Sunday, February 10

Is secularisation dangerous ?

People in the United States haven’t secularised as much as people in comparable countries, but they have still been “fallibilised”. American Christianity is so deeply enculturated that it doesn't amount to much anymore. Even nominally conservative people have gone far in adopting practices of toleration and pluralism that only make sense on strongly fallibilist assumptions. The constitutional framework has house-trained its Christians well.

If you, my conservative Christians friends/enemies, really had the courage of your convictions, if you really believed all you say you believe, shouldn’t you start to behave a lot more like jihadists and a lot less like the average evangelical voter ? Why do you put up so meekly with blasphemy, adverse court rulings, the practice of abortion ? Doesn’t it that mean that you have gone soft and sceptical already ? That there are other norms – norms of pluralism – that you put above the commands of your religion ? Don’t your actions belie the claim that your religious standards are your highest standards ?

When you put up with blasphemous speech, aren’t you implicitly saying that you value the norm of free speech higher than the purity of your religion ? It is quite easy to justify a norm of free speech from a fallibilist perspective, but how do you justify your own adherence to the norm ?

When you submit to defeats in the legislatures or the courts, aren’t you implicitly saying that you value the norms of democratic fair play higher than the commands of your religion ? Aren’t you admitting that there is a profound tension between the open-ended nature of the democratic process and your commitment to an eternal canon of truths ?

When you submit to the practice of legal abortion, aren’t you implicitly saying that you value the rule of law higher than what you see as an important moral imperative ? If the imperative were as absolute as you say it is, how can you stay inside the process, limiting yourself to lawful protests ? Does there not have to come a point, for a believer in divinely inspired truths, when the entire democratic regime is rejected as illegitimate ? If talk of a "holocaust" in our midst is not just tasteless hyperbole, how can it be that the most drastic step you take is to vote a certain way ? For if a holocaust were going on, wouldn't you be under a moral obligation to overthrow the government of the United States, immediately ?

Now I am glad you behave the way you do. I obviously don’t want you to turn towards trying to blow up the constitution. I am just saying that you may have made much more substantial concessions to the fallibilist way of life than you are aware of. Functionally you may already be fallibilists, or reasonably close to getting there.

Forgive me when I read your behaviour as a form of reverse hypocrisy: Barking bad infallibilist slogans while doing good fallibilist deeds.

There may even be a rational explanation for how this situation arose: Practice precedes theory. Practice grows from the ground up. Then very gradually a theoretical superstructure develops to explain it. The arrival of a satisfactory theory straightens and strengthens the practice, and accelerates its growth somewhat. But this only happens late in the game. Theory does not make practice. In other words, the worst of what you fear may happen has already happened. The change of governing philosophy is not to come, everyday practice has in effect ratified it some time ago.

The relentlessly sceptical cast of fallibilism may seem radical but it agrees quite well with a temperament that is already wide-spread. It just gives a little more structure and heft to that temperament. The philosophical superstructure only supplies premises for conclusions people are reaching already. The results are therefore going to be quite a lot more conservative with respect to already current practice than on philosophical paper. It will only slightly accelerate us in a direction we are going anyway. Fallibilism may seem radical, but compared to what is common practice in 21st century America, it isn’t very radical at all. (And compared to what is happening in liberal arts departments across the country, it’s positively friendly to religious sensibilities.)

It is a common idea among conservative Christians that secular humanists are parasitic on Christianity, “living off the accumulated capital”, “running on the fumes”. The implication is that as practices become ever more thinly Christian, they become ever more fragile.

This is a fallacy, a category mistake to be precise: Genealogy – explaining from where a practice is descended – is not the same as explaining its viability, or lack of, today.

Our ancestors once passed through a fish phase. That does not mean that we rely on gills for survival today. Similarly, that a cultural practice once passed through a Christian phase does not mean that it has to depend on Christianity today.

If you think that secularism must be on its last legs, then you should also fear that Catholicism today is running off the incense fumes of a more real, earlier Christianity, the old-time religion before the hierarchy came round – very late and reluctantly in each case – to state that the market economy might not be such a bad idea, that liberal democracy might not be such a bad idea, that anti-Semitism might be bad idea, that religious liberty might be a good idea, …

You would be wrong to think that fallibilist secularism is just some thinned-out, overstretched version of your own Christian infallibilism. The old secular humanism may have been like this, but the new fallibilism is not; it has entirely different bases. If there is something that is increasingly thinned-out and overstretched it is your position in the context of contemporary America. A fresher mentality is spreading all around you. There is a growing schizophrenia between what people like you say they believe philosophically, and what you do in daily life: In your stated philosophical views, you still demand rigid certainty; in your actual conduct you have become almost as tolerant and pragmatic as your liberal neighbours. Not convinced by argument, true (I’m working on that one); but convinced by the habits of postmodern society rubbing off.

There is in fact very little to fear from proclaiming fallibilism in today’s America.

1) Any effects on the public standing of morality are going to be minimal. Scepticism about the moral order has been priced into people’s actions since time immemorial. Aside from a very small number of innocents no one is going to be caught by surprise (Certain people may find it useful to act surprised, but that is not the same as actually being surprised.) What it will do is add another layer of reflexivity to the multi-layer game of strategic deception that is life. Same old game, slightly faster pace.

Fallibilism will strengthen the tone of our moral discourse. We will lose a few more pious lies, but gain a finally believable basis on which to explain and defend morality. All justifiable degrees of certainty about knowledge and ethics can be maintained under fallibilism. Fake authorities stand to lose their last shreds of metaphysical cover. If they are left with nowhere to hide, it would be all to the good.

2) Accelerated secularisation would be unlikely to change U.S. economic policy in a statist direction. The libertarian segment of U.S. opinion that is responsible for the distinctiveness of the U.S. approach to economic policy is already highly secular. They would still fight their corner even after God left the building. For this reason, and reasons of history, even a post-Christian U.S. would still likely remain distinctive. There is, after all, no secularist position on the economy, it ranges from anarcho-libertarians to socialdemocrats.

3) Democracy will, if anything, be even safer. It becomes a lot easier to justify the pluralist norms that underpin democracy on fallibilist grounds.

The justification of a classically liberal system like the U.S. constitution flows much more naturally from fallibilist assumptions than orthodox Christian ones. After all, at the time of the Continental Congress the Catholic Church was still busy defending the divine right of kings.

The U.S. constitution is not something a strictly orthodox believer would have designed. It is something that (rich, slave-owning) fallibilists would have designed. The framers were great pragmatists, but they had lacked a theoretical structure into which their piecemeal efforts could have fitted with any coherence. The salient features of their brain child – the separation of powers, checks and balances, neutrality between religious sects, free speech and enterprise, a strong constitutional court to guard fundamental rights, elaborate procedural guarantees of fair trial and appeal – really only make sense as measures of coping with a fallibility more radical than perhaps they could have stomached.

Infallibilists believe that individuals – the Great Dictator –, committees – the Iranian Council of Guardians –, or institutions – the papacy –, are able to know timeless truths, and should therefore be protected against the assault of mere opinion. The framers, on the other hand, left no perch in the constitution unchecked or unbalanced.

Infallibilists care about enshrining content; fallibilists care about enshrining process and procedure, leaving content to come out in the wash. The framers, on their part, wrote at great lengths about procedure, and enshrined virtually no content.

Infallibilist care about preserving and promoting truths; fallibilists care about promoting competition among truth claims on a level playing field. The first amendment is silent about discrimination based on content.

If the United States had been a primarily Christian project, then there would have been an established church, minorities be damned; there would have been broad blasphemy exceptions to the first amendment; there would have been explicit constitutional supports for religiously motivated limitations on commerce; religious oversight of education and the press; and morals legislation.

The only norm in the text, the only surety for explicitly Christian legislation, is the principle of majority voting. When these majorities evaporate there is nothing in the constitutional text to stop Christianity from disappearing.

If you are looking for a time when the rot set in, the U.S. was started on a non-Christian track, try the 1760s, not the 1960s. It was at the founding that all U.S. Christians made the concession of submitting to a fair and open process in the course of which their own denomination could not only lose, but could deserve to lose. It was then that the American system was set up as an essentially open-ended process. That the major concession each denomination made at the founding should in our time become the concession that the religious worldview as a whole could not only lose, but deserve to lose, was unforeseen by most at the time, yet entirely in keeping with the logic of system. Wherever people are honest enough to abstain from rigging a process it may not give victory to their own side. The process of freedom is unpredictable, and can surprise even its champions.

So while there are social changes that carry risks, I don't really see it for our drift towards fallibilist secularism. The essentials of the fallibilist position are conservative with respect to where Western society finds itself, whereas any attempt to reestablish hard-edged claims of religious truth would have to begin by tearing up its fabric. Moves to arrest and reverse the drift are now far more dangerous than acceptance could ever be.

If you still think there is an unfathomable risk, and we should better not go there, then I have to ask you this: What’s your position on free inquiry ? Is it worth the risk ? You never know what people might come up with, and what that might “undermine”. None of my stuff is as intoxicatingly transgressive as anything by the great Nietzsche; and his writings have been in bookstores for over a hundred years now. If anything, fallibilism is serving your interests by trying to rein in the Nietzschean impulse (as much as possible without going back behind any of his discoveries).

