natural to the free men, so Aristotle shared with them the same intellectual and emotional perception and tried to underpin it with ethical reasons.

    At the present time we support our governments with our votes, we do it with logic and emotions, sometimes we agree and sometimes disagree, but we are in troubles when we try to explain the undesirable aspects of our societies like poverty, drugs addiction, terrorism, wars, public and private monetary frauds, etc. This stuff springs up in a system shared by almost everybody, we are partially responsible for this in the same way that the free people of the Greek society was responsible with regard to slavery.

    If some inhabitant of the future looks at the world of the present time he would think that we form a nutty society, though perhaps he would understand that these asymmetries are culturally accepted, or at least that we are not able of doing convincing actions to improve the situation. Then, to be charitable with ourselves makes easier to understand the Aristotle’s opinions about slavery.


  31. Hi Massimo,

    OK, I’m interested. What is the reason-based argument for why morals must contain normativity (beyond that arising from human value judgements)?


  32. I regret going meta….

    Just to be very clear – I have no problem whatsoever with Coel. If any person dominates the discussion, it’s because that person elicits responses. The rest of the commenters here could choose not to have the same discussion tens of times (me included). I find the fact that we do both fascinating and frustrating. That was all that was meant with my off-the-cuff comment.


  33. I know I said I was out, but this deserves comment, since it is directed largely at me (and perhaps one or two others), and I feel like I should explain why this latest round of discussion has made me decide that I will cease commenting on Scientia Salon.

    First, for those of us who have invested our lives in this subject and who think it is really crucial to a healthy society and polity, it is very important that those who are unfamiliar with the subject *not be* misinformed and miseducated, with respect to it. This becomes especially important at a time when our subject–and others in the humanities–are under relentless attack and threat of elimination within the academy. So, it is very difficult for us *not* to engage those who slander and misrepresent philosophy in public and even worse, continually and systematically miseducate others with respect to its subject-matter. When the person who is doing this is relentless and unyielding, one *is* thereby forced either to engage in interminable rounds of endless debate or else withdraw entirely. I have neither the time nor the inclination to do the former, so I am doing the latter.

    Second, in an environment in which conversation is by necessity somewhat casual — because of limitations of space, the fact that everyone has jobs, etc. — not every point can be fully vetted, with all of the arguments for and against. In that sort of environment, *some* deference has to be given to peoples’ expertise. If I go on a physics board, there simply is no way for the physicists there to work through all the reasons and justifications for every explanation they give and every argument they make, and it would be rude for me to demand that they do so. On some things and at some points in the discussion, I will simply have to defer to their expertise. This is a matter not just of common sense, but of common courtesy.

    What has bothered me so much here is not that some people disagree with me — disagreement is the nature of the business I am in — but rather that they reject the very idea that there is such a thing as expertise in philosophy. The result, then, is that things that are well-established in the discipline have to be endlessly rehashed and re-argued, arguments that have already been settled and resolved have to be endlessly reopened and re-litigated, and flat out ignorant and unviable positions have to be treated with the same seriousness and deliberateness as those that are informed and viable.

    Can you imagine being on a physics discussion board, in which you had to argue about the validity of basic Newtonian laws over and over and over again, because a handful of people, who knew nothing about physics, hijacked every discussion thread and contradicted everything the physicists would say on the topic, at the same time categorically rejecting their expertise? Such a situation would offend common sense and represent an utter absence of common courtesy and would be, for anyone who was there to learn something, intolerable. Alas, it seems to me that this is precisely the sort of situation that is beginning to emerge here and to me, at least, it is intolerable.

    I hope that this explains my withdrawal from the S.S. discussion boards. I am sure that they will do just fine, without my participation. And kudos to Massimo for doing it. He is a mensch, with the patience of a saint. Certainly a better man than me, in this regard.


  34. Aravis,
    I am really sad to read this. I have always looked forward to reading your contributions for the lovely clarity of your reasoning and the deeply informed nature of your contributions. I have learned a great deal from you.

    I sympathise with what you say and understand your feelings. From time to time I make the same decision and then reverse myself.

    But your going will be a great loss. I hope you too will reverse your decision. Massimo has launched an important experiment that really deserves to succeed. We need your voice to help make this experiment succeed.

    best regards, Peter.


