Philosophy

I’m Writing a Book!

Working Title: The End of Ethics

The Buck Moon by Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

I’ve been writing for some time about my yearly meditations, where I pick a word of the year to guide me. My first word was narratives in 2016, followed by boundaries in 2017, and then authenticity twice, once in 2018 and again in 2019; my 2020 and 2021 words are yet to come, so stay tuned for that. I’ve written about how each of those words led to massive changes in my life, changes I never thought could arise from simply thinking about one word for 365 days. This practice has deepened my relationships with others, enriched my understanding of myself, and improved my intuitive abilities. I highly recommend you give it a try. There’s no better time than now, under the magnificent super buck moon.

In addition to recounting past words, I’m posting about my journey through my current word of the year, voice. My hope is that you can see in real-time how I open myself up to the ways the word works through my life. I believe the openness to the word, the curiosity, the willingness to see where it leads all give enormous power to this meditation. It pulls us out of our heads, disrupts our typical patterns, and invites us to leave our safe spaces and explore. I think I’ve felt silenced for many years, and so choosing voice this year has encouraged me to express myself again. It’s helping me lift my inner voice with passion and stamina. Ultimately, it’s led me to writing a book. How exciting!

I had an epiphany a few months ago—more like a visceral flight of ideas—and ever since, I’ve been obsessively researching, planning, and discussing this new book I’m writing. Quite literally, I was sitting at a local restaurant’s bar, enjoying a glass of wine, and reading Philippa Foot’s beautiful book, Natural Goodness. I’m sort of known for reading in bars these days, ha. Anyway, I’ve been reading this one, tiny-but-mighty work of philosophical genius for nearly twenty years. It has notations in the margins I no longer comprehend, vestiges of my undergraduate honors thesis. I love this book. As I read it through new eyes, however, I felt a sudden rush of excitement. My heart began to race. My cheeks flushed. Suddenly it all made sense. Everything I’d struggled to understand as an undergraduate philosophy major, the parts of my dissertation that never quite sat right, and strange experiences teaching my own undergraduate students all came together in one, unifying conclusion: we’ve made a crucial mistake spending thousands of years trying to make sense of morality. It’s time to abandon the project. Instead, let’s set a new agenda for understanding human behavior that might be more fruitful. Here’s my working abstract, which is continually evolving:

What if the framework for evaluating some actions as right and some actions as wrong never existed? That’s my big question: what if we went back far enough in hypothetical time, before anyone ever judged an action as wrong, and instead of judging actions as right or wrong, we did something entirely different? Throughout the history of philosophy, we have assumed morality needed elucidation. We built complex theories of what moral terms mean, where morality comes from, what moral reasons are, the nature of moral facts in relation to natural facts, and normative theories justifying why particular actions are right or wrong. None of these theories is without devastating flaw. I will argue we need to start in a different place, and if we start anywhere but “I will provide a moral theory,” we will never get to a moral theory. If we stop assuming morality from the outset, we’ll discover there is no reason for it.

I will start with a pragmatic argument for abolishing punishment in the home and throughout society. A few surprising things will follow. Most importantly, morality won’t follow. Then I’ll argue that instead of acting on moral reasons, human beings more simply express their various mental states, including beliefs, desires, values, emotions, needs, and appetites. If we want to build a better society, our focus should be on proactively improving and enriching our mental states for success as a species rather than judging, evaluating, and punishing each other after the fact through the limited, flawed, and divisive lens of morality.  

The thought surprised even me! I’ve been a believer in moral objectivism—the idea that there are moral facts independent of human beliefs—my whole (philosophical) life. As I sat at the bar astounded that I could even think this thought, I began to outline my argument. I wrote it all out in my notebook with my palms sweating and my forehead pressed into my left hand, seeing my way through the maze that had mystified me for decades, as if I suddenly had access to the bird’s eye view. I packed up my books and scooped my heart off the floor, then moved to another venue, my favorite local jazz bar. I pulled out my notebook, turned the page, and wrote the argument again, just to see if I still had it. And I did. I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack. I decided to put the notebook away and wait until the next day to re-write it on my computer, just to see if I could. And I did again. I almost passed out from the thought of it. I simultaneously thought “this is genius” and “this is absolute nonsense.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the physical joy and chaos of a new idea, but it is overwhelming. How can my body know the truth before I do? The feeling of reaching both hands in the air, snapping a few times as you smile from ear to ear, then clap once or twice before pounding the desk, “that’s it!” It’s surreal. John Stuart Mill might’ve been right; intellectual pleasures might be of the highest kind. It reminded me of a familiar feeling, sitting in seminar or during a Friday talk, when suddenly I could feel in my chest I knew the problem, the crux of the issue, the Achilles heal. My body told me when I was onto something, and I trusted that feeling implicitly. I’d try to see where to wedge my way in, and the pricked skin and racing heart always confirmed when I was on the right track.