The process of modernisation that, among other things, gave us secularisation was a huge risk, but also quasi-inevitable, and ultimately worth taking. Accepting fallibilism would in a sense mark the end of this historical episode, would show that we have reached the other side, a new pole of stability, after a long and confused transition. It could heal and repair some of the rifts caused by modernity.

Human groping towards progress has in the past unleashed a rabid form of secular infallibilism that was, in its time, even more dangerous than religious infallibilism. I’m no friend of Stalin, or repression in the name of atheism. But I do not see these particular ghosts coming back in our time. (Why repression when we can win this on the merits ? It’s the conservative Christian side that should be, and often is, afraid of unrepressed liberty. Voluntary abandonment of faith is the best sign that nothing of value is being lost.)

Infallibilism, taken to its logical conclusion, gives you totalitarianism. We have probably seen the end of totalitarianism as a political ideology. What we could still see is the return of a religiously coated infallibilism, a zombie ideology which aims, farcically, to be even more total than the political totalitarians.

Christians naturally believe their own belief system to be a force for good. So when there is a prospect of there being less of it in the (developed) world, you worry. Fair enough, from your perspective. Yet from a different perspective that views your belief system as evil in parts, that would be a reason to celebrate, not to worry. Faith in the unalloyed goodness of a belief system (or its founding prophet) is touching, but not very mature.

Is it obvious that social institutions become worse as they become less Christian ? Has Harvard become a worse university by becoming less religious ? Or has the university, rather, come into its own ?

Was Christianity essential to the Western take-off ? Or did the take-off only happen after the grip of Christianity had already weakened, and was, at each point in time, always driven by the most heretical element within Christianity, the forces most susceptible to secularisation ?

Be that as it may, we are in a new season, and last season’s scores no longer matter. The question of whether religion has in the past, on balance, been a force for good is not the same as asking as whether today this is still the case. It could be true that, for lack of alternatives, monotheistic religions have been a force for good at certain junctures in the past. But that does not mean that today, where fresh alternatives have emerged, religious worldviews could not simply be bad options, rather than the least bad option they may have been in the past.

Monotheism is a recent invention. Whenever you let human history begin – a few hundred thousands or millions of years ago – for only a small sliver of time have humans known monotheism, and for only of a few hundred years, a fraction of a fraction of fraction, has monotheism enjoyed anything like global hegemony.

Is monotheism still a good influence ? The one area where monotheism is strongest today and least doubted is the Middle East. Not the happiest region on earth.

Islam is a reformed faith in the monotheistic tradition. Reformed faiths, just like Protestantism, have a tendency to spawn two types of strains simultaneously – very mild strains (Quaker, Bahai, etc) as well as incredibly rabid reassertions of infallibilism.

I am half-convinced that in the near future we are going to see a final show-down between infallibilism’s last gasp, led by certain sections of Islam, and fallibilism, supported more or less by the rest of the world. I’m just hoping that we can keep it on the level of a shouting match, not a war. At least as useful as aircraft carriers in this struggle might be the following: A critical edition of the Quran and other Islamic scriptures. Scrupulously academic, not aiming to be polemic (but which would no doubt meet accusations of polemic intentions anyway).

As secularism makes headway in the U.S., a reaction from a tiny Christofascist terrorist movement is not inconceivable. The main confrontation, though, is likely to be inside the Islamic world, between two or more camps of citizens in each majority Muslim country.

We shouldn’t be too afraid. Time is on our side. The purer the infallibilism the less workable it will be. But there could be outbursts by an avantgarde of dead-enders running amok. Making sure these fevers pass with minimal casualties is not going to be easy.

I believe that American Christian conservatives have a tendency to misidentify their cause and their allies in this fight, and as a consequence are feeling alone in the world.

We should all, believers and secularists, as believers in the pluralism of the American system stand together in opposing the blasphemy of theocratic infallibilism. And that includes opposing infallibilism at home. You can’t fight the Islamists with some half-hearted, watered-down, cosmetically enhanced, tied-into-a-thousand-knots, restrained and relaxed in all the wrong places, almost already fallibilist version of Christian infallibilism. We need a simple, solid, thought-through position to defend. I suggest that that position should be fallibilism.

It also happens to be the only position that is ultimately compatible with both democracy and the practice of science.

Let me be blunt: Fallibilism is the best deal postmodern reality is ever going to offer to the conservative religious. Walking away from this deal is to start down the road Bin Laden went. You are free to search for a third way; I dare say there isn’t one.

I am not terribly interested in theism-atheism debates. I won’t hide my opinion when asked, but I am not invested in pushing it. For all I care people can keep their belief. What worries me is not belief as such, but when belief inclines people to adopt bad moral and political philosophies as well. If they drop their infallibilistic philosophies for fallibilistic ones, then I drop my case. Unlike a certain atheist, I have no interest for instance in talking an Andrew Sullivan, who is very nearly a fallibilist, out of his belief in Christ. I would not recommend trying to combine full-blown fallibilism with Christian faith, but I am open to the possibility of someone achieving it.

I very much want people to become fallibilists. Once they do I don’t care much whether they retain religious belief or not. Hardline conservatives will find it difficult to believe, but there is no intent here to destroy faith. The intent is to provoke an admittedly risky reform, to modify and purify, and see what can be kept. Belief filtered through fallibilism could keep alive resources that are available nowhere else; a language, rich with metaphors and poetry, that is able to express human experience in a way no other language can quite match. This fine sensibility is not something I would want to see lost, and I am relying on believers to keep it alive.

Fallibilism is in hard opposition to institutional Christianity, the kind of Christianity that sold its soul to Constantine in exchange for worldly power. There is much less opposition to a personal practice of Christianity that stresses non-violence and compassion, and keeps at least some distance from certain institutions. Moreover, the humility and vulnerability fallibilism fosters are not unreligious attitudes. There will be frictions even with a Christ-imitating practice, but, it seems to me, no unbridgeable chasm. Whether infallibilism is the way of the Pharisees, and fallibilism the way of Jesus is not for me to decide; it is something that believers might possibly want to debate among themselves.

If we were all to become fallibilists, we wouldn’t all suddenly start to agree on everything.

The non-committal nature of fallibilism is shared by any text meant to function as a holy book. Any holy book has to be strategically ambiguous, quotable against itself. If it weren’t so notoriously “two-handed” – amenable to considerations of ‘on the one hand’, ‘on the other hand’ – on all debatable issues, it wouldn’t be able to do justice to the balancing act that is life on most days. Just about the only thing that fallibilism rejects without a counterbalancing act is the idolatry of infallibilism.

People who claim to have History on their side are dangerous idiots. But we all, except for a few deep pessimists, provisionally believe ourselves to be on the winning side of history. Christians claim it, secularists claim it.

We could endlessly debate the balance of merit for past successes, and the prospects for the future. In the end we can only wait for the evidence to come in.

Religiosity makes the (Dis)United States of America an outlier among developed nations; all outliers revert to the mean eventually. So from my perspective it’s just a matter of waiting and letting the weight of the arguments take its course. The action is slow but over time virtually unstoppable, the intellectual equivalent of gravity.

Instead of arguing endlessly, let’s take a bet then: What happens first, the oft-predicted (by Christian apocalyptists) collapse of Sodom and Gomorrah, i.e. Europe and San Francisco, or the collapse of Christianity in the Bible Belt ?

The philosophical implications of Darwinism

If human knowledge is the evolving production of an evolved being, what kind of knowledge could that plausibly give us ? Beings subject to evolution are perpetually harassed. Everything about them is patched-up, provisional and just-good-enough. They grope, they try, and fail. If they manage anything approaching rationality, it’s only local and myopic.

What does that suggest ? As evolved beings we have no chance of acquiring anything by way of knowledge that could be constant or certain. Nothing shiny, or pure, or transcendent. Only messy, fleshy, incarnate truth.

The knowledge evolved beings like us possess is bound to be drastically fallible.

Even among people who nominally accept the theory of evolution some believe that more is at work. They believe in a telos, a transcendent goal towards which the process of evolution is pulled forward. An Omega Point, as Teilhard de Chardin calls it.

This is either a confused way of stating the obvious, or a devious strategy for reintroducing God and infallible purposes through the backdoor.

If we can think of our beliefs as instruments, as pieces of mental software, then it is easy to see how their use value tends to rise over time. This happens for the same basic reasons that manufacturing productivity steadily rises. People are not normally motivated to discard good tools for worse. So barring cataclysms, if the productivity moves at all, it should move up.

Even though productivity rises, there needs to be no continuity in the way it is achieved. No continuity in the content of our beliefs is implied; if it serves productivity every last bit of content is liable to be exchanged. Today’s best practice raises the bar for any later practices but has no power to determine the principles on which the future will operate.

The value of our knowledge can be thought of as an abstraction similar to productivity in this crucial sense: The expectation that productivity will rise is reasonable; the expectation that modes of production will be retained is not.

