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Freedom Transcript: Philosophy, Morality, and Reason
Aaron and Trevor discuss the limits of reason and the role of philosophy in political questions.
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Aaron: I see the role of moral philosophy not in starting from ground zero and articulating essentially unmoored in experience and intuition and traits of character, set of rules by which we can as long as we apply them correctly, we will do the right thing, be good people live nautical life, et cetera. I see the role of moral theory as similar to the way you might think about musical theory.
Political philosophy is applied ethical philosophy. All political questions have their foundations and matters of right and wrong of how we ought to live and how we can live together. On today's episode, Trevor and I discuss our differing approaches to thinking about ethical theories and the role moral philosophy plays in how we approach thorny political issues. We begin, however, with the question of human reason, and its limits. What we can know and how we can know it, and whether our arguments hook on to objective facts about reality? It turns out to matter quite a lot for how we then think about morality and politics.
Before we get into that, let me tell you quickly about the benefits of becoming a Freedom supporter. This is an independent show, which means we depend upon our listeners to keep the lights on. If you like the show and want to support it, you'll not only get our deepest thank you, but also frequent bonus content and extended interviews, and access to episode transcripts for those of you who prefer to read your podcasts. To learn more, head to www.freedom.audio. Now on today's discussion.
I have been rereading a book that you recommended to me 20 years ago, that is called Confessions of a Philosopher by a guy named Bryan Magee, who was a trained philosopher at Oxford and Yale and then worked as a BBC presenter for a lot of years doing philosophy programming. I think that it may be my favorite book about philosophy that I have ever read, not in terms of as a work of philosophy, but a book about the practice of philosophy and the role of philosophy in one's life, and the major ideas that go into all of it. I was struck by a passage that I wanted to talk to you about because I think it represents to a great extent, the way that my thinking on a lot of issues, and particularly philosophical issues has evolved over the last 20 years.
There's a part in there where he's talking about what he refers to as an ideological commitment to reason. I think we all have encountered this. You see this in people with logic and reason in their Twitter bios, often have this view, or people in what they described as the rationalist community often have this view or Orthodox objectivists have something like this. Which is that human reason is essentially unbounded, that there is nothing beyond which it is capable of engaging with understanding, grasping, and eventually solving, that basically, our minds are limitless, and whatever we can use logic to arrive at must correspond with some absolute truth. If we haven't found it yet, it's simply because we haven't used enough logic and enough reason to get there.
Magee is very dismissive of this view on the grounds that it seems obviously incorrect with even a moment's introspection that it's simply not true that our reason is an incredibly powerful tool that we have. It has allowed us to accomplish a lot of amazing things, but ultimately, we are embodied beings, we're just animals. This is my gloss a bit on his argument, and I have the full thing and a post that I wrote on my newsletter, so I'll put that link in the show notes. Our minds and our abilities, our awareness, our senses, our intellect are as limited as any other animals would be, in the sense that they are not limitless.
There are things that my dog cannot understand and can't even understand that it can't understand, and we are fine with that. None of us are like "No, my dog's intellect is limitless," but it would be weird to then think ours-- I'm certainly smarter than my dog, I'm pretty sure, but it would be weird to think that my intellect was in fact limitless. This has really changed the way that I approach philosophical reasoning, that philosophical reasoning is much more of almost a phenomenological project that you're trying to figure out the nature of your own experience and your shared experience with others, and how we interact with others. All of this is done in this recognized set of limits that we are simply bags of matter walking around in the world doing our best, but there's not something ultimately uniquely special in the universe about us.
Trevor: Well, I think I like the phrase, "Ghost-driven skeleton is covered with meat," is one that I've heard. Yes, it's an interesting thought experiment, and it requires you to think about thinking which is, of course, what philosophy is in some ways. First, for our listeners, the book Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee is absolutely stunning. The way I discovered it, was because my modern philosophy Professor Wes Morrison, who in modern philosophy you are supposed to cover, basically Descartes through Kant, but Wes loved Hume so much.
