A Philosophical Review
INSIDE THIS ISSUE:
A Promising Argument
Sex as Social Construct
Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
Live or Let Die
A Response to Jeff McMahan’s
“Eating Animals the Nice Way”
The Value of Multiculturalism
The Origin of Moral Truth
Closing the Gap Between Deontological and
Teleological Theories of Ethics
David K. Braden-Johnson
Eleven Theses on Realism
Kant's Transcendental Idealism and the Crisis of Metaphysics
Kant's Transcendental Idealism and the Crisis of Metaphysics
A Promising Argument
I do not believe that it is possible to derive a substantive and normative conclusion from non-substantive and non-normative premises; in other words, I do not believe that the is/ought gap is bridgeable. Science, or empirical data, is grounded in observation of how the world is. Ethics, or morality, is grounded in intuition about how the world ought to be. A conclusion about how the world is does not, and cannot follow, from a statement about how the world ought to be. Anyone who attempts to bridge the is/ought gap fails to see the role that their own subjectivity is playing within their argument, and thus is failing to remain an objective and critical thinker. Some argue that debating the semantics of the is/ought dilemma detracts from being able to address certain moral issues, but I do not think that this is necessarily so. If the gap between morality and fact is closed, and we allow people to posit their subjective worldviews as the way in which the world should and does function for everyone else, then that opens the door for bias and bigotry to take root. Opinion should not be stated as fact.
Whenever one attempts to bridge the is/ought gap, they are making an implicit assumption that they hold a worldview that is shared and validated by others outside of themselves, and then proceeding from there to make a conclusion based on that assumption. If normativity is assumed in the premises, and valid arguments must have a conclusion that follow their premises, then any ‘valid’ argument attempting to bridge the is/ought gap will have a normative conclusion following from normative premises. Thus, the gap is not bridged, because there is no non-normative content in the conclusion to bridge the inherent normativity of the premises to; all of the content is normative.
The majority of the arguments that I have seen which attempt to bridge the is/ought gap seek to do so through proving that is can be derived from ought. However, some argue that it is ought that can be derived from is. For example, in his publication How to Derive “Ought” From “Is”, John R. Searle posits that, through the nature of promising, it is possible to originate categorical ‘ought’ conclusions that follow from ‘is’ premises. This conclusion is arrived at by citing empirically validated quotes in the third person, such as “Person A said, ‘I promise to do X as is within my means for Person B.’ ”
This argument refutes nothing that I have stated previously. In this case, Searle is making a normative assumption about the nature of promising, such as that when one says that they will do something, one ought to do that thing. This is predicated upon the morally based understanding of truth and honesty. It is not a proven empirical fact that we should be truthful in what we say to others and how we interact with them, but rather a subjective moral assessment. As such, the premises of his argument contain implicit normativity, and fails to bridge the is/ought gap.
All of this is not to say that there can be no valid arguments from morality, or that we cannot hold any valid moral worldviews. Empirical data can inform and help to validate ethics, and vice versa; but it is just not possible to go directly from empirical fact to moral truth without some sort of substantive and/or normative inference being made.
Braden-Johnson, D. K. (2016, May). The Problem with the Is-Ought Non-Problem. Thesis XII, 22(1).
Miller, H. B. (n.d.). Science, Ethics, and Moral Status. Retrieved from Paris Mountain: http://parismount.blogspot.com/2012/03/copyright-1988-harlan-b.htm.
Searle, J. R. (1964, January). How to Derive "Ought" From "Is". The Philosophical Review, 73(1).
Silliman, M. (2016, May). The Is-Ought Non-Problem. Thesis XII, 22(1).
Falyn Elhard is a student at MCLA
Sex as Social Construct
When discussing expectations in society, each society seems to have different expectations regarding appearance, gender expression, and how men and women are treated. It is easy to tease apart how these aspects of life are socially constructed by the popular viewpoint that has dominated throughout enough of history to be determined the norm. Gender expression has to do with the outwardly appearance of a person that aligns with how they identify. This does not seem hard to recognize as a social construct. On the other hand, sex is harder to consider a social construct. Although it is impossible to socially construct the biological aspects of sex (e.g. chromosomes and genes), it may be possible to construct the idea of a sex binary based on outward appearance and the term ‘sex’ in general regarding nature.