All trends, even long-term trends, can come to an end. The only permanent trend worth betting on is the rise of productivity in our knowledge, stripped of any commitment to permanence of content. In the contents, continuing threads abound; but none could be relied on to go all the way.

There is a harmless way of interpreting talk of a teleology inherent in the process of human evolution: We can take the telos to be simply a placeholder for “whatever will be thought most productive at a given point in history” or “wherever the process decides to take us”. The “telos” here is a misleading nominalisation, introducing an object where there is nothing object-like. It may not be the most elegant way of speaking, but it is not actually wrong.

What would be wrong is this: To claim that the telos is more than purely formal, that it has substantive content. To claim that the process allows us to accumulate truth, allows us to fix substantive content in approaching the telos; that there are parts of presently known content not subject to being revised at any time. The purpose behind this move is to restore infallible truth as the limit of ever fuller approximation. It amounts to a sneaky denial of the open-ended nature of knowledge discovery. As more and more content is assumed to be settled, the window for discovery shrinks and shrinks. This cock-eyed view of teleology is tantamount to an expectation for history to shut down, eventually.

Yet the historical process is and remains radically open-ended: No one has a less than radically fallible way of predicting the future, including in particular the content of people’s future beliefs. And it is meaningless to claim that God has traced a course for history when we have no way of knowing what that course might be.

I prefer my Anti-Darwinians honest; I prefer Protestant literalists who flatly reject the theory of evolution to certain others, Catholics especially, who want to wreck it with screwball additions.

Darwinian theory has no room for divine intervention or guidance, ie substantive teleology by any name, in any way, shape or form. All who believe otherwise should have the courage to move beyond the pale of science and declare themselves Anti-Darwinian outlaws.

When some secularists fall into the trap of teleology, they are also tempted by the prospect of claiming the authority of the ideal limit for today’s actual claims. Certain European discourse theorists like to define truth as the progressively less impaired limit of societal consensus; certain American pragmatists – e.g. some statements by Peirce – can be read as positing an ideal (and very “unpragmatist”) limit towards which the search for truth converges. These ideals are thin and unconvincing secularisations of religious fantasies. Passing from the Holy Spirit to Hegel’s Spirit hardly counts as an improvement.


We have seen how the theory of evolution as a whole can lend plausibility to an evolutionary, strictly non-teleological account of knowledge. We now want to look at what individual inquiries within the evolutionary paradigm can amount to.

An empirical inquiry can only tell us what is possible to do; not what we ought to do. It can help us restrict our moral choices to only practicable moral systems.

That, however, is almost no constraint at all. It is very hard to imagine anything an empirical inquiry into evolutionary biology could prove to be impossible for people to do. And if it’s not literally impossible, just very, very hard and costly to do, then moral philosophy still has all the freedom in the world to say: ‘Bite that bullet. We don’t care how hard it is, it’s right anyway.’

In other words, empirical inquiries into human nature provide no constraints at all on moral philosophies. Only other moral philosophies can do that.

This is then a battle between two types of moral philosophy: On the one hand, there are “with the grain” philosophies asserting that an empirical finding, e.g. “Humans find X hard to do”, provides a reason not to force people to do X. Perhaps not by itself a conclusive reason, but at least a prima facie reason. On the other hand there are “transcendentalist” philosophies that assert that such a finding would provide no, or next to no, reason not to try and get people to do X.

An example should make it clearer: Suppose a scientist were to document that humans find it for such-and-such evolutionary reasons hard to live monogamously. They like sleeping around. (Well, doesn’t take a scientist to discover that.) A “with the grain” moral philosophy would conclude from such a result that we should perhaps think about changing our mores in the direction of polyamory/polygamy, or at least allow for unbiased competition among models of intimacy. A “transcendentalist” philosophy would conclude that we should try even harder to drum the standard of monogamy into people.

This is a debate purely within moral philosophy, between different conceptions of moral philosophy. No empirical finding does have, or should be allowed to have, any bearing on the outcome.

It is too glib to say that an ‘ought’ never follows from an ‘is’. Under a “with the grain” philosophy, an ‘is’ can at least strongly suggest an ‘ought’. This suggestion is defeasible, there is indeed no strict logical implication. We remain morally free to take any attitude we like to whatever life decides to throw at us. That does not, however, make the wisdom of always taking the path of maximal resistance, as “against the grain” philosophies would have us do, any less questionable.

How high we want to make the hurdle from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is a moral philosophical question. “With the grain” philosophies say: Not so high. “Against the grain” philosophies say: As high as we possibly can.

That something feels good is a prima facie reason doing it. It may not be a sufficient reason because the value of the good feeling could be outweighed by a reason not to chase the thrill. So far, so commonsensical. What is difficult to credit is the line some “against the grainers” take – that a good feeling could by itself be a reason not to do something. Feelings are surely fallible indicators, but to deny them all validity as pointers to a good life seems excessive.

Only the “with the grain” philosophies have a motivation to learn about nature and are interested in the results of empirical inquiries. “Against the grain philosophies” do not care, are often not even interested in discovering the relative cost of various options.

On the philosophical merits, it is looks clear to me at least that there is – generally speaking, with proper exceptions – more sense in going with the grain of nature than against it. We have good reasons to respect the grain of the timber out of which we are trying to build our societies. The presumption should be in favour of going with the grain; we need a strong countervailing reason in order to ignore the grain. Before we decide to go against the grain we need an argument for assuming the costs this moral choice carries.

One example of a valid countervailing reason could be that the practices suggested by empirical findings contradict current practices which work well, and deserve to be preserved. In such a case, the usual conservative cautions about changing successful traditions apply. (What is to count as “successful” could of course quickly lead to another debate between moral philosophies.)

In contrast to what certain zoological inquiries might suggest as normal, closed marriages – closed by norm if not in fact – are currently the rule among humans, and concurrent polygamy is rare as a model of the family in developed countries. The only form of polygamy that is frequent is serial monogamy.

The generic conservative argument against any and all change is valid as far as it goes, but not very interesting. One has to look at the specifics, and balance the risks and opportunities of change in each case. Every time we change a running system that is not obviously broken we are taking a risk. But the risk of unexpected complications and unknown side-effects can be managed to some extent and finally outweighed by the promise of improving the system.

Fallibilism is a good basis from which to acknowledge that the process could be smarter than we are, that norms and institutions may work for reasons that we do not fully understand. We tinker with them at our peril, yet we also have an obligation to correct what, in the light of more recent evidence, seems to merit correction. After all, that's what our predecessors did.

A Burkean/Hayekian conservatism blends very well with a Darwinian account; reactionary ancestor worship does not. (As a matter of fact, Hayek chose not to call himself a conservative, so we should perhaps call this stance conservative liberalism/ liberal conservatism, something close to the philosophy of the framers.)

Nothing prevents people of a sceptical, anti-authoritarian mindset from respecting the impressive rigour of the evolutionary process, and the generally high quality of products it produces. A muted and critical respect, for sure, but that's very different from a generalised loss of all authority.

Knowledge, even if not shiny, is useful. The evolutionary view does nothing to undermine the standing of our knowledge claims – if you’re a fallibilist. For infallibilists the very idea of introducing evolution into epistemology spells disaster.

Humanity’s adolescent fantasy about knowledge of the shiny variety may once have served an inspirational purpose; today it has become a bore. Today we’ve grown up, and should be ready to accept the limitations of our knowledge.

Friday, February 8

Do we have rights ?

The best known way of deriving imperatives to respect the rights of others is to ask whether our actions conform to a Kantian criterion of generalisability – What would happen if everyone did this – or reciprocity – Do onto others as you would have done onto you.
The problem with this way of deriving imperatives is that it leaves moral equality unargued for. An assumption of equality is already built into the procedure, so running the procedure does nothing to justify or explain it.
Why should all people be invited to join the negotiations for a social contract, and if all are invited, why on equal terms ? The real world rarely works this way, so why should we for deriving rules use criteria that imply that all be considered equally ?
What feeble gestures towards justification Kant does make come down to this: That humans are endowed with a funny capacity called reason (read: are created in the image of God) and therefore deserve moral equality (read: God loves all his children). Unless you believe the God story, this is very hard to swallow.

To justify the initial assumption of equality one would need nothing less than – a moral theory. By way of that, the only resource left to Western culture in Kant’s time was Christianity. So away our philosopher went to steal some Christian clothes and resell them under his own label. Thin secularisation was his predicament, even if he saw it as the solution to his predicament.
We already know from a previous post that this was no solution at all: The metaphysics of God, whether explicitly appealed to – divine commandments, divine law, divine purpose – or thinly disguised – the bombastic magnificence of Natural Law, Immortal Souls, Human Dignity, Human Persons – are completely useless for the justification of morality.

If we want an answer, not a lullaby, we have to forge ahead to full secularisation.