I later had an entire class on Hume with Wes that we spent about two-thirds of the class on Hume, and then with about a week left, he realized we hadn't done Kant, which of course, is very important for understanding modern philosophy. Rather than having us read Kant, which is never fun, let's be honest, he xerox the entire chapter of Bryan Magee's book explaining Kant. If you don't understand Kant, and nothing else, you should read the book, but it is the most lucid explanation of what Kant believed, I've ever read. It will help you if you're at all philosophically minded, forever I always go back to it.
Anyway, back to Aaron's point. The bounded reason it's obvious, I agree. I think the question you're asking is, you're not a rationalist. You're not saying this doesn't produce any truths, or we can't use this thing in our head to produce any truths that are workable, or livable, or even that make airplanes fly. We're animals. Our brain has the lizard brain part. It's a kludge in the evolutionary psychologists since it wasn't built to pursue reason, but it would be difficult to survive if you didn't perceive something, such as the tiger in the woods, the cliff coming up on you, it would be difficult to survive in that way.
I think that's where some pragmatists come in, and try to figure out the nature of truth. Really, I think what we're talking about is what is the point of the philosophic endeavor. Is it to sit around and talk about what you talked about in metaphysics class? Who did you have for metaphysics? I had Michael Huemer.
Aaron: I don't think I ever actually took a metaphysics class.
Trevor: When you went back and did your major, didn't you have to do metaphysics? Because it was required.
Aaron: No, it was not required.
Trevor: Okay. Well, Huemer is great for-- Huemer who was on Free Thoughts three or four times, I think, and I used to teach with him at IHS and he's a friend. He taught metaphysics, and he said, "This is a study of what is real." Or as my dad's philosophy professor, he also has a philosophy degree, and also became a lawyer, he said, "Metaphysics is just the study of what's really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really real, is a definition of it." After a while, if you're doing McTaggart's theory of the Unreality of Time, you wonder what you're doing and why.
To your point, do I have a brain that is able to apprehend reality and make meaningful conclusions about what reality is like on the level that they talk in academic metaphysics? That I think gets to the question, again, a lesson from my dad of the first philosophical question you have to ask is what philosophical questions matter, and which ones can I use my limited time and limited brain to do something with that will make some difference in the choices I make in my life. Or in the very succinct way my dad always put it and puts it is, the most important philosophical question is what do I do next. Which means what philosophical questions matter.
The bounded thing is it's obvious. I agree with you. It would be very weird. If you have heard of a divine origin a man, if you have some Aquinas Thomas view of the nature of reason apprehending God, and Randy, and touch on that but without the God part, you could talk about that. I think if you accept how our brain came into being, then its ability to apprehend truths is unbelievably limited, and a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to understand things that they simply cannot understand any better than your dog.
Aaron: One way to think about it is, as far as this question of recognizing the limits is not the same thing as say being an irrationalist or saying reason isn't real, or that anything goes, or that everything's made up, is I can recognize that there are animals out there with much better vision than I have. They can see more of the world than I can see when I look around. There are things out there that I will never be able to see except possibly through some technological interventionary medium.
I can use a microscope, I can use something that will take certain color frequencies my eyes can't see and convert them into color frequencies my eyes can see. That's not actually seeing these things out there in the world. I can accept that all of us accept that, but that we don't then draw the conclusion from it, that therefore nothing I see is real, or that everything I see is merely subjective, or that I can't learn incredible things through vision, or that the use of my vision to explore the world is somehow misplaced or misguided and so on.
I think at some level this is recognizing that same thing as reason is another mental capacity that we have. Vision is a mental capacity, a taste hearing all of that reason is just another of those. It works like vision does, and I think you're right that this shifts the philosophical project to an exploration of who we are and specifically our place, and the nature of our experience, and that can be a shared project. I can be pretty certain that you and I there's always that weird-- One of the first philosophical questions you wonder about is, do other people when they see blue does it look the same as when I see blue?