When suggesting the concept of sex to be a social construction, people will immediately argue that one cannot socially construct chromosomes. This is entirely true; chromosomes have been proven, by science, to be in our genetics and can help determine the types of hormones the body produces and how the outward body may look. What is meant by the statement ‘the concept of sex is a social construction’ deals more with the binary society has accepted. Society accepts, generally, two sexes: male and female. As Sara C. writes, “even though most people never get their chromosomes tested, we […] assume this sex assignment to mean that people with penises always have XY chromosomes and people with vulvas always have XX chromosomes” (1). The author points out the problem with this social construction which seems to counter the assertion of those who do not believe sex to be a social construct because chromosomes cannot be a social construction. The problem with a sex binary is it leaves out those who are intersex; those who can have various combinations of sex chromosomes such as XXY, outward appearing women with XY chromosomes, outward appearing men with XX chromosomes, etc. This leads to the problem of intersex people not falling within the binary and, therefore, are ignored by society due to the construct.
With a socially constructed sex binary, this allows for the perpetuation of a gender binary as well. The concept of a gender binary would not be strong if society did not suggest there are “‘sexes’ with a ‘natural’ or ‘biological’ or ‘hormonal’ or ‘genetic’ difference that has sociological consequences” (2). This leads to the social conception that sex is a part of nature. In certain respects, nature can be changed. Due to scientific advancements, what “nature” created in the womb can be changed through gene therapy, hormone replacement therapy, gender-affirming surgery, etc. As Alcoff writes, “what we set aside as 'nature' is in dialectical relation with 'culture' in so far as it is altered by human practice and what we know about it is constantly altered as practices evolve, or devolve” (3). We can see sex/gender in direct relation with nature/culture since sex is often viewed as determined by nature at conception, due to chromosomes and genes remaining constant even if the outward body changes. Gender, on the other hand, is viewed as a part of culture since different cultures view gender and gender roles differently than others. For example, in some indigenous cultures, the men of a tribe will take over womanly duties and become women if there are few women in the tribe. Of course, this idea is very different from how many Western cultures perceive gender. This furthers the idea that both sex and gender are equally socially constructed.
The idea of sex as a binary based on the link between chromosomes and outward appearance and sex regarding nature seem to denote sex as a social construct. Sex is harder to pin down as a social construct than gender due to the constant rebuttal of how one cannot change chromosomes. Once a person begins to move away from concrete biology dealing with genetics and towards how sex is discussed and manipulated in society, one moves towards a better understanding of the social construction of sex. By recognizing the variation found in sex identity, it seems to consistently go against the societal construct of only two sexes existing.
(1) C, Sara. “The XX and XY Lie: Our Social Construction of a Sex and Gender Binary.” Medium, Medium, 21 Oct. 2017, medium.com/@QSE/the-xx-xy-lie-our-social-construction-of-a-sex-and-gender-binary-4eed1e60e615. p. 12.
(2) Alcoff, Linda. “The Metaphysics of Gender and Sexual Difference.” The Metaphysics of Gender and Sexual Difference | Alcoff.com, www.alcoff.com/content/chap6metags.html. p. 15.
(3) Ibid, p. 80.
Allison Gregory is a student at MCLA
Live or Let Die
A Response to Jeff McMahan’s “Eating Animals the Nice Way”
Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
In “Eating Animals the Nice Way,” Jeff McMahan argues clearly and rightly against the notion that meat consumption would be morally justified by treating animals well up until the moment of their death. To summarize his main argument: to cause the premature death of a being capable of feeling pleasure is to deprive that being of future pleasures he or she would have otherwise experienced; and depriving any being of such pleasures is wrong. Therefore, even the most sudden and painless killing of an unwilling participant is wrong.
In the final pages of the article, McMahan posits a hypothetical scenario in which it may be morally permissible to raise and then eat non-human animals. He suggests that if we could genetically modify pigs, for instance, to have a relatively short life-span (two or three years), then it would be permissible to raise them and harvest their bodies once they die. Thus, we would not be (directly) killing them and we would not be depriving them of future pleasures, since they would not have the capacity to live long enough to experience those pleasures. McMahan seems to realize that there is something wrong with treating humans in a similar fashion (perhaps, he suggests, because it causes social inequality), but cannot see his way clear to extending the same consideration to other animals (McMahan 9-10).
After giving this scenario some consideration, I contacted McMahan and suggested that his hypothetical example relied too heavily on the temporal distance between an act and its consequences. I argued that, for instance, intentionally administering a slow-acting poison that takes twenty or more years to kill its victim is no more justified than directly and immediately killing an innocent person. Since McMahan also suggests that one cannot infringe upon the rights of a person who does not yet exist, I gave the counterexample of planting time-activated bombs beneath pigpens before the pigs in question were born. Provided we had set the bombs up in such a fashion as to make interference impossible, it seemed no different to me than genetically altering the lifespan of the pig.