  35. I wish you wouldn’t. I think you misperceive the importance of your POV to other readers here. You articulate positions that others struggle with, but cannot express as well as you can.


  36. I *really* need to learn to keep my mouth shut…

    this deserves comment, since it is directed largely at me

    No. It’s specifically *not* directed at you, because you’re one of the very few people who doesn’t rehash the thing 20 times and instead says something like, “We’ve already gone through this 20 times”, which serves as a marker for those new to the discussion about what’s going on.

    Further, when you *have* engaged recently, it is usually in response to someone else floundering, trying to get across the idea of what exactly is wrong with the argument. In these cases, you generally leave a comment that is extremely concise and cogent and cuts to what others were trying to say but struggling with.

    I can cite many instances of both of these things. And I consider them the *right* way to approach the whole issue. I consider the way *I* approach it to be the wrong way.

    Let me tell you why I value this forum, Aravis. I’m a 47-year-old software developer who quit grad school (studying under people like Dale Jacquette and Alphonso Lingis) because he didn’t have enough money or talent to see it through. A place like this is a *really* cool thing for someone who doesn’t have access to academia or to the influx of ideas that stimulate the intellect.

    Pigliucci’s premise – the responsibility of public intellectuals to engage – is a sweet deal for interested laypeople like me. What is not so sweet is when that discussion is dominated by ideas about how the thing I’m so interested in and excited about is basically dumb. And what is even un-sweeter is when those ideas are essentially Ayn-Rand-quality thinking.

    So what was in the back of my mind when I made the original comment was a sort of vague hope that others would say, “Yeah – let’s instead discuss the *other*, actually *interesting* stuff”.

    What was *not* in my mind was the perspective of someone who actually does this for a living and is affected by it in a different, more close-to-the-bone way than I am.

    So – I can only apologize and shake my head at the fact that I managed to assist in making the exact opposite of what I hoped would happen happen.


  37. Hi Coel,

    Do you really think that scientists have spent the last 150 years totally uninterested in human morals and where they come from and what they are?

    But have any of them really come up with anything better than an interesting conjecture about the subject?

    All that can really be said is that it must have had some survival benefit at some point in the lineage leading up to our species.

    And it is not really to the point because any evolutionary origin of things like compassion, empathy, pity and so on is not going to be relevant to anything that we have the illusion of caring about.

    So, while that stuff might be interesting in its own right, it is hardly going to be useful for the purposes of deciding how to go about our lives.

    It may be that there is no basis for this, but if there is then an account of our evolutionary history will not figure in it.

    And before you start, no, this is not a hankering after moral realism, not even the moral semi-realism that you espouse.


  38. Hi Coel,

    Arguments over morals never end! People always have opinions about how people treat each other, and often try to persuade and influence others. Where did I say anything about this process “ending”?

    Arguments end when there is no more disagreement, or at least they should.

    The slave-master is making himself happy and is acting in accordance with the norms of the society he belongs to and so, presumably, you have no objection to his way of life, other than it is not your particular cup of tea.

    And so you have no more argument with him – right?


  39. Me too, Aravis. For me, the whole point of these discussions is to learn about views which disagree with my own. You are as good a champion of those views as one could hope for, and your knowledge has been a great asset to me in guiding me to greater understanding of the literature in the subjects that interest me.


  40. Hi Coel,
    <blockquoteYes, and such statements can be interpreted as offering an opinion. Morals are human value judgements. Any of us can and do make such judgements.
    To put that into perspective a statement by you about the age of the Universe can be interpreted as offering an opinion. Anything can.

    But when someone says “X is immoral” it is phrased as saying something about X. But if you say that the phrase “X is immoral” says nothing about X rather it says something about some entity that is not even mentioned in the phrase, then that is simply incoherent. How are we supposed to parse a sentence that doesn’t identify, even implicitly, what the sentence is about?

    If I have a sentence “X is Y” and say that the sentence says nothing about X but is instead about Z then of course that sentence is going to be misinterpreted, Blind Freddy could see that.

    To excuse this sort of irrationality on the basis of “this is always how we have talked about it” is also incoherent. Do you go into a class and say “Today we are going to look at how God created the Universe” on the basis that this is how our culture has always talked about the beginning of the Universe? I doubt it.

