Another lightning roundup

1. Likelihood ratios are actually useful, AND: counterintuitive results from math (don’t combine posteriors?!). Highly recommended.

2. Someone actually quoted my nasty line about PoMoCo! Hop! Hop! Hop!

Not only quoted, but said intelligent stuff too:

We liberals are the heirs of a long Enlightenment tradition of creating moral progress through reason. Feminism and the civil rights movement are good examples of how this looks in action. These movements are best understood as presupposing the idea that there are culture-independent facts about what’s right and wrong, and that human beings can make progress in discovering them. After all, if all the facts about right and wrong are constituted by what societies approve and disapprove of, a feminist trying to reform the values of a deeply sexist society is automatically wrong.

A lot of postmodernism is about rejecting the ideals of the Enlightenment as hopeless and misguided, just as a lot of conservatism is about opposing these ideals. Certainly, old-fashioned conservatives take their moral views as capturing the truth about objective, culture-independent facts, while postmodernists don’t. But if you go over to postmodernist views about moral truth, you deny Enlightenment liberals the external standards they need to justify their moral reforms. If you’re in a culture with sexism, racism, and authoritarian politics, defending those things becomes a lot easier.

Seems to me that this is exactly right. Consider cultural relativism (which is closely tied to the pomo normative program). Cultural relativism implies not only that we are poorly positioned to criticize the culture of some tribe that practices female genital mutilation, but that the Swedes (say) are poorly positioned to criticize some tribe that practices serious economic inequality and the death penalty (that is, the U.S. tribe). This sort of relativism seems to be at play, for example, in Scalia’s dissent in Roper v. Simmons — a sort of visceral objection to the idea that the beliefs of the rest of the world can be relevant to our “evolving standards of decency,”

Daniel, your thoughts? (And: Wildly Paranthetical, are you reading?)

3. Relatedly: an interesting essay on relativism on Butterflies and Wheels.

4. Further proof that Andrew Card is a fucking moron, as if we needed any.

5. An argument that Obama has the power to unilaterally end “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

This seems like a no-brainer to me: among the inherent powers of the commander-in-chief must be to order military officers to not discharge soldiers who are gay, especially when there is a war on.

6. Another excellent post on prawfs, encouraging law professors to encourage career reflection in their students.


7 Responses to “Another lightning roundup”

  1. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    Sorry, Paul, not buying it. Someday someone will be able to explain the move from the premise that there are no universal, objective moral standards to the conclusion that we have no way of evaluating moral judgments and reasons.

    I could literally cite you dozens of philosophers and thinkers who have explained this idea (Mark Johnson is particularly good, though the sources on this are legion), which seems to me to be fairly obvious, and yet the meme that moral subjectivists, skeptics, and particularists are necessarily committed to a wild moral free-for-all in which anything goes and moral judgments are impossible, just will not die. This is mostly, I suspect, because it is convenient for objectivists and universalists to tar their interlocutors as such, but it strikes me as lazy in the extreme.

    To be sure, specifying the content of these claims — how can moral skeptics, particularists, and subjectivists criticize, evaluate, and judge moral propositions — is not facile, and, to my mind, should be their central task (one reason I am attracted to particularism, or to a W. moral epistemology is because it helps with sketching a picture of what these might look like).

    But the idea that in the absence of universal moral standards we cannot critically evaluate justifications simply does not follow, IMO.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Even particularism breaks down if we deny the the agent-independence of morality. If it’s right for me to X right now, even a particularist should be committed to the proposition that it is also right for Twin Earth Paul (who is identical in every respect to me except that he’s not me) to X right now. I’ve no real beef with particularism, honestly. Hell, it’s possible to imagine a sort of particularism according to which people can even reason together about the right action in a given situation. (Admittedly, it’ll be by aggregating probabilities, Bayesian Updater-style, but, still, reasoning together.)

    (Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that particularism just reduces to some kind of moral sense thing. But so what? It’s still objectivist.)

    As for subjectivism, well, first, let’s distinguish the proposition that moral facts are mind-dependent (subjectivism) from the proposition that moral facts are agent-dependent (relativism). Relativism doesn’t directly entail the wild moral free-for-all, but a huge variety of very tame extra premises can get there quickest. (Example: 1) Relativism. 2) A has privileged epistemic access to the moral truths for A relative to B, where A and B index the unit at which moral relativism is true. Conclusion: 3) B has nothing to say to A about morality. Wild free-for-all.)

    Subjectivism is less pernicious (which is not to say that is is not pernicious at all!), but it’s also not what the postmodernist types bandy about.

  3. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    You think particularism is objectivist? Really?? I don’t see that at all.

    I have great difficulty seeing how the idea that the valence of moral reasons varies by context is compatible with objective, universal rules.

    Relativism doesn’t directly entail the wild moral free-for-all

    Exactly. So let’s dispense with the meme, yes?

    It’s absurd, and does not do the objectivists and universalists who continually push it any favors. On the relationship between moral subjectivism and cultural relativism, I recommend Mackie, who does a good job explaining the import and the connection without denying first-order moral propositions.

    As for what postmodernist types bandy about, I do think that pomo scholars tend to spend far less time than they should on working out the particulars of judgment and evaluation in the absence of universal standards. That this is a coherent possibility is obvious to me — one reason I despise the meme you identify here — but that the mechanics of how this works is difficult and nonobvious is also crucial.

    As a professor of mine likes to say in exasperation, ‘Will someone please tell me how to get out of the hermeneutic circle?’

    This critique, and many others, of postmodernist scholarship, is quite valid. What is not valid is the frequent ‘woe is me’ refrain that in the absence of universals, moral judgment ipso facto breaks down.

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    Daniel, particularism isn’t compatible with objective, universal rules, but it surely is compatible with objective, agent-independent facts about moral judgments — with the claim that if you found yourself in precisely the same situation and with precisely the same history as I, you would have the same moral obligation.

    (I’ll see your Mackie, and raise you Nagel’s The Last Word — though I do not do not do not endorse everything he says there, as usual Nagel’s wrong about a huge amount of stuff, but he nonetheless has a good attack on a good number of subjectivist and relativist-type positions.)

  5. Paul Gowder Says:

    Also, what in blue blazes is “the hermeneutic circle?” I fear it’s a bit of a salad phrase…

  6. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    Ah, I gotcha, and agree that it they are compatible in and of themselves. If, however, you add in a bit of a W. moral epistemology (like Little does), the compatibility becomes less plausible.

    Odd to see a transcendentalist relying on Nagel, what with his utter destruction of the View-from-Nowhere (though I guess this is part of the “huge amount of stuff” he is wrong about?) . . .

    LOL re the hermeneutic circle. I could explain it, but it would take forever. It’s not quite word salad, though it may be shading in that direction . . .

  7. Paul Gowder Says:

    Oh yes. Yes it is part of the huge amount of stuff. Most definitely.

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