McMahan responded that, in the case of a genetically modified pig, the resulting pig would be a different animal than the pig that results had we not intervened. The modified pig would have a shorter lifespan, and so would never be in a position to forfeit future pleasures it would not have in the first place. McMahan’s position flows from the so-called “non-identity problem”: while causing a person to exist, albeit with a limited lifespan, would not be better than never existing, it wouldn’t be worse either, provided that his or her life was worth living. This is because never existing is a morally neutral state; that is to say, it is neither good nor bad. Therefore, it is also neither worse nor better to be brought into existence — even if that existence is in itself good or bad.
The moral neutrality of non-existence can be difficult initially to understand or accept (which seems to be a main source of tension in debates regarding abortion as well). We are so accustomed to thinking from the viewpoint of an already existing entity, that it seems obvious that some of a good thing is better than none of it. For example, having some apples (or favorite fruit of your choice) is better than having no apples — at least from the perspective of an individual who cares. A non-existent entity does not or cannot care; indeed, it is strictly incoherent to engage in any talk of a nonexistent being caring.
It seems to me that McMahan’s argument still neglects two important aspects of moral decision-making: our ability to foresee the consequences of our actions and the active role genetic manipulation plays in cutting short a life. My counterexample of what might actually constitute moral meat-eating (though only in theory, and only under certain very strict conditions (1)) would be to raise animals who naturally live to be only two or three years old, say mice, and then eat their bodies after they have lived out their natural lives. I can see no moral reason to oppose this practice (though a few aesthetic and practical ones come to mind).
In contrast, consider McMahan’s example in which we genetically manipulate humans in order to harvest their organs. The idea of creating people who die relatively young (so that their organs are in optimal condition for transplantation), seems intuitively wrong. In fact, we commonly accept the moral obligation to attempt to reverse or mitigate the effects of these genetic differences. We do not, for example, ignore or deny out obligations to assist or seek a cure a child with cystic fibrosis. In fact, we invest considerable resources in preventing these disorders from occurring to future people.
We know that an inborn trait is not a sufficient basis on which to decide how long a person deserves to live, since we have an understanding of what a fulfilling and full human life typically entail. Our average natural lifespan determines how fast we procreate, how quickly we mature into adulthood, and even how we perceive time (to name a few things). A mouse, who lives for about three years, has an entirely different relationship to any of these biological or cognition milestones. They mature much more quickly, procreate many more times, and perceive time differently. Pigs, who can live about 10-15 years, have corresponding biological make-ups and perceptions of the world. Thus, to cause a pig or human to die at an earlier age than their evolutionary biology dictates is to cause them harm.
The genetic manipulation of any being to shorten his or her lifespan is to cause a genetic disorder. It does not change the humanity of a person to have cystic fibrosis any more than to have any other type of genetic time-bomb. Our moral responsibility is clearly to change or mitigate the undesirable outcomes for such individuals, and never (deliberately) to cause them to exist. Similarly, you cannot erase the pig-ness of a pig simply by giving it a genetic disorder.
It is important to note that the non-identity problem rests on the assumption that a person’s existence is unavoidably flawed (see M.A. Roberts’ interpretation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy of, among others’, Derek Parfit’s work on this subject). Clearly, choosing to modify a pig’s DNA does not constitute an unavoidable flaw; on the contrary, this is a flaw we have created for our own purposes and desires. In a sense, any talk about the comparative existence or non-existence of other beings is a red herring in cases where we choose to be the creators of the harm done to future persons. The question is not whether a limited existence is better or worse than non-existence. The issue is solely the act of committing avoidable harm to another being, which is clearly wrong. Artificially shortening a life is not in that being’s best interest unless existing with that flaw is unavoidable (2).
(1) I generally agree with Gary Francione’s sentiments regarding the abolition of the social and legal status of animals as property (see Francione’s “Reflections on Animals, Property, and the Law, and Rain Without Thunder”). I don’t think we can be trusted with caring for large numbers of animals, especially in the context of selfish, consumerist desires rather than in an honest attempt to sustain the kind of reciprocal relationships we associate with companion animals (and even there, our relations to nonhumans are often abusive).