Let’s listen first to what a classic character of infallibilism, the enlightened egoist, is able to say:
I have an interest in living within a social arrangement that almost everyone finds tolerably fair, because any other is very likely storing up trouble for itself; and emerging favourably out of a violent escalation is a gamble at the best of times. The threat apart, I have a positive interest in seeing others flourish, which they are again most likely to do under a fair arrangement.
However, even the most enlightened egoist’s concern for the flourishing of others has its limits: It is restricted to people who are ever likely to do something for them. This probably means: people they like, or are like them, or both.
Moreover, their willingness to make concessions to fairness is going to be limited by the extent of their fear of an uprising by the oppressed. If there is not much to fear rationally, then no reasons for concessions remain.
What then about those whom we don’t like because they are uncomfortably different ?
Fallibilists alone are able to see themselves as being able to become these others. This gives fallibilists a much more profound interest in other people’s flourishing than non-fallibilists could ever have.
For unless you can see yourself as potentially changing beyond any of your current definitions of life interests will you be unable to see people who live very differently as keeping alive or developing something which you yourself might one day share. With radical learning, on the other hand, there is nothing that could not potentially become relevant.
From the possibility of radical learning – as long as it is acknowledged, however quietly – derives a positive justification of equal chances of development for all (non-destructive) ways of life for which even the most enlightened egoist is never going to be able to give any.
Why then oppose oppression even when the regime seems stable and to one’s own advantage ? Fallibilists recognise that occasions to regret giving justice are rare, whereas there are many ways of coming to regret participation in oppression. If the aim is to construct a life that remains meaningful to the end, then positioning oneself on the side of justice, although potentially very dangerous, may in one sense be safer after all: Justice has a permanence that tends to emerge relatively intact from the vicissitudes of fortune.
Only from a fallibilist perspective are we thus able to give a justification of rights as something other than codifications of might. A tiny voice, barely loud enough for conscience to hear, but real.

To recapitulate: When we proceed to apply Kantian criteria, all fundamental questions must already have been answered.
Criteria of generalisability or reciprocity – such as the Golden Rule, the generalisability figuring in Kant’s moral writings, or at their most elaborate in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice – can tell us how to design an arrangement. They cannot tell us why we should design it this way.
These criteria are perhaps best thought of as something like a wind tunnel, design aids for streamlining norms and other institutions. Just as using a wind tunnel assumes that the question of why a fuselage should be aerodynamic has already been answered, Kantian criteria take the moral intention for granted. The only question they address is how, within given specifications, an optimal system can be designed.
The design aids can never tell us why we should apply them; can never tell us why we should care about fairness, the flourishing of others. That is something we are assumed to know already.
Kantianism and the construction of rights solely concern technical questions; they are part of applied philosophy, ethical engineering so to speak. (This is meant descriptively, not to diminish the importance of work in these areas. Most of the meaty issues in philosophy are applied issues that require empirical inputs; the foundational issues that armchair philosophy can handle are very few and far between.)
The main foundational reason for using Kantian rather than other criteria is then this: Because, generally speaking, social arrangements that are based on voluntary consent are preferable to other arrangements, in particular arrangements based on violence. The Kantian design aids can now help us develop an arrangement that has a chance of winning the voluntary consent of the people it concerns because it is perceived to be fair. Kantian design principles make is easy both to construct fair looking arrangements and, once constructed, to explain why people should consider them to be fair.
Voluntary arrangements constructed along Kantian lines minimise the necessity of force. This makes them – all things, risks, and doubts considered – better bets, better exposure minimisers. Generally speaking that is, with proper exceptions and qualifications.
Arrangements based on consent tend to be more resilient, sustainable, easier to police. They also tend to be more pleasant to live in because they build trust among the participants, and make them proud. Finally, consensual arrangements are unlikely to lead us into shameful choices that our grandchildren might come to despise us for.

Where there are people there are laws. When no formal laws, then customs. Outside of Robinson’s island the question is not: Are we going to have a social arrangement among ourselves ? but this one: What sort of social arrangement are we going to have ? From the moment you’re born you find yourself always already bound by all kinds of (implicit) deals.
We are bound to these implicit arrangements by a fiction of voluntary consent. A "consent" that either has been freely given, or that could be reasonably construed as having been given. Voluntariness assumes for instance that whoever is covered by the arrangement had a chance to opt out. (Hold-outs inhabiting a territory aren’t free to reject just any deal. Once reasonable accommodations to their interests have been made, rejection no longer qualifies as legitimate. What constitutes “reasonable” accommodations is of course going to be politically charged.)
There can be no question of an absolute notion of legitimacy. The only real question is this: What is the least bad, least illegitimate social arrangement we are able to build and maintain ?
Legitimacy does, on the whole, track the use of force. For a long list of reasons, the less force needs to be used, the more legitimate the arrangement should be considered to be. (Even though regimes renouncing the use of force favour brainy over brawny people, they offer enough advantages – e.g. the positive externalities of inventions by the brainies - to be attractive also to brawnies.)
Deals would be incomplete without mechanisms of verification and enforcement. Word of honour works in some instances; in others we cannot get by without more muscular rules of enforcement.
Just as we do not have to ask for a right to breathe or to flick away a mosquito do we not have to ask for the right to enforce arrangements that enjoy a satisfactory degree of legitimacy.

Kantian criteria offer solutions only in cases where we can already assume to be talking to people of good will. Where we know that negotiation has a chance, or we want at least try giving an advance of generosity as an opening gambit.
Kantian reasoning only helps in addressing opponents who even if not exactly peaceful in their intentions show at least some willingness to reciprocate and respect at least some limits; Kantian cant is useless in engaging opponents who are committed to total war.
The reason we adopt Kantian restraints that limit our freedom of action towards others is not, in the final instance, that we expect those others to reciprocate. They may, or they may not. No, we adopt restraints as a constitutional framework for governing ourselves, for preventing a slide into committing atrocities we may later come to regret.

Instead of metaphysics we have this: People and the constructions of rights they project. Some of these constructions will prove themselves and turn out – in the long run – to have been wise, some won’t. Societies making (constrained) choices; failing or succeeding with these choices; arguing about them; sometimes coming to agreements about them, sometimes not. That’s all there is to it.
You say that we can’t depend on an agreed definition of “success” (or “wisdom”) ? That definitions of success – e.g. Is going down gloriously better or worse than surviving mildly ? – are controversial is a given. But this is just another question of values, most of which are controversial.
Controversy is natural because values represent strategic responses to complex realities. Only rarely is one response going to be obviously best. While some disagreements about values are illegitimate, a wide space for legitimate disagreement exists.
Does controversy stop us from looking for the best criteria of success each of us can find ? No. Are these criteria going to be perfect ? No. Are they going to be fallible ? Yes. Is any of this a problem ? Only a practical problem, not a philosophical problem. Just the familiar challenge of dealing with pluralism.
The proof of values is in their practical consequences. We can disagree because the prediction of consequences is often uncertain, and because we may evaluate the consequences differently. What we should not disagree about is that for moral strategies, which is what values are, experience is the judge. As little as facts can be value-free can values be fact-free.

Mere survival clearly does not confer moral legitimacy on an arrangement. The last competitor standing might be the most despicable. Nasty guys sometimes do finish first. The victors will always flatter themselves on their destiny; we don’t have to encourage them.
The winners in history, if they care at all about other people’s opinions, will always want to make it appear that they won for better reasons than dumb luck or outlandish nastiness. They will want to claim that there was fairness to the process out of which they emerged victorious. This gives us an handle on them today, for asking them to allow for a process that is structured for fairness.
One last reason why success cannot be an absolute criterion of value: Success is transitory. No regime is true or inevitable; all eventually fall.

There was never a time before Babel, a world without pluralism is as unimaginable as the state of the world before the beginning of time. For fallibilists, all politics therefore starts with the legitimacy of pluralism. For infallibilists, by contrast, pluralism is only apparent, hence illegitimate and resolvable into truths everybody ought to be able to agree on. At the core of the infallibilist view stands the fantasy of basing politics on substantive truths (In its most recent mutation, the fantasy of basing politics on discursive agreements). Denying the profundity of pluralism predictably causes the oppression of non-conformers. The siren song of resolving the cacophony into unity has led to disaster, every time.
Even the most brutal regime could only suppress the reality of pluralism. The irresolvability of pluralism implies that we cannot base our political and social institutions on agreements about substantive claims. Agreements emerge so rarely and patchily that they would not give us enough to work with. While it is laudable to invest in seeking agreements, most of the time people will walk away from the conversation unconvinced. The normal outcome of dialogue is for disagreements to persist. Occasionally a disagreement may be resolved, but new ones arise all the time, leaving the stock of disagreements roughly constant. We cannot let ordinary coexistence rely on extraordinary events – on dialogue changing minds and creating agreement. The act of convincing by entirely loving means, only by unmanipulative presentation and example, is little short of miraculous, and thus unsuited for the daily administration of public life. With discursive agreement out of reach, the best we can hope for is to find a political settlement that allows us to agree to disagree, yet still live side by side in peace. Being a political rather than a discursive agreement, it enshrines only very few and thin truths.