We can have those kinds of conversations, but obviously, we have a shared experience. You and I put this on the calendar, and we both showed up at the same time because there is some fundamental time reality that exists, even if we can't observe directly say the nature of time. What it means is that I think it injects a humility into us. This is one of the things that McGee is very good about, is that the notion that our reason, our capacities are unbounded, everything is accessible is to some extent takes a lot of the wonder out of the world, in that it gives us this unrealistic exactness to everything.
A sense that everything is objective in some way, and so much of the wonder I think in the world is, there's stuff out there that we can grasp at but we can't ever really fully know. We can feel around the contours of it. We have directions that we can push but we're never going to get all the way there. It adds this richness I think to the exploration. Whereas, if everything was just immediately solvable, whatever that would happen to look like, it would strip a bit of that ambiguity as well which is where a lot of the really interesting stuff happens.
A work of horror, a movie that has a somewhat of an ambiguous ending can be more interesting to wrestle with than one where everything is just really cut and dry. There's an element of that to the human experience as well, and the possibility of difference and change and so on.
Trevor: Yes. I want to be clear as you pointed out. I believe that there are benefits to clear rational thinking that help solve issues, eliminate contradictions, some of the basic rules of rationality. This is not about or anti-rational. It's about trying to figure out where and how you should use that and what sort of things yield beneficial gains if you use your rationality on a certain problem. We know this, in quantum physics not to bring up a very tired example, but nevertheless something that philosophers and physicists have been talking about since we discovered these weirdness of the world.
The question of whether or not the underlying reality of reality in so far as we perceive it, should obey intuitions and things that make sense to us in what has been turned middle verse because we live in a world where we're middle-sized beings, and who live middle-sized times, and so very very big things like the size of the universe or very very small things like the inside of an atom just do not conform to our intuitions and whether or not we should expect that.
Now I think physicists they don't really think about it. Philosophers have occasionally tried to say it should or shouldn't, but the first thing I think is just to realize that there's no reason to think it should with the tool that we're using to try and understand it. I like reading about quantum physics. I don't get it. I'm not sure I'll ever get it. I can't run the experiments. That's fine.
I think that's one reason and I think this is true for you too Aaron, that I find more human-grounded questions to be more interesting and more pressing, obviously more pressing. The nature of the atom is not going to affect what I do next. Ethics and I think politics which is an extension of ethics, those do matter and they do matter to people. Of course, there's a bunch of questions we could ask and we could become entirely suspicious of our intuition and say do human beings matter? Does your sense that human beings matter or animals or does any of that stuff should you be questioned at all? Maybe we should just murder everyone and throw our intuition aside, throw our reasoning aside, and that's I think the questions of that are very difficult in terms of what is your starting point?
You still have to have, you have to deal with metaphysics to some extent and epistemology, and then how do you get to some ethical theory that leads you to decisions or guides you in decisions in your life, while understanding that you are a bounded human being who can't understand the actual nature of reality.
Aaron: I think too there's a worry I have or it's not even a worry, because I see it actually happening where this ideology of reason call it. This belief that one's logic and reason-- that humanity's logic and reason can be unlimited and infallible, manifests in an individualized sense in a way that you encounter a lot of people who think, if I have logic and reasoned my way to a conclusion, that conclusion must be correct. Based on the information that I had, I have derived the following answer and that answer must be correct.
Anyone who arrives at a different answer, either through their own logic and reason, or through other sense capacities, or mental capacities, and so on, is obviously wrong. Disagreement with me is a sign that your reason has gone wrong, you are irrational, and so on.
Trevor: Are you just subtweeting Randiann's right now?
Aaron: No it's a lot broader than that, but I do think that this is my-- I think Rand got some arguments right, although I think most of the arguments that she got right or came to the right conclusions on, there are actually better philosophical arguments for those conclusions than the ones that she makes. She gets a lot of stuff wrong, but that's the case with-- I have not yet encountered a philosopher I think got everything right and no one but orthodox objectivists treat the philosopher they're into as being infallibly right.
