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Some useful philosophical paragraphs I’ve come across lately

Some useful philosophical paragraphs I’ve come across lately.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Political Philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre by Ted Clayton

bq. It is also the case, according to MacIntyre, that those involved in these philosophical and political debates claim to be using premises that are objective, based on reason, and universally applicable. Many of them even believe these claims, misunderstanding the nature of their particular inadequate modern philosophy, just as the people in MacIntyre’s post-disaster world misunderstand what it means to be doing real science. But what they are really doing, whether they recognize it or not, is using the language of morality to try to gain their own preferences. They are not trying to persuade others by reasoned argument, because a reasoned argument about morality would require a shared agreement on the good for human beings in the same way that reasoned arguments in the sciences rely on shared agreement about what counts as a scientific definition and a scientific practice. This agreement about the good for human beings does not exist in the modern world (in fact, the modern world is in many ways defined by its absence) and so any attempt at reasoned argument about morality or moral issues is doomed to fail. Other parties to the argument are fully aware that they are simply trying to gain the outcome they prefer using whatever methods happen to be the most effective. (Below there will be more discussion of these people; they are the ones who tend to be most successful as the modern world measures success.) Because we cannot agree on the premises of morality or what morality should aim at, we cannot agree about what counts as a reasoned argument, and since reasoned argument is impossible, all that remains for any individual is to attempt to manipulate other people’s emotions and attitudes to get them to comply with one’s own wishes.

bq. MacIntyre claims that protest and indignation are hallmarks of public "debate" in the modern world. Since no one can ever win an argument – because there’s no agreement about how someone could "win" – anyone can resort to protesting; since no one can ever lose an argument – how can they, if no one can win? – anyone can become indignant if they don’t get their way. If no one can persuade anyone else to do what they want, then only coercion, whether open or hidden (for example, in the form of deception) remains. This is why, MacIntyre says, political arguments are not just interminable but extremely loud and angry, and why modern politics is simply a form of civil war.

bq. ... But there is another problem. Just as no one can win an argument with anyone else by persuading them with reasons, no one can win such an argument with himself or herself in trying to determine what their own moral commitments should be. In other words, no one can have real reasons for choosing the moral positions and values that they do, and no one can have any real reasons for choosing any way of life over any other as the best possible life. So any choice about the kind of life one will lead (and of course these choices have to be made, either consciously or unconsciously) must be arbitrary; any individual could always just as easily have chosen some other life which would have a very different set of moral positions and values (After Virtue Chapter 4). And if I can choose to be anything, but have no way of discovering reasons that might persuade me that some choice is the best, then it is impossible for me to make any kind of meaningful commitment to any of my choices, and it will be extremely easy to revise my morals in the name of expediency. The temptation will therefore be strong to choose moral principles on the grounds of effectiveness. I will choose my values at any given time because they happen to be useful as a way of attaining something else I value, rather than rationally choosing the best possible life and then letting that choice of the best life determine what I should value and what I should do. Perhaps I will choose values that enable me to be more popular in my community, or values that are useful for justifying my desire for money, or values that I believe will make me more successful at my job. What most people cannot do and are not even aware that they should do is tie their moral positions to a coherent and defensible version of the good life for human beings. End of excerpt

Commentary: I too came across this same observation, however, I came to a slightly different solution than the one MacIntyre proposes. For, MacIntyre does not actually find a solution to this inability to come to any general public agreement as to what we should do, and so he looks at history and notes that this was not always so. In the past certain societies had such strong traditional modes of perspective that these traditions could serve as a basis of argument (they may not be completely justifiable in the end, but as long as everyone happens to agree with them, coherence is maintained). Seeing no other option, he proposes that people that agree on a set of virtues, should get together in communes and when the modern world destroys itself from incoherence, everyone who survives will have no choice but to join one of the communities that have survived and submit to the traditional morality that has been built up.

My approach is to try to find fundamental principles people can agree to that are actually justifiable rationally. The first principle I propose is the search for some truth (if you have a better principle I’m going to ask whether it is true or not, and whether you propose I try to find out), then the continuation of ones own existence (one must continue to exist to search for some truth, and one needs some truth to be able to continue to exist), and finally the continuation of humanity. This last principle is not as simple to prove as the first two as one does not live to see the ultimate consequences of one’s actions, and so one can argue without any obvious contradiction that one may as well ignore one’s actual affect on humanity as a whole. However, all who decide for one reason or another that continuing humanity is worth while (that this is what we should do) are able to have reasoned arguments. It is possible to show that one proposal is better than another with respect to this principle, as there is an agreement as to what the terms of debate are. Though there will of course always be disagreement, especially on new complex problems, such a discussion would progress in a similar way, I suspect, as scientific discussion progresses. No matter how contentious scientists may be on an issue, nevertheless our understanding advances, and the differences between scientist pale in comparison to what they actually agree to (though unfortunately most real scientific debates, don’t make it into the media, as there is no fiery passion, just scrutinized sets of data, conjectures and proposals on how to verify such conjectures).