Since writing the abstract, an introduction, and working my way through an outline, I began researching what other, recent philosophical thought had been published on the theme of abolishing morality. I found some very interesting threads! There was a special edition of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice in 2007 dedicated to the work of J. L. Mackie, who famously argued for what’s called “moral error theory.” Error theory basically says that since there are no objective moral facts, all moral judgments are false. That is, whenever anyone says, “killing is wrong” or “keeping your promises is right,” they are saying something intelligible, but strictly speaking, such sentences are all false because there’s no such thing as wrong or right in the world. Error theory is often used as an objection in philosophy more than a viable theory (like the way relativism is used), and so this resurgence of adherents is remarkable.

The part of this thread I felt in my body, reassuring me I was on the right track, though? This special issue of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice features a paper titled “Abolishing Morality” from Richard Garner, who was professor emeritus at Ohio State, where I got my PhD! We even overlapped a bit. I had been his graduate TA for one metaethics course back in 2006 or so. Then he went on to edit a follow-up book titled The End of Morality in 2019. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2020 from COVID-19, at age 84. Not only am I connected to one of the main champions of the modern idea of abolishing morality, but he also serves as an inspiration to me. He was doing this important work in his seventies and eighties, after a long career in academic philosophy. He gives me great hope that good ideas can come from anywhere, at any age, in any circumstance.

A final thread. Dick Garner’s friend and collaborator, Joel Marks, featured in both the Ethical Theory and Moral Practice special issue and in The End of Morality, argues that morality should be replaced with what he calls “Desirism.” In a nutshell, Marks advocates for a view like my own expressed in the Authenticity posts that we should do whatever we want to do. There are differences that will be worth fruitful philosophical analysis, but the thread is there, which is very exciting to me. It’s always better to be connected to an existing literature than to be an island. I can’t wait to pull all these threads together.

As I stare at the glorious super moon this evening, I want to set an intention. I’m sharing it with you to hold me to it. This is the moon of power, and I want to harness it on this special day. I plan to keep posting bits and pieces of the book, working them out, testing out theories, begging for feedback. If you read anything here that piques your interest, reach out! Let’s get coffee or a drink and chat about it. Please also make all the recommendations. Is there something I should be reading? Tell me! Is there someone I should be following or a cool podcast I should listen to? Please send me all the links! Thanks for your support, friends. It means the world.

Unity is NOT the Answer

Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest to police brutality.

President Biden’s clear goal for America is unity. He called for unity many times during his inaugural speech, and here’s how he advises Americans achieve this lofty goal:

“We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”

POLITICO, Full text: Joe Biden inauguration speech transcript

At first, I was convinced. I day-dreamed plans for how I might work toward peaceful conversations over dinner with Republicans and even Trump supporters. I’ve had many fruitful conversations with conservatives in the past, and I was brainstorming how I might use these skills beyond Facebook debates. I was moved to action by Biden’s words. 

Then I reflected on how this call for unity might sound to others, such as Colin Kaepernick, and I came to the conclusion that unity cannot be the goal, and empathy cannot be the means. Only justice can lead us forward. In today’s essay, I will focus on an argument for why I believe unity cannot be the goal. I’ll take up the justice path in a subsequent post. 

“Unity cannot be the goal, and empathy cannot be the means. Only justice can lead us forward.”

Biden offers good advice to one portion of Americans: the Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen and who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Yes, I can see how peace, progress, and the state of the nation are threatened by Trumpism. I appreciate the command to “get in line.” But those folks were not listening to Biden’s speech, and if they happen to hear about it later, I promise it will not convince them to change their behaviors or modify the contents of their souls. 

That’s because unity cannot be demanded. If part of America simply won’t listen to your calls for unity, then your calls will not unify them with the rest of the country. 

The deeper reason unity cannot be demanded relates to the institutional power imbalances in America. The command to “be more unified” must always be directed at a collective that is already divided. The person commanding unity cannot force the collective into unification (though with enough power, they can certainly force the collective into behaviors that appear to be unified, typically at the expense of the oppressed). In forced unification, the oppressed assimilate to the will of the oppressor in what appears to be unification but, in reality, is more of the same old subjugation. Thus, demanding unity can only create the false appearance of unity, not actual unity. 