One of my big problems with Randian orthodox objectivism is this idea that disagreement with objectivist conclusions or seeing problems with objectivist arguments is a sign that not that there might be a problem with the objectivist argument but that the person making the counterclaim is either evil, they're motivated with-- they have evil-purpose in mind, and that's why they're rejecting this truth or is simply irrational because they're not seeing that this truth is a truth with capital T. That's just like a really awful way to approach philosophical reasoning, but no, I think this is broader than that.
I think that there's this tendency-- You saw this in the rationalist community. You see this in other places where people are, "I'm going to destroy this person with logic and reason", right? That destruction is going to come about because they are clearly irrational versus they're much more obvious like disagreements can be genuine. They can be coming from different-- Perspectives matter a lot. Body of knowledge matters a lot. This is my objection, like axiomatic thinking often. The axiomatic thinking kind of jettisons the need to really understand complexities at a deep level and recognize ambiguities and recognize conflicts in principles and data and the limited nature of our knowledge and our capacities, and instead to say like, "No, I can kind of solve every problem that presents itself through the application of this flowchart of reasoning."
It often leads to, I think, just wrong or like sometimes monstrous conclusions. There's an arrogance of objectivity, I suppose might be one way to put it, that shows up a lot and gets people digging into their own views in a way that short circuits our ability to have meaningful discussions and to grow intellectually together because you're just-- I think you and I, years and years and years ago we made some t-shirts and one of the ones-- oh no, it was the logo of-- It was the slogan for something we were putting together. A website maybe that we we were--
Aaron: --against certainty.
Trevor: Symbolic order against certainty.
Aaron: Yes. I think against certainty was there's a degree to which certainty can be a hindrance to learning truth-seeking exploration, discovery, and so on because if you think you've got it figured out, you're done.
Trevor: Let me push back because while I agree what we've been talking about it's attitudinal. I'm not sure it's fully defensible down to its core because there has to be a reason you believe X over Y. If I say, "Okay, why are you a virtue ethicist?" If you're not a subjectivist, if you don't think that, "Hey man, that's just your opinion." I watched Big Lebowski again the other night, is the answer to every ethical problem from Hitler to Joe Biden. That's not exactly a scale, [chuckles] but I'm just saying that if that's your-- That there's just subjectivity or if you have a reason to believe the thing you believe. It could be because you believe at least something is more likely to be true than something else.
I'm not defending objectivity per se, but I have to make a decision on beliefs and say, "Okay, I'm looking out my window from my music studio right now. There's a tree out there. I think the perception of that tree makes it more likely that that tree is there than it's not there." Using a rubric to come to a type of like a will to belief and almost a William James sense, but not treating that as objectively true. You and I are both very committed people in terms of what we think is right and wrong. All ethics has a metaphysics. You can't get away from it.
There's only three questions of philosophy. Well, maybe four. Well, there's four because I said the first one. What should I philosophize about? What should I do next? That's the existential question. All things involve the following three questions. What is there, how do I know, what do I do about it? One, what is there? Metaphysics. Two, how do I know? Epistemology. Three, what do I do about it? Ethics. You can't get to what do I do about it without an "it". Without a theory of the it".
It's interesting because I think this a good time to get into virtue ethics because Aaron was-- he lives in Colorado now. I'm still in Arlington, Virginia, but he was visiting and we hashed this out a bit about virtue ethics. What's the metaphysics of virtue ethics? It can't just be like, do things that make you feel good about your actualization as a human being. That's subjective. There has to be something. I'm with you on like, we can't be over certain. That creates a lot of monstrous positions. We can't choose zealots. We can't choose icons that we are zealots following, which I think a lot of Randians do, but there's still got to be something where we talk about there has to be a reason to believe X over Y and that's why I believe it.
Aaron: I think to some extent it can just be-- The question of like, why should you do the right thing? However, we want to define the right thing. Let's just say there's-- I say to you, Trevor, "What you're doing is wrong." Rather than you responding, "Oh, I thought it was right. Tell me why it's wrong." Accepting that these are two moral categories and you should prefer one to the other. If you instead reply to me, "I don't care about doing what's right."Or, "I want to do what's wrong." The stronger claim. I don't know that that is something that I can meaningfully address in an argumentative sense.