(2) McMahan had also posited the scenario of a sick person near death who could only be saved by a drug that would later kill her. This scenario is entirely different, as this person would already be in possession of an existence that matters to her, and so measures that prolong her life (provided that life is worth living) are obviously morally good. In the case of genetically modifying pigs, we are comparing non-existence to beings brought into existence, which means the pigs are not yet in possession of a life which matters to them.
Francione, Gary. “Reflections on Animals, Property, and the Law and Rain Without Thunder.” Law and Contemporary Problems, vol. 70, no. 1, Dec. 2007, pp. 9–58., scholarship.law.duke.edu/lcp/vol70/iss1/2/.
Gardner, Molly. “A Harm-Based Solution to the Non-Identity Problem.” Ergo - An Open Access Journal of Philosophy, vol. 2, no. 17, 2015, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/ergo.12405314.0002.017.
McMahan, Jeffrey. “Eating Animals The Nice Way.” Deadalus, vol. 137, no. 1, Dec. 2008, pp. 66–76., doi:https://doi.org/10.1162/daed.2008.137.1.66 .
Roberts, M. A. “The Nonidentity Problem.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 21 July 2009, plato.stanford.edu/entries/nonidentity-problem/#ActWroVirAgeReaAttInt.
Nicole K. Braden-Johnson is an alumna of MCLA and works for the Amherst Regional School System
The Value of Multiculturalism
In the realm of contemporary moral issues, there is prominent debate about how cultures should structure themselves in light of concerns involving immigration policies, economic operations, and cultural integrity. As with any worthy debate, there are people who feel strongly on either side of the multiculturalism discussion. While some advocate for the preservation of traditional cultures, citing economic and cultural worries, many others embrace the idea of multiculturalism, believing it has both economic and cultural benefits to offer. Furthermore, others feel passionate about multiculturalism simply because it relates to matters of freedom: freedom of movement, freedom of peoples to associate with each other, and so on. Needless to say, the multiculturalism debate is complex. Nevertheless, multicultural societies are inevitable in a globalizing world. What then, is the value of multiculturalism? In short, the primary value of multiculturalism is that it tends to produce more well-rounded societies.
There are several reasons why multiculturalism tends to produce more well-rounded societies. To begin, a society with mixed cultures promotes intercultural understanding, which in turn helps close the “us-them” gap that divides cultures. This is critical in a world where cultural misunderstanding and ignorance often contributes to widespread fear, hatred, and animosity. Beyond this, multiculturalism has the effect of aggregating the cultural capital of many cultures, resulting in a more diverse and resource-rich society. No one can deny the importance of a population with diverse experiences and skills in developing and maintaining a thriving society. Lastly, since multicultural societies are inevitable in the globalized world at present, one may argue that there is intrinsic value in embracing such societies. Together, these points demonstrate how multiculturalism can produce more well-rounded societies.
Despite the promising aspects of multiculturalism, there are many who express reservations. For starters, a common concern about multiculturalism is that it degrades the integrity of the host culture. In other words, many people worry that the influx of different cultures threatens to alter or destroy the traditions of the host culture. Others argue that multiculturalism will lead to intercultural conflicts. From this view, these conflicts are an inevitable product of mixing cultures, and thus cultural mixing should be avoided. Lastly, others will likely point to economic concerns, arguing that the introduction of a different culture of immigrants will threaten the health of the domestic economy. Undoubtedly, such economic concerns weigh heavily on policies affecting multiculturalism.
In response to the claim that multiculturalism degrades the integrity of the host culture, we need to consider how it is actually a detriment for a society to resist cultural melding in a globalized world. It is futile to fight the globalized reality of our world. As far as intercultural conflicts go, it is important to note how in the long run these conflicts would be better resolved through cultural contact than through cultural isolation. Lastly, in addressing the economic concerns raised by some opponents to multiculturalism, it can be argued that an economy is actually better off with a more diverse range of human capital and skills. Ultimately, it stands to reason that multiculturalism is valuable for how it tends to produce more well-rounded societies.
Scheffler, Samuel. “Immigration and the Significance of Culture.” Wiley, pp. 93–125. JSTOR [JSTOR], libproxy.mcla.edu:2095/stable/pdf/4623784.pdf.