Wherever you live, there is the actually existing social contract. And then there are imaginative anticipations of a better contract – proposals for reform or plots for revolution – that you and I and everyone's uncle can come up with and try to have implemented. And beyond that there is nothing worth talking about, no ideal Platonic society up in the heavens. The rest is just rhetoric, and bad rhetoric at that. Pumping up the volume without ever adding to the substance of the argument for (or against) change.
Moral constructions – e.g. the rights and corresponding duties allotted under a fair arrangement – are all ultimately pragmatic; some are pragmatic in a higher sense, and called principles. (Principles function in analogy to constitutions which are harder to override than ordinary laws.) Scratch me as much a you like, you will not find a frightened idealist under the suave pragmatist exterior. I am a pragmatist all the way down, a pragmatist even about my pragmatism. There is no reason to be afraid when all that there is to be discovered is reality, something that needs facing anyway.

The stories about Kantian designs that I have been telling are in no way remarkable – they were just a rearranged string of commonplaces –, except perhaps that they have taken a route which would not be open to theorists like Kant who want morality to retreat into other-worldliness.
We should make a habit of answering all moral questions without question-begging references to metaphysical abstractions. How, for example, should we answer this question: Why is the use of force, and in particular the most egregious use of force – killing – wrong ?
Why killing is wrong, or what is almost the same: Why our laws should defend a right to life, in no particular order: Because people are fierce animals, and likely to fight back when expecting to be attacked. Because killing is irreversible. When you go off to war for a cause you believe to be just and later come to doubt the cause then you can’t bring back the dead. Because abstaining from killing in the implementation is an insurance policy for any utopian project. Aim high, but implement safely. Because getting killed often hurts before the pain ends. Because the intended victim is usually a member of an organisation for collective self-defence. Because if you do not feel any reluctance or compassion in a killing situation you are emotionally disturbed. Because people only very rarely want to be killed. Because becoming used to killing could change you into a worse person. Because killing almost always hurts loved ones of the person killed. Because killing one man can invite a feud and spiral of revenge killings. Because each person is a unique creative resource. Because the human being you killed might have become to your friend. Enough reasons ?
None of these reasons is perfect. For each and every one we can construct exceptions where the reason does not apply. Together, however, these reasons form a tissue that is able to bear some weight. Not every weight, but considerable weight.
The chain of Why-questions – Why A ? Because B. Why B? Because C … – has to come to an end somewhere. It cannot and does not come to a “foundation”, however. It will just peter out.
Killing is wrong because it can cause hurt. Why is hurting wrong ? Because people don’t want to be hurt (outside of special situations – e.g. battlefield surgery or consensual sadomasochism or …) It will likely create hostility against you. Why is it right for people not to like pain ? Because pain being pain, it is unpleasant. Why should we prefer pleasant over unpleasant experiences ? Because it comes naturally to us. Why should we go along with what comes naturally to us ? Because it fairly reliably points to our best interest. Why should I pursue my best interest ? Because you might just want to.
Why specifically should I avoid pain ? Because beings made of flesh are right to be concerned about organic malfunctions usually indicated by pain. Why are they right to be concerned ? Because the malfunctions could permanently impair your health and ultimately kill you. Why is it better to be alive than dead ? Because life isn’t so bad. Moreover, by staying alive to this day, you have revealed a preference for it. Why can’t I change my mind ? You could, but are you absolutely sure that nothing keeps you here ?
So people do not want to be hurt. Why should I respect their wish ? Because understanding and regularly respecting the wishes of others is the basis for cooperation and intimacy. Why bother with cooperation ? Because there are often gains to be had from cooperation, but if you don’t find the gains attractive, you can try going it alone on the hostile route, and see where that gets you. Why do I need close relationships ? Because many people find that being close to others enriches their lives, and supports personal growth. Enough platitudes ?

There is a wide overlap between the reasons of individuals for not killing, and the reasons of a collective to enforce its prohibition against killing. In a few atypical cases, the two strands of justifications separate. There are conceivable scenarios where it becomes almost impossible to deny, no matter how broadly or subtly one looks at it, that killing would maximise the killer’s self-interest. In such a case the collective still has an obvious interest in defending the prohibition to protect its member and maintain order, whereas the individual’s reasons not to kill falter. The collective routinely responds by threatening to sue for breach of social contract, and since even the most selfish agent could willingly have entered into a mutual compact against killing, the legitimacy of the compact is not in doubt. As a consequence, rogue agents cannot normally hope for any sympathy or allies breaking to their side when the provisions of the compact are enforced. Either the agent will be deterred, or sanctioned without a second thought when caught. When legitimacy is less clear – and almost all other cases are less clear than murder – the call for punishing the agent can divide or even break the collective.
Now in some unusual cases no contract may be in force, not even the minimal contract that arises spontaneously from any meeting between two people of good will. Although the default setting against which any first meeting instinctively gets measured is a mutual compact, the parties may, for example, have gotten off to bad start, and gone on to a history of hostilities. Or the agent may have been declared an outlaw, or have voluntarily withdrawn from compacts. In such cases both sides may believe mutual obligations to have lapsed.
What the lapsing of obligations regularly means is not that all obligations are abolished, but that the previous bundle of obligations is replaced by a different, reduced set. If killing is no longer off-limits, chemical weapons, say, still may be. Just as it is virtually impossible not to communicate is it very hard not come to an understanding about terms of engagement with the people one is dealing with. Silent signalling can lead to an understanding far ahead of formal negotiations. It is unclear whether a condition without any mutuality at all can occur. (The final days of the Warsaw ghetto may have come close.) What is clear is that such a state of total emergency would be very disturbing.
Under normal, stable conditions duty is a shorthand for investing in the continuation of an existing compact (or paying back debts owed under it). In destabilised conditions, agents may for various reasons continue to act as if a compact existed, e.g. in order not to poison a future reconciliation.
Absent a binding compact, the agent’s decision to abstain from breaking its provisions becomes not a duty owed, but an act of self-denial. While we may hope for sacrifice, we should not expect it. For if we expected our enemies to be behave like saints, they would probably not be our enemies.
Restraints that are maintained without a contractual basis are not in the first instance directed towards others but about being able to live with oneself, not becoming a horror to ourselves.
Unless mediation can re-establish a contract, unless a peace settlement is brought about, and the situation regularised at the last minute, the absence of recognised compacts means that we are in a more or less serious state of war, with more or fewer restraints still applicable. It then comes down to a show of force, or rather the parties’ assessment of each other’s strength. Whoever needs to give in, gives in. Whoever fights, fights. Whoever prevails, prevails.
As extraordinary as eruptions of lawlessness may seem, they are only business as usual. Hobbes, an apologist for the power grab that made the modern state, was too optimistic. Even when pacified by degrees, the war of all against all continues to this day. It flatters the self-image of rulers, but the Leviathan is not a benevolently detached, Godlike figure who floats above the primitive passions of the population. The creation of the state did not actually end the war, it only changed its complexion. The state is the continuation of interests warring by other means, through legislation, the bureaucracy, and a hundred other channels. The existence of the state only gave the warring factions a more powerful weapon to vie for and turn against each other. Rather like God, no sooner was Leviathan created, was he captured and dragged down to earth, pressed into partisan service. Leviathan became a big player whom the other players must try to control, or be controlled. Leviathan developed a free will and after a greedy appetite also every other of seven deadly sins. In short, Leviathan fell, and became human.
Constitutional government does not abolish the state of nature. It only manages it somewhat better, allowing for lives that are less nasty, less brutal, and much longer.
Kantian compacts are not about wishing away the human jungle; they are means of shaping it. Non-violence assisted by mutual compacts remains the conservative treatment for conflict. Letting living beings live and grow is not an infallible policy, but still the natural default policy. Risk-minimal overall, it is the normal fallibilist preference.

As little as a wind tunnel aims to simulate realistic road conditions does the scenario of a state of nature set out to reproduce social reality. We base our designs on a contract struck under highly idealised conditions because we want our arrangements to be transparent and therefore our rules to be relatively simple. Such simplifications are legitimate as long as they are deliberate. By tilting the balance further in the direction of empirical adequacy we would lose in ease of monitoring what we gain in accommodating variability.
Apart from making the rules as simple as possible and applying them consistently, still the most reliable way of ensuring that an arrangement will be perceived to be fair is to try and make it fair.
All political ideologies promise fairness. They differ on the form of equality their concept of fairness involves – equal justice done to people’s essential nature, just rewards for equal merit, equality of property, equality of opportunity, etc. They also differ in what they consider workable. Since what is workable has always been, and will always be, subject to debate and experiment, fairness is not something that could be decided in philosophical theory alone. Fairness is intensely political, so political in fact that we could classify political ideologies according to the way in which they define fairness, that is propose to achieve both equality and workability.
The trouble with a number of assumptions on which the economists have built their entire discipline – assumptions which imply that the language of social justice is meaningless – is that people are never going to believe them. Their ideologically convenient scruples about talking justice are doomed to remain a game of academic insiders. Ordinary people everywhere will go on talking, meaningfully, about how justice might be served by seizing funds from the rich to support the poor, whether economists show themselves interested or not. Because of this ingrained and entirely reasonable habit, any economic system preserving a more than moderately unequal distribution of incomes is going to have a problem explaining its fairness. The greater the inequality, the greater the problem.
The problem need not be insurmountable. Under certain conditions – for example when opportunities are ample, civil liberties secure, wealth creation is fast, corruption low, participation possible – even the less well-off can sometimes be persuaded of the fairness of a highly unequal distribution.
People do not have a metaphysical right to, say, their property; nor does society, ie other people. It all depends on how many material and non-material advantages the rich can convince the non-rich to let them get away with. In these negotiations of a fair arrangement we have everyone’s (ethical) interest in minimising exposure to appeal to.
Systems of rights only have legitimacy if they manage to convince the least advantaged of their fairness. If the system does not manage to convince for an extended time then the disadvantaged are, as always, thrown back on the vagaries of collective revolutionary action.