Only those in power can demand “unity,” and they will only achieve assimilation. Only those with the privilege to make the rules can demand an “end to division,” and even then, any success will be at the expense of those without the power to refuse. Consider a few absurd scenarios of someone without power demanding unity from someone with power using Biden’s words from his inauguration speech.

Imagine the absurdity of a wife pleading with her abusive husband for a united front: “honey, it’s time for you to treat me as a partner rather than an enemy. I demand we treat each other with dignity and respect from now on. We must join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.” Here, too, the wife is offering some great advice to her abusive husband, and yes, if only he would do these things (and more), they may have a shot at repairing the relationship. This scenario is absurd because we know the world doesn’t work this way. The abused wife does not have the power to command her husband change his ways.  

Imagine another absurd scenario in America: a Black man stating his case to the local police, “officer, surely we can see each other as neighbors not adversaries. I know that my outrage at the deaths of innocent Black men is exhausting to you, but we must treat each other with dignity and respect. If not, then there will be no peace—only chaos, only bitterness and fury. We must join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.” Amen. Absolutely. This is all true, and I am a huge fan of everything this hypothetical Black man says to the police officer. This scenario is also absurd because, again, we know the world doesn’t work this way. 

Oppressed people cannot simply ask their oppressors to treat them with more respect and have their requests honored. That is part of what it means to be oppressed: your requests don’t matter. They have no force. They will not change a damn thing. 

Here’s how the real world works. It’s the abusive husband who says to his wife, “why do you always have to be so combative? Can’t we just get along for once? Can’t we just go to one nice dinner without getting into a huge fight?” Translation: can’t you just always say and do exactly what I want you to say and do? 

Or the police officer who says to the Black man, “if you weren’t so violent, I could trust you. If only you protested in these allowable ways, we wouldn’t have to bring the pepper spray and rubber bullets.” Translation: can’t you just always say and do exactly what I want you to say and do?

The reason the “helpful, unifying advice” only goes from abusive husband to wife and from police officer to Black man—and not vice versa—is because men and police officers have the power to dictate what women and Black men think, feel, and do. The opposite is simply not the case. Calls for unity can only made by those with the power to control what others do. 

When the oppressed comply with the oppressor’s calls for “unity,” it is mere assimilation. It is survival. It is what they have to do, not what they want to do. That’s why true unity cannot be demanded because if it is demanded, it will be nothing but the appearance of unity.

Even if the call to unity were possible for those without power, true peace cannot come from joining forces with the oppressor. Some rules (white-only lunch counters) are not worthy of respect, and disrupting the status quo is the only way to change them. Some things are worth shouting, (“Say her name!”  “Breonna Taylor!”) even if the shouting and anger feels divisive to those in power. Yes, outrage is exhausting, but that does not make it any less of an appropriate response to the outrageous. A calm, polite, ordered, unified society is not thereby better than a chaotic one. We need “good trouble” to disrupt the false unity, which is mere assimilation, before we could ever grow true unity in it’s place. 

Even if calls for true unity were possible, it would be morally wrong to ask the oppressed to:

  • Join forces with their oppressors
  • Show empathy/sympathy or compassion toward their oppressors
  • Walk a mile in their oppressor’s shoes
  • Forgive their oppressors
  • Stop being angry with or displaying hatred toward their oppressors

What kind of sadist would ask a slave to walk a mile in her master’s shoes “for the union”? It is a great harm to demand the powerless endure BOTH their own oppression and empathy towards those who oppress them. In addition to being morally wrong, such calls for empathy, too, can only come from those with power, such as the abusive husband and police officer. It’s the abusive husband who demands his wife understand how it feels to be him, and then diminishes all of her feelings. Police officers demand empathy for how life-threatening their jobs are–as if choosing a career is equivalent to being born Black in America–and then offer no empathy of their own.

Forced unification or requests for empathy, commanded by those who have the power, causes additional harm to the oppressed, and so unity should certainly not be our goal, and empathy should not be the path to unity.

If unity cannot nor should not be the goal, then what is? 

A start to an answer is justice. Not a bloodthirst, retributivist justice as is doled out by the American Criminal Justice System. Rather, justice as fairness, as developed by philosopher John Rawls. More on that next time. 

The Philosophical Case for Open Borders

I want to share an argument with you. It’s not my argument, but it is an argument every American needs to consider right now. It is Michael Huemer’s argument that immigration restrictions are prima facie rights violations. That is, it’s wrong to use force to prevent someone from entering this country.