Keaton Shoults is a student at MCLA
The Origin of Moral Truth
The existence of moral truth is equiprimordial with the human condition. Normative statements will remain intelligible for as long as human beings possess the capacity to be harmed or benefited by the actions of their peers. The origin of harm and benefit is not intrinsic to the universe, but it is intrinsic to humanity. I will define harm and benefit as results that are, respectively, conducive and not conducive to a person’s good. As T. M. Benditt points out, “not everything that is properly called a benefit promotes one's good; similarly, not everything that is properly called harm adversely affects one's good” (Benditt 120). Now, a person’s good is not intrinsic to the universe but arises when a being can conceive of its own good. I use the word “conceive” for lack of a better term because this capacity is pre-mental, emotional, or instinctual, and is a consequence of sentience. This means that many non-human animals have some moral existence as well. What would perish with humankind is access to moral truth, not moral truth itself.
I will not argue that the universe does not have an intrinsic moral reality since it has no bearing on my conclusion. Moral truth exists at least as a consequence of sentience and the human condition.
Of the several breeds of moral anti-realism that I will consider as counter-arguments, the first is emotivism, the idea that morally charged statements serve only to express emotions. Even though moral judgements are simply expressions of emotion, emotion is a valid way of knowing when it comes to morality. My definition of personal good revolves around a subjective and emotional instinct or intuition on the part of the subject. Expressing a feeling that something is wrong or right has worth as an argument. Even if emotivism is valid and correct it may miss the point.
This leaves the semantic component of emotivism, which is shared by many moral anti-realist positions, ”the claim that moral sentences lack truth conditions” (Stoljar 81). This claim is highly counterintuitive since moral statements seem to possess truth conditions. Daniel Stoljar concludes that the problem of moral statements having the appearance of truth value is easily solved by distinguishing between a deflationary and inflationary theory of truth. Under emotivism moral statements have deflationary truth value, but not inflationary truth value. In other words, it rests its case on the non-existence of something to which moral statements might correspond. But this is something that I have provided with my explanation of moral truth’s origin. Moral statements correspond to the instinctual existence of personal good.
Prescriptivism is not totally incompatible with my position since it is the position that moral statements should be taken as imperatives for people in similar circumstances. If it were to be reconciled with my position, prescriptivism’s imperatives would have greater weight because they would actually apply to their subjects. That still leaves the prescriptivist position that moral statements have no truth value, which I addressed earlier.
Moral fictionalism views moral statements as fictions that are useful or even necessary for everyday life. This is where I need to bring in outside assumptions. Fiction exists in a literal sense, but not in the same place as physically existent objects. Literally true and fictionally true are not mutually exclusive categories, and moral truths fit into both. This mode of truth is also different enough from the truth of the non-fictional world to keep my position from offending a moral quasi-realist, who would posit that truth value can be attributed to moral statements even though they do not actually correspond to ethical facts.
The last moral anti-realist position I will tackle is projectivism. The idea that we project qualities onto objects of our perception. I will add to it the caveat that projected qualities exist fictionally and apply literally to the objects that we attach them to. I refer back to my treatment with moral fictionalism.
As for moral relativism, it could be reconciled with my position as long as it is not coupled with moral anti-realism. Moral truth could exist even if it changes by place or time. And like relativism, my position avoids the problem of disregarding cultural differences.
Some forms of moral relativism view the logic of moral statements as circular, which is a problem for me. Of course, moral statements rely on specific moral systems for their truth or falsity, but, as Torbjörn Tänsjö points out, “The claim as such makes no reference to the existence of these principles” (131). The only part of a moral system that an individual moral claim absolutely must echo is the one that establishes the truth value of moral claims.
Benditt, T. M. “Benefit and Harm.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 37, no. 1, 1976, pp. 116–120. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2106377.
Winch, Peter. “Can a Good Man Be Harmed?” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 66, 1965, pp. 55–70. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4544722.
Stoljar, Daniel. “Emotivism and Truth Conditions.” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, vol. 70, no. 1, 1993, pp. 81–101. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4320397.
Tännsjö, Torbjörn. “Moral Relativism.” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, vol. 135, no. 2, 2007, pp. 123–143. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40208744.
Moore, Michael S. “Moral Reality Revisited.” Michigan Law Review, vol. 90, no. 8, 1992, pp. 2424–2533. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1289577.