To give an idea of how my method works and where I at least I think it goes, here’s a simple sketch of a proof that a creative and knowledgeable public is necessary to continue the existence of humanity optimally.

The universe is infinitely complex, no finite logical system can cover all the problems that may arise, and so to solve new problems new ideas are necessary. The more people know about reality and the more ideas are generated concerning it, the more likely the problems facing humanity can be solved. Though the actual proof would be a bit more complicated, covering a few details, it is easy to see that such an argument would form a rational basis for ideas such as freedom of speech, outlawing government propaganda, non-rote or standardization based education, and in general that despotism is not an efficient way to continue humanity as by definition it is not adaptive. Though there is an addictive quality to basing arguments on fiery passion, rageful disgust, a strong sense of righteousness, or any other strong emotion that is fundamentally vague and so is the basis of vague ideas, a reasonable approach deriving what we should do from what is an effective way to continue humanity and search for truth, though has less flare, is capable of resolving details and forming the basis of actual consensus among those who think that humanity is worth continuing. Whether such a side would overcome the humanity is not worth continuing side (something else is worth while, such as personal comfort, power, apathy et.), is yet to be determined.


bq. But there are also cases in which, though not averse to a form of government- possibly even desiring it- a people may be unwilling or unable to fulfil its conditions. They may be incapable of fulfilling such of them as are necessary to keep the government even in nominal existence. Thus a people may prefer a free government, but if, from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet even of a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions; in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty: and though it may be for their good to have had it even for a short time, they are unlikely long to enjoy it. End of Excert

Commentary:For instance, the principle of liberty was arrived at not through any reasoning but because with the advent of technology the previous natural autonomy of communities (born from technological inability to travel or communicate quickly, which was the same impediment to democracy) was eroded by technology which unleashed despots who would have been previously contained to reason by distances. These failed experiments in tyranny produced a very strong emotional basis for institutionalized liberty. However, this basis has never been able to answer the question to what extent should the government not interfere in people’s lives. Without an agreement on how this question can be answered, no productive discussion is possible (discussion that leads to new ideas and more sophisticated positions, rather than a stagnant contradicting back and forth) and the policy that is enacted is thus equally unsophisticated and leans to one extreme of over simplification or the other, depending on which faction happened to muster the influence necessary to put their ideas in practice.

Based on a strong vague sentiment people are willing to grant too much liberty, as there is no rational basis where liberty should stop and crime begin, and only through an accumulation of emotional responses to the consequences of the policy can some sort of balance be reached, that could have been reached by simple forethought (pollution for instance). Likewise, when people do things that have an even greater emotional affect than the sentiment of liberty, with no rational framework in which to evaluate their emotions or the situation, people are easily convinced that liberty can not longer be afforded, and a system of control is needed which costs in material, personal, restrictions on movement, and unjustified use of the system of control, far exceeds any potential gain of the system. Based solely on emotions, only dramatic deaths have import and deaths caused not by any specific act but by the lack of resources, from waste (among other systems on extreme systems of control), that could have prevented the grievance, nor are people able to consider that such misapplication of the resources of society can have tremendous long term consequences causing more misery than a few dramatic individuals ever hope to imagine.

The alternative to just vague sense of right and wrong is what is efficient for the continuation of humanity and what is not. This case of liberty turns from one of the “great paradoxes of politics†to a simple question. When it would take more resources to regulate an activity than could be gained by the regulation of that activity, then it is more efficient for society to not regulate that activity. For instance, unproductive discussion is by definition is a waste of the resources of society, however, a discussion police and system of courts to determine what is and is not unproductive discussion, even if it was somehow able to determine it, would cost an unimaginable amount of resources (whenever two people talked, a third would have to monitor them). More likely still is that the courts will be unable to determine what is and is not productive discussion, for to solve new problems requires new ideas, and so all these resources would actually be spent to stifle society even more than simply the cost of the system.

Likewise, with a fundamental principle in which to base arguments upon, it is possible to determine what regulations have the probability of saving more resources than they cost (pollution for instance is something society has found costs significantly less to regulate than not, however, only in the instances where the affects of the pollution could be transferred into emotions: sulfuric acid, particulates, water quality, cfc’s, whereas pollution that has no direct emotional affect, such as someone dying from cancer, but degrades everything more or less evenly, even if it can be shown to be economic absurdity, goes unreviewed, undiscussed, and unregulated by society.)


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