    I am not a Great Communicator, but at least I know that when I want to impart some information about something there must be at least one implicit referent in the sentence to the thing I am describing.


  41. As a very new fan of Scientia Salon I found myself tossed immediately into the midst of a very heated battle: scientismists v. philosophismists. I was really impressed with the knowledgeable approaches on both sides, but I could tell that they were dug in; Coel maybe more so, but then he was outnumbered. You confirmed for me what I already knew: I will never be an expert philosopher. However, I feel very fortunate to be able to learn by watching experts air their differences. I look forward to more of these very vigorous exchanges!


  42. pcprasad1, I certainly see value in people being exposed to thinkers of the past like Bertrand Russell or David Hume but this could be done under the designation of history of ideas or similar. I see also value in teaching basic logic and even some ethical theory.


  43. John Crossett writes:

    “What makes philosophy so valuable, it seems to me, is it’s capacity to *inform* all other disciplines while at the the same time transcending them by its insistence upon intellectual rigor for its own sake. It’s all well and good to apply philosophical principles to science or law or business, but the “value-added” of “general” philosophy is it’s willingness to challenge scientists, lawyers, and investors to justify and clearly articulate their modes of thought at a foundational level.”

    What you say is all very well but my thesis is that philosophy has an identity and an authority problem and its warrant to do anything like what you describe is very much in question. Philosophy or philosophers may indeed have a willingness to inform or challenge but how will their approaches be received? (And why?)

    My view is that the causes of the problem are deep and it is not just a crisis of confidence on the part of philosophers or a PR problem.


  44. Robin Herbert writes:

    “The fact that [Unger] has agreed that Wittgenstein has said something valuable implies he sees value in the type of philosophy Wittgenstein was doing.”

    Yes, but the flaw in your argument, it seems to me, is that you don’t fully take into account that what Wittgenstein meant by the word ‘philosophy’ is not what most philosophers mean by the word. And I don’t think Wittgenstein believed (and nor do I) that his sort of ‘philosophy’ could be institutionalized (which is not to say that no academic philosophers are truly Wittgensteinian in their approach).

    I cited the case of Peter Unger as evidence that there is in fact something of a crisis in the discipline, and quoted a few comments he made in an interview which chimed with my own concerns.

    But say Unger’s views were inconsistent in some respect. So what? So his reasons for saying bad things about academic philosophy would thereby be exposed as incoherent?

    Actually I think our attitudes go much deeper than superficial logic, failures of which are often just the result of us failing to properly articulate our views. One often hears people saying something like, “Yes, but that is not what I am really trying to say.”

    Unger was trying to say something; I have been trying to say something here (perhaps something similar to Unger). We try (and inevitably fail to some extent) to do justice to the insights we have by expressing them well and coherently and not leaving any essential bits out.

    (Granted, sometimes our ‘insights’ are not insights at all but are fundamentally (and not just superficially) flawed or confused.)


  45. stevenjohnson,
    First, I do not know what your opening statements refer to.
    You are seem to be engaging in a contentious polemic unnecessarily.
    You are asserting interpretations of my own philosophical and ethical commits that are not true.
    You are making claims about philosophy in general, and ethical philosophy specifically, that are empirically falsifiable through reading of the literature.
    No ethical theorist I know denies the importance of the real world, what can be learned of it through evidence, esp. that gathered by the social sciences. No ethical theorist I know denies that action frequently occurs without pause for thought. Ethical theory is a preparation to decisions in action, the decision is in the action itself.
    You are right about the body as an open system, I was thinking about the circulatory system, but that’s no excuse, I was mistaken.
    On the other hand you are wrong about the problem of the issue of how diverse ethical discourse – philosophical, social, political – led up to a change of thinking about slavery that thus guided feelings and new thinking and further discourse, so that socially we could agree to ending the practice. That history is also verifiable through reference to historical documents both within and besides philosophy.
    Neither Coel’s position nor yours seems to account for the process by which we change our minds and come to agreement with others.
    Finally, I think your closing statement is not relevant to the issue at hand.
    I understand that you don’t like philosophy. I don’t quite understand your fury at it. I would suggest rethinking that, it tends to close off discussion.


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