August Stowers is a student at MCLA
Closing the Gap Between Deontological and Teleological Theories of Ethics
The distinction between teleological and deontological theories of ethics is unnecessary and can get in the way of sound ethical decision making because it needlessly separates two very important facets of human existence: the contents of the world and the contents of our mind. Both things need to play an important role in the decisions that we make. These two categories, as they are commonly described have more in common with one another then proponents of these two branches of thought would like to admit. Deontological arguments are based off human reason and fulfilling duties that through reason can become apparent. In trying to fulfill these duties, sometimes one will have to make difficult choices that make it appears as if those who support deontological theories are disregarding the consequences of their actions. This could not be further from the truth of the matter. While there are some obvious negative consequences that can arise from people following their duty, there is still one good that does arise out of this, namely the satisfaction of doing one’s duty.
When thinking about teleological theories, a similar problem emerges: How is it possible to maximize the good without a preconceived notion of what the good is? The concept of the good that you are trying to maximize cannot arise from experience because there is a variety of states of being that could be considered good. A teleological theory would become completely incoherent if all goods were trying to be maximized at once because these goods often conflict with one another. Without some type of consensus on what the good that one is trying to maximize is, these theories would fall into relativism as everyone would try to maximize what they thought was good.
Governments based off of constitutional law are very similar to deontological ethical theories. In a constitutional government, a set of basic principles (the constitution) are listed out as the basis for all other laws that are passed within the country. Countries with constitutional courts, like the United States Supreme Court, use these courts to decide whether laws passed by legislature follow these basic principles. Often, these courts will try to make their decision in an abstract manner based off the original principles set down in the constitution. While this frequently works, there have been times when consequences of these judgments are considered and the more abstract, deontological based judgements are found to have unexpected consequences that can be damaging. One example of this is the busing of inner city students to other school districts in the name of equality following the U.S. civil rights movement. While it was originally thought that this would be a positive thing to do because it would increase equality, people found that the busing led to unforeseen problems that negated its positive effects, like academic standards continuing to fall at schools students were bused from (1). While they do provide a solid starting point for ethical judgments, they cannot be the only thing we appeal to as human experience is far too complex and variable to be able to make accurate and acceptable judgments solely from pre-established principles. While humans are good abstract thinkers, this ability decreases with the complexity of the problem (2). Since ethical issues are often some of the most difficult problems humans must solve, it follows that it would be difficult for humans to solve these problems without concrete experiential data to help them along in their decision.
One may argue that mixing deontological and teleological theories could lead to the needs of the individual being disregarded as the consequences of the action over a wide segment of society must be considered, which may make the impact on the individual seem negligible. This does not need to be true, as is shown by John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice. In this book, Rawls lays out a contractualist view of how society should be organized. He does this by creating two principles that need to be followed: individual freedom and economic equality. Rawls admits that these two things cannot happen at the same time and that individual freedoms need to be established before having economic equality is truly possible (3). This ordering of rules that must be followed makes it so that society is not improved at the expense of the individual. The only way for economic equality to be reached is by first looking at the consequences of individual freedom then tailoring the rules to ensure that both freedom and equality are both met. These rules cannot be decided upon outside experience of how this freedom will affect social and economic conditions.
(1) The Learning Network, “April 20, 1971: Supreme Court Rules That Busing Can Be Used To Integrate Schools, accessed 9/15/17, https://learning.blogs.nytimes.com /2012/04/20/april-20-1971-supreme-court-rules-that-busing-can-be-used-to-integrate-schools/.
(2) Carsten Murawski and Peter Bossaerts, “How Humans Solve Complex Problems: the Case of the Knapsack Problem”, Scientific Reports (2016), accessed 9/15/17, https://www.nature.com/articles/srep34851.
(3) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press (1971), 214-220.
Michael McAndrew is a student at MCLA
Eleven Theses on Realism
David K. Braden-Johnson
Metaphysical realism (MR), in concert with common sense, amounts to the claim that the world exists and has a nature that is entirely independent of our thoughts, words, and perceptions. However, talk of the world’s independence — a world, in Kantian nomenclature, that exists “in-and-for itself” — raises the specter of radical, epistemically debilitating skepticism: does MR posit a world we cannot possibly know or even sensibly refer to in thought or language? As Marx’s long-time friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, asks:
In what relation do our thoughts about the world surrounding us stand to this world itself? Is our thinking capable of the cognition of the real world? Are we able in our ideas and notions of the real world to produce a correct reflection of reality? Thus the question of the relation of thinking to being, the relation of the spirit to nature [is] the paramount question of the whole of philosophy (Engels, F., Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy).
In the following eleven theses I attempt to shed some light on these questions.