I can give you reasons. Like I can say, "You should care more about the impact of your actions on people around you because they are autonomous beings with dignity that should be regarded," and so on. I could say you will be happier if you live a moral life and strive to take morally correct actions and limits the morally incorrect actions. I could say there's a divine being that will punish you. Ultimately, even all of those claims, you could just respond with basically versions of that same rebuttal. You could say, "I like causing suffering to others." Or, "Maybe vicious life will make me unhappy in the ways that you have defined, but either I don't care, or that's, in fact, the life I would prefer," or "I want to be punished", or "I reject your idea of a divine punisher."
Then I could give further answers. I could give further-- You could go back and forth. Ultimately, I think at the core of this, of all moral ethical theories is just an acceptance of the idea that we want to be good, we want to do the right thing. Then the question becomes, what does that entail? What are the contours? How do we handle the inevitable conflicts, the edge cases, the fuzziness, and so on?
That basic question of no, you actually should want to do the right thing, I think we can argue around it, but the person who is genuinely committed to doing wrong, to being immoral, to being vicious, you can't really give them a non-rebuttable argument. You just have to accept that part of the human experience. Part of just being the way that we are with potentially some exceptions, but most of us want to be good, want to live flourishing, happy, thriving lives. Want to be well regarded by others. Have a sense of the suffering of others and want that to be avoided as opposed to being part of the cause of it and so on. You just have to accept that. [unintelligible 00:29:51] I think [crosstalk]
Trevor: Yes, but you're avoiding metaphysics again. Metaphysics again. You're still avoiding metaphysics. We talked about theory of rationality. One of the things our construction of our brain has done, you could argue, it has made us care about people, perhaps irrationally. Perhaps the thing we should be doing is Peter Singer style murdering babies without brains or just something unbelievably utilitarian. Imagine something as monstrous as you can imagine. That anything that you have in your head that makes you think that you're a bad person while you're doing that is just your lizard brain telling you that you're a bad person unless you have some other reason to care about whether or not you feel like a bad person or a good person. There has to be some other reason.
Aaron: I don't know that there has to be for most of us. I think that we can just say, "Look, I have a disposition to want to be a good person." I think that that's a disposition that is widely shared. We could point to sociopaths or psychopaths as an exception, but it seems to be a human universal. We could give reasons why it is beneficial in the sense of this disposition enables us to live together, to cooperate in ways that increase the quality of life for most people and potentially increase--
You might say, "I don't like to be moral and I want to go around doing bad stuff." In most cases, the person who just goes around doing bad stuff doesn't seem to live as good of a life from the perspective of others and even from themselves. You don't tend to find as much success, blah, blah, blah. We could have all of that. ultimately, I think there isn't a way around the fact that this simply is a question of just disposition that you fundamentally cannot give an answer to the person who says, "No, I want to be evil." That at a metaphysical level says there is something at an objective level wrong with that baked into the nature of reality versus this is the way all of us are and the fine that most of us are going to treat you.
Trevor: This is ethical intuitionism could say, you want to torture children. Everyone agrees that you shouldn't torture children. That's a good reason to believe that torturing children is wrong in a metaphysical sense. That doesn't work [crosstalk] you're saying.
Aaron: I'm saying that I think that that's again a decent reason in the same way that if you look out the window at the tree and you can point to the tree and say, "Aaron, do you see that tree as well?" I say, "Yes, I see it." We can go around and we can ask other people, do they see the tree, and so on. That can give us pretty good reason to accept.
Trevor: You agree that even the more people who say the tree is there adds more reason to believe the tree is there.
Aaron: Yes. Just as the more people who say that it's better to be good than to be bad, it gives us more reason. Someone could always reply to the tree thing with, philosophy is full of these. It's actually like we're in a simulation, or actually it's some idealism, and this is just like a hallucination from God or whatever happens to be life [crosstalk]
Trevor: The brain of that always sits in the background.