Huemer begins with the ethical question: is it morally right to forcibly prevent would-be immigrants from living in the United States? He argues that those excluded seem, on the face of it, to suffer a serious harm. Why are we justified in imposing this harm?

Huemer has a very important assumption from the outset. He argues we’re not worrying about international terrorists, criminals, or fugitives from the law.  We have a right to exclude those people.  The focus should be on ordinary people who are seeking a new home and a better life.

As for the President’s recent ban, he’s not simply excluding terrorists from coming to America. He’s banned anyone from a specific country for seemingly arbitrary reasons (unless you count his personal business interests, and then it doesn’t appear quite as arbitrary). He is excluding refugees fleeing from terrorists, and so Huemer’s argument that follows certainly applies.

The reason I’m sharing Huemer’s argument is because his method is absolutely genius. He first describes a case in which nearly everyone will share an intuitive evaluation of some action, and then draws a parallel from the case described to the more controversial case of immigration. If you’re absolutely convinced in the simple case, and you cannot undermine the analogy, then you ought to be convinced in the harder immigration case, too.  
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Income Inequality: Part 2

In Part 1 of the series on income inequality, I argued that being a “fiscal conservative” is a moral stance. One of the principles of fiscal conservativism says that we ought to balance the budget by cutting spending rather than raising taxes. In fact, a fiscal conservative will hardly ever encourage raising taxes.

The main reason a conservative doesn’t want to raise taxes is because she is opposed to redistributing wealth. We ought not take money from the rich, and just hand it over to the poor. (more…)

Income Inequality: Part 1

Many people claim to be “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” as though it’s evidence of what good people they are. Look at me! I care about the individual rights of immigrants, women, blacks, and gays! I’m all for same-sex marriage! I’m pro-choice!

But then they also might vote conservatively for fiscal reasons. I find this to be inconsistent. Through a series of posts about international income inequality, I will make the case that being “fiscally conservative” is as much a moral stance as “socially liberal.” Economic policies are in the domain of ethics, and I will eventually conclude that being fiscally conservative is ethically worse than being fiscally liberal. (more…)

Commentary on “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts”

Justin P. McBrayer recently argued in the New York Times that our children don’t think there are moral facts. Here’s what I take his argument to be:

Argument 1:

  • Premise 1: Common Core defines ‘fact’ as something that is true about a subject or something that can be tested or proven.
  • Premise 2: Common Core defines ‘opinion’ as what someone thinks, feels, or believes.
  • Premise 3: Common Core says all sentences are either facts or opinions.
  • Premise 5: Common Core labels all value judgments (any claim with good, bad, right, wrong, etc) as opinions, never as facts.
  • Conclusion: Common Core teaches that there are no moral facts.

Argument 2:

  •  Premise 1: Common Core teaches that there are no moral facts.
  • Premise 2: The school teaches that students have certain responsibilities such as “do your own work.”
  • Premise 3: Premise 1 is inconsistent with premise 2.
  • Premise 4: Outside of school, if there is no truth of the matter about whether cheating is wrong, then we cannot hold cheaters accountable.
  • Premise 5: We do (and should) hold cheaters accountable.
  • Conclusion: Outside of school, there is a truth of the matter about whether cheating is wrong (i.e., there are moral facts).
  • Conclusion: We should reject the Common Core teaching that there are no moral facts.

I agree with most of McBrayer’s argument. It is a rather elegant one. But his argument has come under serious attack by Daniel Engber over at Slate. In what follows, I shall defend McBrayer’s argument against Engber’s attack. I think Engber has built an elaborate strawman, but when he takes him down, McBrayer’s argument still stands tall.  (more…)

#thedress

My previous post was defending philosophy against objections from Neil deGrasse Tyson. I argued that scientific observation was no more sure or more important than philosophical argument.

Enter #thedress.

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 10.28.51 AM

 

The world is now divided on whether this dress is blue and black or white and gold. I’ve actually seen it as both, even in the same picture. Vox goes into the science here. I won’t get too into that, but I highly suggest you read it. As a philosopher, I want to raise a philosophical question. Can we ever trust our observations? (more…)

Philosophy and Science

Within the past year, the famous scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson said of philosophers, “if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world.” This is just one of many things he’s said to attack the merit of contemporary philosophy. He believes philosophy once added to our understanding of the natural world, but it no longer does. I disagree.

First, Tyson assumes philosophers only ask questions. Philosophers are definitely concerned with the “big questions” of life: what is the meaning of life, does God exist, what is consciousness, do we have free will, etc. Philosophers will always be concerned with such questions. But philosophers do not only ask questions; we also answer them.   (more…)