Fair arrangements are about negotiating with equals. What about “negotiating” with the weak and powerless ? What, finally, about human rights ?
Abiding by a canon of human rights is a way of insuring oneself against ever regretting one’s political projects. A political project that is implemented while respecting human rights can still do damage, but is unlikely to do catastrophic damage. We have built memorials for our collective shame of slavery, the holocaust, the Gulag. One day a memorial of shame might be built on Tiananmen Square, or at Guantanamo. Respecting human rights is a way of ensuring that we will not have to build any more such memorials in the future.

Wednesday, February 6

What is truth ?

Fallibilism rejects the correspondence theory of truth; attachment to the theory is one of the defining features of the opposing, infallibilist camp.
It is appropriate to pin the label ‘infallibilist’ on the correspondence theory since any claim of truth under it necessarily implies a claim of finality and perfection: Under the correspondence theory, the honorific ‘truth’ is reserved for claims that are thought to have achieved a perfect match, finally locked into reality.

Most people today do not actually believe this naïve version of the correspondence theory, but some vague notion of eventual convergence towards the truth.
However, the supposedly more sophisticated theory of convergence towards correspondence is no better than the theory of brute correspondence. In many ways, it’s only more confused, and worse. Talk of convergence is used by certain interested parties as a propaganda instrument, a way of making notions of correspondence palatable without having to sound too implausible.
Under the convergence theory, claims of metaphysical certainty about being in contact with reality are replaced by claims of metaphysical certainty about making progress towards reality – being on the right track, a glide path of inevitable convergence towards correspondence truth. False certainties about having reached reality are thus replaced by false certainties about measuring the remaining distance to reality. What this forgets is that unless we knew the final position, we have no way of triangulating the distance to various positions in the approach.
Science works. Its theories tend to become safer and safer bets. However, today’s safest bet does not have to look anything like tomorrow’s safest bet. As much as hagiographic historians of science may try to tidy up the process, the progress of human knowledge is not significantly more linear than political history – unpredictable revolutions, counter-revolutions and counter-counter-revolutions do happen. Paradigm changes can come out of directions no one was expecting. There is always the outside chance of convergence being derailed, and then rerouted to a different track. We can never know that derailment is not an option.
Let’s say we exchange theory B for theory A, believing that to be progress. In future we may come to prefer a theory C to theory B. Yet theory C, while retaining many of the advantages of theory B, may in some respects again be closer to A than B. And before we know theory C we can’t know which aspects or components these are.
Everything remains on the table, all of the time. We may move some assumptions towards the edge of the table, and almost forget about them. But they still rest on the table, forever.

The commonsense idea of truth is a mangled notion, badly distorted by long association with the correspondence theory. We need to separate out from the idea of truth the illusory notions of finality and perfection, and keep only the valuable and natural concept of justification.
There is no sense in defining knowledge – as many analytical philosophers like to do – as true justified belief. This definition is either tautologous or wrong. Tautologous because there is no accounting for truth independent of justification; any useful definition of truth must include an account of justified knowledge. Wrong because knowledge does not have to be true in a correspondence sense, ie indefeasible, in order to be knowledge.
The correct definition of knowledge is just ‘sufficiently well justified belief’, with a rider reminding us of fallibility. Knowledge does not have to be ‘true’ in the false sense of perfect or final in order to be useful. The excess meaning that ‘truth’ has over ‘currently best justified belief’ is simply our fallibility, the well-known propensity of even our best justified beliefs to be defeated by unexpected evidence.
You say that there are no universally agreed, wholly uncontroversial criteria of justification ? That disagreements about the truth of claims persist despite best faith efforts at resolution ? Welcome to the pluralism of life. At the danger of sounding like Sartre, there is no way of getting out of your existential responsibility to make up your own mind, of choosing which claims you want to accept and on which grounds. Or your responsibility to decide which authorities you want to trust and for which reasons: Delegating your choices to an authority does not absolve you from the responsibility of having delegated. Here’s the evidence, here are the disagreements. Where’s the “truth” ? Make up your own conscience, no one can do it for you.
Truth, naively understood, is not the same as best justification because we remain morally free to take any attitude to the claims we are presented with. It is up to us to opt for those criteria of justification that look and feel – to the best of our ability, head thoughts and gut feelings combined – like being able to help us place our bets in the most responsible way we know. The final criterion of justification is to keep all the criteria up in the air and try to make the best sense of the whole that one can.
This makes truth a moral concept. The fallibilist theory of truth is therefore not a correspondence theory; it is a moral theory.

The correspondence theory has tried to hide the moralising effect of its claims behind the mechanical image of copying reality. What might be called the argument from certainty made it possible to moralise without being seen to moralise.
The argument from certainty short-circuits the loops from being presented with to acceptance, from limited confidence to absolute confidence, from acceptance to execution, loops which could otherwise have filtered out many totalitarian impulses. The appearance of metaphysically removed objectivity made statements all the more moral.
Fallibilism, on the other hand, by recognising a gap between claiming and accepting leaves room for personality, history and tradition. Truth being the radically fallible outcome of the least unreliable procedure yet devised cannot ever become totally impersonal, ahistorical, or decontexual.

Under a moral theory of truth,
P is true.
translates as
You ought to believe P.
Belief here is intended in a thick sense – not just entertain intellectually, but fully accept P, act on the basis of P, incorporate P into the web of assumptions according to which you live your life.

The moral interpretation of truth can go in two directions. Let’s look at the traditional way first: 
Claims of truth have always had moral force. To claim truth for a statement is to claim that all reasonable people ought to respect in their actions what the statement says; is to claim, conversely, that whoever disregards the statement is acting unreasonably, and at any rate cannot be “one of us”.
P is true.
understood in the bad but usual way means something like
You are deficient as a person if you do not (with us) accept P.
Calling on this sense of truth is a way of turning the argument ad hominem, of turning it away from the evidence and towards the person; the effective meaning is little different from a personal insult. It is a move towards escalation, potentially explosion. Value-free objectivity is a worse than value-less illusion.

That said, there are good ways of using notions of correspondence, apart from this malignant root of pompous rhetoric. Asserting the existence of a single, true reality to which our ideas must correspond has no useful literal meaning (depending, as it does, on the correspondence theory), but it does have effective meanings.
It can in effect be a way of saying:
a) Synthesis: Look, we can’t both be 100% right about this. Let’s talk it through and try and find an agreement, or even better, some sort of synthesis that we can both agree to be superior to our starting positions.
b) Progress: An injunction to think of perfectibility, to suggest that there might be a chance to improve on our current set of beliefs.
c) Virtue: A call on people to practice the virtue of objectivity, i.e. focus on facts and arguments, not emotions and interests.
d) Caution: A sceptical warning that even a unanimously held consensus can be horribly wrong.
e) Egalitarianism: Good evidence offered by a low status witness should trump bad evidence offered by a high status witness.
f) Possibly more.
Language is brilliant: even literally meaningless mumblings can be used pragmatically to get things done.

Because of the baggage of correspondence thinking it carries, it would perhaps be best if we simply stopped talking about truth. This is unlikely to happen, so the next best thing we can try to do is usurp the old word ‘true’ for a new usage in order to drive out the overtones of correspondence.
We are now on the second path a moral interpretation of truth can take. To get there all we have to do is follow up with the obvious questions: P is true. So I ought to believe P. Says who ? And why ? All we need to do is demand that the claims become embodied, by naming a speaker, and listing evidence.
P is true
if used at all should be used as a shorthand for a more
cautious kind of claim that does not scare off dialogue:
My friends and I recommend P as the best option currently supported by our evidence (for reasons A,B,C,...)
This is long-winded. So ordinarily I will just abbreviate it to ‘P is true.’ When you catch me saying ‘P is true’, this is what I mean. (It is not an argument against this definition that it does not, in all regards, respect current usage. Capturing current usage is not the aim of this definition; its explicit aim is to reform current usage.)