1. Skepticism can inform, but never derail, MR. In my view, skepticism, like the quest for certain knowledge (see #2 below), looms all too large in epistemology. Skeptical doubts can serve as a check on our most cherished beliefs (not always fun but constructive); at the extreme, however, they amount to little more than a game (fun but not very constructive). But there are limits. Traditional skepticism, like any number of fantastic hypotheses, can easily undermine most of our claims to know the world, but not the claim that the world exists and has a determinate nature, since the latter claim is presupposed by the skeptical thesis itself (see #6 below).
2. MR is not absolutist, impossibly transcendent, or mystical. Metaphysical claims are, or ought to be, speculative and testable in terms of the observable differences that would result if they were true. But notice: Very few things outside of logic and other formal systems can be known absolutely or with certainty, including many, if not all, of our internal states. So, if certainty were the standard of all legitimate knowledge, realism and its anti-realist competitors — in fact, all epistemological views, including Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenalist reduction of material objects to qualifications of possible or actual experience — would suffer alike. Often glossing this latter point, the tendency in anti-realist circles is selectively to condemn realism for a constitutive limitation of all empirical inquiry.
3. MR, as I understand and apply it, is just that: a metaphysical rather than epistemic notion about what there is. It amounts to the rather pedestrian-sounding claim that the nonhuman world (alternatively: the external world, nature, reality, the universe) exists and has a nature independently of what we think, say, or do. It is not reducible to or dependent on any epistemic or semantic thesis. In particular, beyond the bare assertion of its independence from our conceptions, it does not say anything at all about whether and to what degree we can know this world or how that knowledge might come about. Of course, various epistemic theses seem to provide better or worse explanations of our common experience of the world; but none, including correspondence truth, is entailed by realism.
4. The natural world is manifestly impervious to and predates our existence; it certainly takes no interest (pardon the anthropomorphic flourish) in our efforts to conceptualize or structure it. In an exact reversal of the emphases and methods of contemporary linguistic philosophy — which would have us derive anti-realist conclusions from some theory of meaning or language — we ought to locate or “naturalize” epistemology within an overarching theory of the world, just as humans, qua terrestrial mammals, are located within nature as one of its creatures. That is, metaphysical speculation, as a collection of abductive inferences, qualifies and extends our understanding of a world that we have always known, at least in general outline. (For an extended defense of this and the previous paragraph, see Devitt; see also Weissman. 1989.)
5. There can be no “God’s eye,” neutral, transcendent, or otherwise non-sensed view of the world, contra Putnam’s and Rorty’s well-known critiques of realism. To perceive the world is always to employ the perceptual resources of some perceiver or other occupying a determinate spatio-temporal location. That is, the nonhuman world can only be known, if it can be known at all, in terms first I, employing the chaotic and relatively autonomous cognitive skills of an infant, and then we, as language and sociality enter the scene more completely, supply in our conceptualizations of experience. Furthermore, our choice of conceptual scheme is mostly arbitrary. I resist saying it is entirely arbitrary given the plausibility of certain nativist, evolutionary, or naturalized accounts of our thinking. Of course, not all conceptual schemes will make sense, comport with basic logic or rationality, or prove at all useful. These words explain my “trivial constructivist” (see von Glasersfeld) sympathies and natural preference for certain pedagogical methods: Epistemically speaking, the world never, or very rarely, imposes itself on us (some exceptions can be found in the dictates of elementary logic where, for example, the principle of noncontradiction has a naturally existing counterpart in the refusal of instantiated particulars to possess contradictory properties); rather, we decide what to look for in the world and how to conceptualize it. Given these qualifications, I can unambiguously, if rather trivially, assert that all knowledge is a construction of the knower.
6. It is a truism that every view of the world is a view of someone and from somewhere (#5 above). Nevertheless, from that fact alone nothing of (especially anti-realist) interest logically follows about what can or cannot be known. In particular, it does not follow that we cannot know the world as it is independent of our experience. What does follow is the related, second-order and skeptical worry that we might not know in any particular case if we fail or succeed to know the world as it is independent of our experience (see #1 above). But this limited skepticism is no threat to realism, for two reasons. First, MR supplies the very condition of intelligibility for all varieties of skepticism — if there were no world, there would be nothing to be skeptical about. And second, many of our speculative, referential claims about the world receive experiential confirmation as we infer abductively from successful or unsuccessful action to the external conditions for the truth of these representations. At any rate, these are epistemic worries unrelated to the basic assumption of MR (see #3 above), that the world exists and has a nature independent of all that we think, say, or do.