Aaron: That's always there. I don't think that you can ever fully do away with. You can get asymptotically closer to certainty that actually the tree is real and we're not brains in that, but you can't hit absolute certainty. [crosstalk]
Trevor: Bazing and reasoning, man. [laughs]
Aaron: In a sense, yes. I think ultimately what I'm saying is it doesn't really matter because if there are a handful of holdouts, it doesn't matter. If there are a handful of people who are wandering around saying that tree doesn't really exist, the rest of us can get on with our shared experience just fine. From a moral and ethical perspective, our moral project doesn't need to include convincing every last person of the truth of our version of moral objectivity.
Rather we can also agree that fine, the person who says, actually, I want to torture babies, I get a kick out of it, I don't see any problem with it. We can't convince them. What we can do is we can say, all of us but that guy agree that this is the torturing babies is morally wrong. Also, all of us but that guy agree that preventing him from torturing babies is acceptable, if not mandatory. That we have an obligation to stop it from happening. We can punish him, we can lock him away, we can do whatever it takes to stop him from doing this thing, even if we haven't convinced him. That's another asymptotical line that we can approach. That seems fine to me. I guess I just don't feel the weight of having to go that last little bit.
Trevor: I'll tell you my theory because I agree, it's very difficult. I am an ethical intuitionist, not because I'm not a professional philosopher. I've read Michael's books and I've read a bunch of papers. I'm not immersed in the debate, so don't put comments about how I said something wrong. I think that this is what we were talking about when you were here. I think it gives you a good reason to believe that in a world of boundary reason that compared to other reasons, X is probably true compared to not X.
Given my limited brain and time on this Earth and time to even which problems do I want to think about, this is better than the alternatives, essentially. I think you're still saying that at the background of what you're saying. This is why I don't think virtue ethics is actually in ethics. I think it's an existential approach to how to live your life, but it lacks a metaphysical component, which is fine. If you're saying, listen to what people agree on about what constitutes a good life and do those things, then you're appealing to something.
Now, to use logic and reason on someone who wants to herd babies, I think there's a way of doing it. I think Kant points us in the right direction, which is if you think that you are the same thing as that thing, meaning you're a human and that's human, and of course, they could deny that premise. Maybe they're a different color or a different nationality. If you can get them to say, you and your neighbor, are you the same thing? Do you believe that they should respect your autonomy, that they shouldn't come and punch you? Then it can be entailed. It's not inevitable.
You can make a pretty simple premise argument that that also means that you shouldn't punch them. What you've done there is you created a contradiction. I'm not saying you could argue a murderer because murderers murder usually for-- a serial killer, especially. Most people murder because their wife cheated on them or something. You couldn't argue Ted Bundy into not being a murderer by saying, "Here's your Kantian ethics. You believe that you deserve respect, therefore, you have to respect them." I think as a basic grounding, it's not that it lacks a metaphysical component, it's just saying you can't hold these two beliefs at the same time, so choose one.
Either you respect them as you demand respect, or maybe you don't demand respect at all for yourself, which, of course, no one does, and therefore you can hurt them. That's actually pretty powerful. You mix that with a little bit of ethical intuitionism, and I think you get a good enough ethics. Then you can use virtue ethics as a guide for the existential component of this, but it's not going to tell you what's right or wrong.
Aaron: I guess I don't see a functional difference between that and saying that the right thing to do in a given moral situation is what a similarly situated, fully virtuous person would do. That if you expect, you should try to hold yourself to that standard because otherwise, you recognize you would want other people held to that standard. You wouldn't want them behaving towards you as a similarly situated, fully vicious person would. Now if you act as a vicious person while demanding everyone else be a virtuous person, you've created a contradiction and that contradiction is a problem. I don't know that the contradiction issue is as persuasive because someone could say, I'm fine with it. Or they could respond with like, "I don't mind the contradiction," or, "In fact, morality is simply the interests of the stronger and I happen to be stronger."
Trevor: The difference between them and me is that they're them and I'm me.