The practical meaning of truth is exhausted by a presentation of evidence. Once that is done we can do only two things: shrug our shoulders or search for new, more convincing evidence. Of course everybody believes their own position to be superior; that goes without saying. The impoliteness, the pretentious claptrap comes into it when people claim that their own presentations are something qualitatively different from presentations, namely representations; whereas their opponents' presentations are mere, well, presentations.
Your only evidence for the superiority of your position is your evidence. So leave it at stating your evidence. Nothing beyond follows. The only way for anyone to transcend the evidence is to search for yet better evidence. There is nothing left to do except shut up, or go search.
Truth thus reduces to an ethical commitment to seek the best available evidence while acknowledging the continuing fallibility of even the best justified beliefs.
Everything else is rhetoric. Divisive, unconvincing, autistic rhetoric. A form of preaching to the converted that may bore even them.

I am sure about not wanting to hide behind any term less vulnerable than ‘recommend’. I accept that you are free to reject whatever I say. I would consider it unwise if you did, but there we go. I can’t force you to accept any of my presentations. Words do not compel, or at least not in this sense. And I have no interest in using other means to “persuade” you. I’m merely giving dialogue a try, betting on the off-chance that you might be persuadable; I know that discourse can fail, and more often than not will.
Also note how ‘recommending’ that we all say ‘recommend’ is perfectly consistent – self-ratifying and not threatened at all by begging its own definition. The proposal of reforming our habits is itself a first example of the new habit.
Contrast this with the inability of the correspondence theory to account for its own truth. What kind of a fact could the truth of a correspondence theory of truth possibly correspond to ?
Ultimate explanations are inevitably self-referential. A theory of truth, if it is to be universal, has to account for its own truth. In the case of the correspondence theory this arguably leads to a regress – we need a theory of correspondence TOC2 in order to account for the truth of TOC1. So while the main reason for rejecting the correspondence theory are the uses to which it tends to be put, we can also give a pure coherence argument against it: The theory cannot avoid a vicious regress in its justification.
By contrast, the fallibilist theory of truth, a recommendation to recommend, is safe from vicious circularity; likewise, the meaning rule, basis of the fallibilist theory of value, is able to satisfy itself. Consciously adopting the principle of minimising exposure should help to minimise exposure. Taking on the meaning rule could be approved by it.

Language is a system of presentation, not representation; and dealing with truth claims therefore a special branch of moral activity. Epistemology, the theory of truth and knowledge, becomes a subdiscipline of ethics, the theory of morality. Epistemology is concerned with regulating truth-related action, the making of truth claims as much as reacting to them.
Truth in no strict sense concerns representations of reality, in statements about truth we judge acts of presenting. Representing reality can mean only the most desirable mode of presenting, desirable because it is open, honest, inspiring.
Scientific standards of evidence are in practice standards of honesty in presentation. This is to say they are quietly moral.
The scientific ethos which holds that, with a proper reason, no assumption ought to be unquestionable has a wider applicability than the practice of science. The ways of science are paradigmatic ways of reducing exposure. These evidence-focused practices represent a core commitment of the fallibilist ethic, and apply to all areas of life, not just the sciences.

Truth is a moral concept; so is reality: Truth is what we ought to believe, reality is what we ought to respect. Facts are relatively unsuspicious truth claims; values are strategies for minimising assumptive exposure; character is an assembly of such strategies. By saying ‘ought’ you recommend a course of action you reckon makes the most sense, because it would, for all concerned, minimise exposure best.
Fallibilism believes that no hard and fast boundary can be drawn between fact and value; that the difference is one of degree, not kind. Factual assumptions are often narrowly focused, evaluative assumptions more sweeping; factual assumptions are mostly concerned with things one cannot influence, evaluative assumptions with things one can; factual assumptions tend to concern detached descriptions of the past whereas evaluative assumptions declare intentions for the future; and so on, in several other dimensions.
The moral theory of truth has nothing to fear from the idea of knowledge being a social construction, historically situated and evolving. The how of constructing goes naturally with the how of presenting, just as the whether of correspondence went naturally with fixed essences.
There is relativism here in the sense of a healthy respect for the full variety of approaches. There is at the same time absolutely no relativism in the sense of being indifferent between competing validity claims. The moral character of the theory encourages, even demands, that people become judgmental about the quality of claims they encounter.
To repeat the obvious: Some theories are solidly constructed, and stand up. Others are a danger to their inhabitants.


Certainty is a useful organisational category in handling assumptions – certainties are those assumptions expected to repay doubting least. Certainties in this sense need not be eternally true because assessments of the payback can change. Not infrequently, the certainties of one age are the laughing-stock of the next. We have simply no need for eternal verities, substantively defined. What we need is what we have: often reliable procedures.
The point where doubting becomes frivolous and time-wasting, or the weighing of alternatives becomes paralysis is for moral judgement to define. No one doubts the existence of certainties. The argument is about what it means to be one.

Because the correspondence theory required statements to objectify easily when projected – which then, backtracking, originated the claim that the statements mirrored reality –, it was biased in favour of the propositional form, A is B.
Knowledge that could be assimilated to propositional form was made to appear more solid than knowledge that could not. Factual truth seemed normal, moral truth odd; cognitive knowledge normal, intuitive knowledge odd; knowing that normal, knowing how odd; language-based reasoning seemed normal, emotions odd.
Because morality rests in the halo of preferences or factual propositions, in the inexpungable possibility of their being transcended, it could not been seen by a vision focused on the substantive statements themselves. In rushing towards the limit of total objectivity, the halo was lost.


Under a moral theory of truth by contrast, there is a sense in which morality could be said to underlie and so be more certain than factual truth.

Sunday, February 3

Why be moral ?

In the last post I have tried to lay out how, from a fallibilist perspective, God is worse than useless when it comes to justifying morality.

So if God is not the answer, what is the answer to the question: Why be moral, why be nice ?

The bad news first (Well, it’s hardly news, and reality as such can’t be bad): If we could have metaphysically certain knowledge of our self-interest, then the concept of morality would be empty. The concept of morality would reduce, without residue, to the concept of self-interest maximisation. There would be no reason for anyone to care about a big word called ‘morality’. If we could know our own self-interest with metaphysical certainty, then only one imperative remains: Do your utmost to achieve this interest, and care about nothing else. (You may still want to pretend to care about other goals, but you should not actually want to care.) Doing anything less would effectively mean harming yourself, and would certainly not be in your interest.
If we could have metaphysically certain knowledge of our self-interest, we could end this essay right here. The answer to the question Why be moral ? would be: Morality doesn’t mean anything worth caring about, there is no rational reason to be moral. The concept of morality would stand for a lie told by strangers in order to trick you into sacrificing yourself for their interests. If so, no sincere and honest person should want to be involved with “morality”.

Let’s get to the evangelium, the good news: Such infallibility about self-interest isn’t plausible at all. For morality to mean something, our knowledge of what our self-interests consist of must not only be fallible, but radically fallible. And it looks like it is.
Fallibility is the breach through which morality reenters a disenchanted world.

The economists’ favourite model – the egoism of rational choice theory – is implicitly infallibilist, assuming true knowledge of the right preferences, beyond sceptical reproach. What has the instrumentally rational agent got to say in answer to the sceptical challenge: You seem to think and act on the assumption that X is in your best interest, but how can you be so sure ? Is the way you are pursuing what you are pursuing – happiness or whatever else it may be – all things considered the best for you ? Are you really able to describe the ‘it’ you are after ?
There are many words people use to describe their best, highest, or maximally possible self-interest – “happiness”, “fullness of life”, “self-actualisation”, “salvation”, “enlightenment”, etc. What all these stated purposes have in common is that they are not easy to define, and even harder to achieve.
Knowing what would “genuinely” be in one’s self-interest is not a trivial task. Catching something as elusive as happiness (or some other ultimate purpose), cannot be easy when already profiling it – knowing what it would take to be happy (or to reach some other ultimate purpose) – is far from an easy art. If it were so simple, we should see more “happy” people achieving their ultimate purpose.
Rationality transcends the instrumental, becomes “reason”, inasmuch as it recognises the fallibility of its own choosing of ends – what economists nowadays call preferences. Once you accept that you could be radically mistaken in some of your preferences or even most, naïve self-interest maximisation is no longer possible.
To cure yourself of a religiously strong belief in self-interest maximisation imagine that in your life you arrived at an existential turn, where what mattered before ceases to matter, or begins to matter in a completely different way. Confront the possibility of coming to admit to yourself that basic assumptions according to which you have lived your life were wrong-headed. That you could see the need for a “conversion” – a turnaround in personal priorities of close to 180 degrees. That the supposedly rational choices you made were crap.
This is the breaking point of egoism, it takes only a little sceptical imagination to make it collapse. Egoism fails because it fails epistemically. And kills by distortion people’s capacity for outgrowing themselves.
Fallibilism leads to personalism: Only by acknowledging the radical nature of our own fallibility are we able to recognise in the other person we meet an equal, someone we ourselves could become after we changed our beliefs and practices to be like theirs. Nothing human is foreign to a fallibilist, no belief ruled out with metaphysical arrogance. To a fallibilist, moreover, no political enemy is a transcendental enemy. We may fight our political enemies for all our lives, and not relent for a second, but still forgive them their trespasses in a transcendental perspective. To errors as bad as theirs, there, but for the grace of God, go we.

