Saturday, April 29, 2006

Are You Irrational or an Asshole?

A little anecdote: I have this beat up copy of Bernard Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. I get most of my books used and, living in a university town, most of them were formerly in the possession of students, students who like to mark the hell out of them. Most people have no idea what they’re marking, and many of the marks are a bunch of underlining and circling in ballpoint pen which makes it hard to read the book. Annoying to be sure, but for a quarter of the price, it ends up being worth it (so I keep telling myself). The second chapter of Williams’ book is entitled “The Archimedean Point.” In this chapter, Williams asks what kind of rock hard, root bottom, this-has-to-be-the-way-it-is could be used against ethical skeptics and amoralists. In the beginning of the chapter Williams poses his quandary: “Unless the ethical life, or (more narrowly) morality, can be justified by philosophy, we shall be open to relativism, amoralism, and disorder. As they often put it: when an amoralist calls ethical considerations in doubt, and suggests that there is no reason to follow the requirements of morality, what can we say to him?[1] Williams quite rightly sees he’s in a tough spot because this amoralist, like Callicles in dialogue with Plato, “has a glistening contempt for philosophy itself, and it is only by condescension or to amuse himself that he stays to listen to its arguments at all.”[2] The likely response to such a contempt is, “the question is not whether he will be convinced, but whether he ought to be convinced.”[3]

“But is it?”[4] Williams sees that to say that the amoralist ought to be convinced is saying that “the justification of the ethical life could be a force.”[5] The question, then, is “Why are they supposed to be listening? What will the professor’s justification do, when they break down the door, smash his spectacles, take him away?”[6] That is a good question. So, Williams asks what is meant by “ought.”
Is it meant only that it would be a good thing if he were convinced? It would no doubt be a good thing for us, but that is hardly the point. Is it meant to be a good thing for him? Is he being imprudent, for instance, acting against his own best interests? Or is he being irrational in a more abstract sense, contradicting himself or going against the rules of logic? And if he is, why must he worry about that?[7]
As it happens, Williams doesn’t have the last bit, “why must he worry about that,” italicized. But it’s something I would want to italicize, and apparently I’m not the only one who thinks it important because the previous owner had underlined that bit of the sentence. Why must he worry about that? Why must the amoralist worry about contradicting himself or going against the rules of logic, why must he worry about being irrational, in this abstract sense? The punch line to this anecdote is that Williams goes on to quote from Robert Nozick’s book, Philosophical Explanations, a bit about how the “immoral man” might respond to his being told that he’s inconsistent: “To tell you the truth, if I had to make the choice, I would give up being consistent.”[8] At the end of this block quote, ending in this choice, my previous owner has written “—because he’s an asshole”. Why would someone give up being consistent? Because he’s an asshole.

No doubt a flip remark, but what if we took it seriously? Going back to Williams’ question, “Why must he worry about that?,” you can say you’d only worry about that if you didn’t want to be an asshole. But who are these assholes? Is being an asshole different from being irrational? My previous owner, that silent, invisible interlocuter, didn’t write down that Nozick’s immoral man was being irrational, but that he was being an asshole. What’s the difference then? To capture the unintended force of my playful, I’m-imagining-exasperated student, someone who’s a little tired of all the abstract contrariness that seems to exude from the very pores of philosophy, I think the difference is that being “irrational” means being contrary to the rules of logic, while being an “asshole” means being contrary to the rules of conversation.

This difference captures the difference between a Rortyan, pragmatist reading of ethics and morality and an objectivist, foundationalist reading. When Williams says that “a limited benevolent or altruistic sentiment may move almost anyone to think that he should act in a certain way on a given occasion, but that fact does not present him with the ethical[9] (another line underlined by my former owner), that “the ethical involves more, a whole network of considerations, and the ethical skeptic could have a life that ignored such considerations altogether,”[10] the pragmatist is wont to reply that this “limited benevolent or altruistic sentiment” would probably keep a person from kicking down your door and breaking your glasses, and that this, then, is all we need. When the objectivist opposes the ethical to sentiment, morality to prudence, the pragmatist tries to blur these differences and say that they are not a difference in kind, but only in degree.[11]

For the pragmatist, being called irrational is an abstract scare tactic that has as much force as the Golden Rule: people would like to live by it, but they consistently ignore it everyday of their lives. However, being called an asshole is a less abstract scare tactic, one that has more force because it is more specific and particular than the Golden Rule. When confronted with a contradiction in our thinking, oftentimes we are liable to shrug it off, the thought being that we could untangle it if we had more time. That is, in fact, what Rorty suggests can be cone with most contradictions, given time and ingenuity. But when you're called an asshole, you're presented with something much more presently forceful, something that must be attended to now. Rather than being presented with the emptied out rational, you are presented with the embodied ethical. Some people don't care if they are assholes, and so would remain unaffected, just as Williams suggests, that the only people that feel the force of the ethical are those that already embody it. But in the actual, workaday conversations we have with people, who wants to talk to an asshole? Should we feel bad if nobody then talks to them?

[1] Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 22, italics his
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid., p. 23
[4] ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] ibid.
[7] ibid.
[8] Nozick, quoted from ibid.
[9] ibid., p. 25
[10] ibid.
[11] Williams’ account in this chapter does give way towards something like this view. Williams says that the moral philosopher looking for justification typically takes ethical skepticism as the natural state and so overestimates “the need for a justification just as he had overestimated its effect,” i.e. that it would force the skeptic into ethicalness. (p. 26) Williams then says that “When the philosopher raised the question of what we shall have to say to the skeptic or amoralist, he should rather have asked what we shall have to say about him.” (ibid.) This seems to me a much better question and the kind of question I answered above. Williams says that Plato recognized that “the power of the ethical was the power of reason, and that it had to be made into a force. He saw it as a problem of politics, and so it is.” (p. 27, italics his) Williams insight is that those who hear the force of being called an asshole are those who are already within the bounds of ethical discourse and that moral philosophy’s aim is “not to control the enemies of the community or its shirkers but, by giving reason to people already disposed to hear it, to help in continually creating a community held together by that same disposition.” (ibid.) Thus moral philosophy becomes a subject about what kind of moral education we should receive. Williams' moral philosophy, then, is remarkably in sync with pragmatist moral philosophies, like those of Annette Baier and Jeffery Stout. I am absolutely fascinated by Williams' writing because he somehow combines a Cartesian reading of epistemology (which breeds realist tendencies in his philosophy of science) with a Nietzschean reading of moral philosophy. He is either the most confused brilliant 20th century philosopher or brings to stunning clarity the consequences of Cartesianism. I'm not sure if he can bring it off or not, but he is absolutely fascinating to watch and a wonderfully better read than the sterile moral philosophy that usually comes down the analytic pipe.

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