Aaron: Yes. Like full, full ethical egoism I think would short-circuit what you just said. Intuitions play an incredibly important role in all moral reasoning because we simply can't do-- whatever your moral theory is, you can't basically fully apply it in a, I'm going to study all the particular sense to every decision you have to make. This is the objection to act utilitarianism is if you actually had to do all of the work to add up all of the utility for all the different possibilities, you would be paralyzed. You'd never have an opportunity to make a decision because it would take too long.
We could do the same thing with a deontologist flowchart of rules. You can't in the moment think through that whole flowchart because moral decisions don't happen that way. Or the virtue person says, "We have to tune our skill of practical wisdom." Which is basically a form of my brain has taken in, here are the virtues that apply. Here is the particulars of the situation. What's the right answer when you put all of that together?" That has an intuitive because you can't sit down with your calculator and moral compass and plot it out on your moral map because you have to make a decision. It's important.
The issue that I often have with pure intuition is intuitionists can disagree. This was the interesting, when Michael Huemer we've mentioned a few times, wrote his book on the Problem of Political Authority where he basically takes an ethical intuitionist approach to assessing the power of the state. He makes it fairly standard argument that like, look, the state tells people who have taken marijuana that we are going to-- I agent to the state, I'm going to come out and I'm going to lock you in jail for doing that.
Huemer says they say they can do that. If I as an individual were to go up to you, Trevor, on the street, and you are smoking marijuana and I throw you in handcuffs, drag you into my basement, and chain you up in a cage in there, our intuitions would all say you've done something wrong. Therefore, why does the state get to do it? Why does the agent of the state just because they called themselves that get to do it?
It was I think Arnold Kling in a review of that book pointed out rightly that the majority of people have an intuition that there's a fundamental difference between those two things. Their intuition actually runs counter to Huemer's intuition. Not that they have an argument for why it's okay in one case but not the other but simply they have a strong intuition that there is a difference even if they can't articulate it.
The way you have to resolve that should be like, well, my intuition is better than your intuition. That seems to be a problem for a pure intuition is to count. The other part of it is that I think that our intuitions they're not something that we just have in a unevolving state that we can actively tune or change our intuitions. That our intuitions have to hook onto our perceptions and we can change our moral perceptions, our perspective on the world. We can investigate internally through introspection our own experience. That can have a dramatic change in our intuitions about how we should relate to others, the relationship that we have to others, all these things that have strong moral aspects to them.
To say, "My intuitions tell me X," someone else can say, "Well, look, my more tuned, more informed, more evolved, more sophisticated intuitions, tell me Y." That conflict can be real. We can say, well, your intuitions have led you astray because you haven't done the degree of say, introspection, or knowledge acquisition that I have done. Now we're just back to something other than intuitions is in play.
Trevor: Functionally. That's what I like about virtue ethics. It does end up back at this place where as you pointed out, act utilitarianism can be debilitating. Rule utilitarianism is a little bit more functional, but still suffers from the same problems. Deontology wherever your source derives also suffers from these problems. At the end of the day, what people actually do is rely on their sense of goodness, and their sense of what a good thriving person does.
Even if they say otherwise, that's what they're doing. To some extent, their intuition informs their sense of goodness. I can get behind that as a best-guess theory. Again, understanding that we don't have enough time as human beings or the ability to really understand reality. Best guess is really what we should be doing most of the time, whether it's about the existence of God or other parts of reality, or what your ethical choices are going to be. By extension or political choices. I can get behind that.
That gets to something we've talked about for decades, that there is an interesting aspect of ethical philosophy, which is that essentially so much of the literature is just I propose theory X determines whether something is right or wrong. Someone else writes a paper that says here is the reductio. By your argument, you can kill babies. Then the person who proposed the original theory can either bite that bullet and say, "Some people do. Yes, I can kill babies." Or you can say, "No, no, no, you're misinterpreting my theory. This theory does not allow killing babies." The interesting backdrop there is that any theory that allows for killing babies can't be ethical, which of course is again, relying on intuition. Philosophers are fairly complex in their reasoning, especially in modern literature. It's not an unstated assumption so to speak that killing babies is wrong, but they're still relying on intuitionism. What I ask now because we've gone through a bunch of different things here, we're running out of time, but make the case for virtue ethics after this discussion. What is the case? Is it existential? Is it metaphysical? Does virtue ethics actually tell us a thing that is true about the world? Or is it a best guess for how you should live your life given the constraints that we have?