7. Anti-realism (alternatively: radical phenomenalism, relativistic neo-Kantianism, postmodern idealism, irrealism, radical constructivism/empiricism, etc.) supposes that knowledge must consist of the interanimation of these two things: The indubitable contents of immediate experience and the rules of deductive inference. These restrictions on knowledge guarantee that the world remains unknowable or unthinkable, since none of its features would be directly inspectable in this way. Further, it restricts anti-realists to the flat, descriptive plane of sensory data — the so-called “experiential worlds” of radical constructivism — disallowing reference either to extra-mental causes of the differentiations and orders present to experience or to the uninspectable properties of knowers capable of organizing and conceptualizing the data received. Despite the well advertised utility of their view (see Rorty and Putnam), anti-realist pragmatists or constructivists of a radical stripe have embraced what amounts to, when compared to MR, an explanatorily useless doctrine. Relaxing the logical empiricist demand for verification, realism proposes this alternative, hypothetical method: we infer abductively from the inspectable differences and samenesses to their extra-linguistic, extra-conceptual conditions and causes. The existence and nature of the external world then serves as the conclusion of a rather global and often unconscious inference to the best explanation of successful practice. Contrary to radical empiricist scruples, experience is not the object of knowledge, but that activity by which we come to know the world (see Devitt).
8. Analysis suggests that coherence truth collapses in every case to correspondence truth, which is apparently ingredient in the very notion of truth. Combining our best theory of truth with realism we say, in a neo-Aristotelian spirit, that our thoughts are true when and if they correspond to the way things are (see Weissman, 1993).
9. Given the arbitrariness and diversity of our conceptualizations, correspondence is rarely picture-like or isomorphic. Rather, our thoughts and sentences signify possible configurations of properties and relations obtaining in the world. When the possibilities signified are actual, the sentences are true. Though correspondence is the apparent meaning of truth, what it means in any particular instance for some element of a conceptual scheme to correspond to the world is determined internally to that conceptual scheme. For example, however I might choose to conceptualize some entity X, it is the world, not my scheme, that determines the truthfulness of claims such as “the world contains more than one X or “X is larger than the average porcupine.” That is, from my naturalistic perspective, truth is radically non-epistemic.
10. Furthermore, given the arbitrariness and diversity of our conceptualizations, the world determines but never guarantees our access to truth. We may rarely, if ever, be right about the world; but even when, as traditional skepticism would have it, we are entirely or mostly wrong, we are wrong about the way the world really is. That is, contemporary realism combined with correspondence truth is always fallibilistic and never “naïve.”
11. Since I deny the sense of deriving MR from the immediate contents of experience, my view, contra critics like Rorty, does not attempt to do what is clearly impossible: To know the world extra-conceptually or without the assistance of any concepts or input from experience. Rather, I claim only to infer abductively from the noticeable effects to its conditions within a particular conceptual scheme to the extra-conceptual and determinate nature of the world, just as a mapmaker makes a map of the world that contains his or her own position. While to know the world without employing thoughts is quite nonsensical, to know the world as it is without thoughts is commonplace. Appeals to science and common sense, rather than signaling a naïve faith in the world as guarantor of truth, are used fallibilistically and hypothetically to provide billions of daily bits of evidence in favor of a more robust realism that posits the mind-independent existence and nature of the many objects and relations of everyday experience, like trees, cats, rocks, and other people, etc. The abductively confirmed hypothesis of the existence of the objects and relations of this extra-conceptual world, its successful application to science, practice, and everyday life, its sheer popularity and persistence, all conspire to make this the default position against which alternatives inherit the burden of proof. There is, I suppose, no non-question begging, deductive proof of realism or immediate grasping of reality (but see Stove for a compelling defense of the view that metaphysical realism is a necessary truth, and Pols for a defense of the idea that we directly apprehend much of the world).
Devitt, Michael. 1991. Realism and Truth. Basil Blackwell.
Pols, Edward. 1992. Radical Realism. Cornell University Press.
Putnam, Hilary. 1987. The Many Faces of Realism. Open Court Press.
Rorty, Richard. 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton University Press.
Stove, David. 1991. The Plato Cult. Basil Blackwell.
Von Glasersfeld, Ernst. 1995. Radical Constructivism. Falmer Press.
Weissman, David J. 1989. Hypothesis and the Spiral of Reflection. SUNY Press;
Weissman, David J. 1993. Truth’s Debt to Value. Yale University Press.
David K Braden-Johnson teaches Philosophy at MCLA