Aaron: I see the role of moral philosophy not in starting from ground zero and articulating essentially unmoored in experience and intuition and traits of character, set of rules by which we can as long as we apply them correctly, we will do the right thing, be good people, live an ethical life, et cetera, et cetera. I see the role of moral theory as similar to the way you might think about musical theory.
Musical theory doesn't give you a set of rules to follow. By which if you just follow these rules, you can produce great works of music. It doesn't work that way because great music comes out of an intuitive and artistic sense, a set of tastes that may differ. Great music to one might be-- I understand that opera is great music, but I personally find it just aesthetically deeply unpleasing.
Trevor: I see.
Aaron: I can't listen to it. You need to make great music. You're taking this set of intuitions, preferences, tastes, perspectives, tone, whatever it is, and then you're putting it together into this thing. The role of musical theory, the role of going to school to learn about music, it's to take all of that and clarify it for yourself, teach you historically this is the kind of stuff that seems to work. This is the kind of stuff that doesn't seem to work. These are the rules that you can break in your creativity. These are the ones that maybe you can break, but you should be more hesitant because more often than not, breaking them produces something that doesn't sound good. Here's how to structure your thinking in the process of composition or play, whatever it happens to be. That's the role for me of moral theory is to take this jumble of dispositions, preferences, perspectives, and so on, that we have, that's just part of our experience as human beings interacting in this shared world.
Help us put that all together into something that works that makes us good people of the kind that we want to be. Part of that is rules. I think that part of that is saying, okay, but in the moment we can't apply all of the rules. You have to make a decision. This is where the virtue ethical perspective comes in. What kind of person is more likely to do something that we would consider to be morally correct or ethical in a given situation? That's another thing that we share. The virtues, we all recognize that beneficence, generosity, gratitude, courage, honesty. These are good--
There's very few people who go around actually arguing that say being dishonest and miserly, resentful and full of ill will, and so on is good. The question is, how do we bring more of these positive qualities into ourselves? Then, what do those positive qualities do when it comes time to make a decision? We're also training our intuition, our practical wisdom in the sense of making the right decision in a given moment is not just a matter of having the right motivations, because your motivations can lead you to do things that hurt people. Good motivations can lead you to do things that hurt people.
If you don't know-- if you haven't read the situation correctly. Now might not be the time for absolute honesty when the person just asked you this question, but maybe coloring the truth is going to make them and you and the world happier. This situation looks like this to you because you missed this whole part of it that you were unaware of, so acting could cause further harm. That's another set of positive character traits. Being the kind of person who wants to know the situation well or recognizes what they don't know doesn't rush to judgment in the face of ignorance and so on. Those are also positive traits of character.
I see virtue ethics not as the right moral theory in terms of here's a set of arguments that leads to the right conclusion, but rather the right moral theory in terms of most accurately describing how morality for us actually works. What the process of being moral feels like, looks like, how we think through it. It's less about articulating a new system, and it's more about giving clarity to the way that we actually already function. Then by giving that clarity, it enables us to see the path toward improvement in a way that I think other moral theories really don't.
It's not clear. Utilitarianism tells us what the right thing is, but it doesn't really tell us how to become the kinds of person who is going to accurately apply utilitarianism in a given situation. It's missing a large chunk of, I tend to call them ethical theories as opposed to moral theories, but what an ethical theory really is. It's not just the what, but it's the how.
Trevor: Yes. I like that. Good enough. Which is my theory of virtue ethics. Good enough. Read Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee.
Aaron: It is an absolutely wonderful book.
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