Human definitions of life interests – their answer to: What matters ? – vary enormously, and quite independently of levels of income at that. Apart from the very few screamingly out of their minds, I am inclined to think that they all have a point. The endless variety substantiates fallibility by making it seem highly unlikely that a definition of self-interest as some sort of objectifiable fact could be given. Self-interest is not a fact of nature. Nothing about it is certain in the requisite metaphysical sense: There simply exist no transculturally self-evident, no historically or even biographically stable definitions of self-interest. Biographical revolutions happen even to rational choice theorists.
Fallible self-interest and fallible morality thus become one, which only expresses that I have a responsibility for myself as well as for others. Neither of these responsibilities can claim to be the representation of an objectifiably true self-interest or an objectifiably true moral duty. And so neither of these two has a superior claim in the a priori, considered apart from situations and experience. As the tradition has it – Love your neighbour as you love yourself.
There will still be myriads of dilemmas between a narrower and a more generous course, but no big, fundamental question of Why be moral rather than simply self-interested ? Morality could not be reduced to self-interest because the reducing concept would have no more substance than it.
What is conventionally called a self-interest need not accord with a deeper sense of self-interest, nor need it disagree with morality; what is conventionally called moral need not accord with a deeper sense of morality, nor need it disagree with self-interest.
Words like ‘selfish’ and ‘altruistic’ can be misleading because they deliver description and evaluation rolled into one. The connection is nowhere near as simple as they suggest by equating self-directedness with moral wrong, other-directness with moral right.
I am not denying that selfishness can be beastly. But altruism alone does no more guarantee a desirable outcome than good intentions do.
Nor do I want to deny that altruism is often moral in the sense of praiseworthy. The most exalted form of altruism – moral heroism – is, by definition, supererogatory. Shared sacrifice, distributed according to a fair formula, is just an ordinary duty; supererogatory are voluntary sacrifices offered without offsetting commitments from others. While people can choose to define meaning for their life in terms that risk leading to a hero’s death, we have no basis on which to demand similar heroism of anyone. Asking others for unreciprocated sacrifice would simply be shameless.

I have lost so many words over self-interest because Kant was not alone among moral philosophers in the Christian tradition in having a hang-up about self; he was rather typical.
In Kant’s time, during the enlightenment, morality was beginning to get squeezed: Claims to absolute knowledge of self-interest were squeezing morality out of the personal world, claims to absolute knowledge of scientific laws out of the natural world. Running scared, moralists were scrambling to find something equally absolute with which to oppose the infallibilist squeeze. So altruism, for instance, could not be left to mean what it is pragmatically taken to mean, but had to become a metaphysical caricature of itself. Being considerate, being generous was no longer enough, to qualify the motives of an action had to be proven to be absolutely devoid of self, had to be certified as saintly, as godly even. The notorious adverb – ‘absolutely’ – gives away the infallibilist preoccupations.
And so Kant wrote gushing paeans to a sense of duty so preternaturally pure that it defies belief. The altogether fictional character of this sense of duty is apparent, to have a chance of coming close would require the seamless internalisation of commandments willed by a supernatural being.
In this confusion, self-mortification could be proffered as proof of ethical stature, could the kind of altruism that results in martyrs harming themselves draw rapturous applause, irrespective of the cause, the aim, the purpose.
While the honesty with which contrite Christians scrutinise their self-explanations is to be commended, their obsession with self still causes them to miss the point. Actions are not morally right because they are in some recondite sense selfless, but because they make sense.
It is wholly irrelevant for ethics whether or not the altruism of human action is ever absolutely unimpeachable. The surface altruisms people display day in day out are quite sufficient. Whether these actions can, or cannot, in all cases be traced to some ultimately selfish motive must be one of the deadest dead ends of the ethics debate; it is simply uninteresting.
To impress me with your moral standards, do not try to convince me that you are being unselfish. Your protestations will meet only cynicism. (Not literally boundless cynicism, but stronger candidates than you have failed to plump the boundary.) Convince me instead that want you are about – doing or planning to do – makes eminent sense. For you, for me, for the people affected. Then I might praise and perhaps one day support you.
As concerns altruism generally, I might very well want to do something for you, but I do not like to be badgered into it, and I especially do not like being exploited under the banner of some supposed moral obligation.
What matters is not the spurious opposition between some ultimate morality and ultimate self-interest, but whether the interests pursued, which may or may not involve other people, are meaningful.

It is time, then, for a new imperative that puts the creation of meaning at its heart.
The reality we find ourselves in is that of a world awash with assumptions and people in the middle trying to keep afloat. There is no metaphysical fixity anywhere. Humans are restricted to fallible assumptions about what, ultimately, is in their self-interest, is morally right, is factually correct. The task of life is to face the uncertainty, and juggle well.
To juggle well is to stabilise the juggling, minimise the times a ball is dropped on stage (which may well mean dropping it a lot of times during practice). One way not to minimise the uncertainty of juggling is to go stiff with idolising certainty.
We cannot hope for a logical deduction, only a metaphor. Restating what we’ve already said with only somewhat greater formality we arrive at the meaning rule (‘meaning’ as in ‘the meaning of life’), a paramount rule of action positionally equivalent to the Judeo-Christian first commandment or Kant’s categorical imperative:
Meaning rule: Minimise your exposure to assumptions.
Minimising exposure would only rarely be the same as minimising the total number of assumptions. Counting assumptions is silly anyway. The relevant measure is total exposure, conceived as a kind of weighted sum.
Minimising total exposure is not necessarily the same as avoiding assumptions which carry high exposure. The imperative of minimisation is not to caution against staking a great deal on individual assumptions, as long as concentrating exposure on a few bold assumptions would help to reduce exposure overall. When the conditions are right, risk taking is strongly encouraged.
Minimisation is not concerned with attaining zero. A certain amount of exposure is inevitable, living without assumptions impossible. So although we want to push exposure as low as possible, to be exposed is natural and not bad. It would be pointless to decry the inevitable. There is necessity in having to take on assumptions, freedom in the choice of which.
While one cannot get out of being exposed, it is not a burden to be borne passively. Exposure to assumptions, in contrast to traditional religious concepts such as original sin, is not a fixed quantity – the lower bound is not eternally fixed, but historically moveable. Its boundary has to be tested.
Hence define moral progress as a lowering of the dependency on assumptions. Progress here carries no presumption of convergence towards a transhistorical telos. Lowering dependency on assumptions might entail switching to a very different set of beliefs, and possibly switching back on an earlier switch. The underlying development from which we abstract the continuous quantity of exposure could be very ragged indeed.
A measure of exposure to an assumption might be by how much the course of your life would have to change if you came to the conclusion that the assumption was wrong. To minimise exposure to an assumption is thus to take action in advance to minimise the regret you might experience for falsely relying on it. Behave in such a way that even if you were wrong your actions would lose as little of their meaning as possible. Preserve meaning in the sense that you could carry on believing in your choice under the curse of hindsight. I doubt that anything more precise can be said. It would certainly be too optimistic to expect right living to be easily measurable. What you come to after you have run through all the options, found them unsatisfactory and been driven to exclaim “But I have to believe in something”, that is likely to be the exposure minimising path.
To give a practical example: In order to minimise its exposure a system of criminal justice would have to be constructed in such a way that even when innocents are wrongfully convicted there is nothing that any rule-abiding participant should want to have done differently. Treat suspects in such a way that if they were the opposite of what you believe them to be – innocent when believed guilty, guilty when believed innocent –, you would still not have any misgivings about the treatment they received. Ideally, find procedures that would not be too aggressive for the innocent, not too lenient for the guilty, without knowing who is which. Never getting it wrong is not a human option. What is possible is to ensure that our actions remain forgivable when we do get it wrong.
The minimising of exposure is wryly sardonic where the maximising of utility was overenthusiastic. Infallibilism demanded maximisation. If infallibly true descriptions of good could be known, it would only be right to realise them to the fullest possible extent. Fallibilism largely eschews substantive conceptions of good, arguing that since wrong tends to be easier identified than right, we can go a long way towards doing good by not doing anything stupid. Negative utilitarianism – as this bit of common sense is known – is a fitting example of how something that was once marginal can now become paradigmatic. Utility maximisation caps the world of experience, minimising exposure leaves it open to the sky.

At first sight, not much may seem to separate the enlightened egoism the best infallibilists are capable of and the fallibilistic pursuit of life interests. But there is all the difference in the world between a friendly merger and a hostile takeover. Under the fallibilist epistemology, morality is not annihilated through reduction to self-interest; morality lives on and even pervades self-interest. Maybe the merged entity should have a hyphenated name. Can I introduce you to Mr&Ms Morality-Selfinterest ? They are a spirited couple, forever fighting, but divorce would drive them both to suicide.
Once we apply the same sceptical scrutiny to the ideological bases of the rational choice theorists that they have brought to bear on the bases of traditional morality, it turns out that, despite the economists’ imperialistic bravado, it is they who are everything they always accuse moralists of: soft-minded, short-sighted, and naïve. Rational choice theory is an acceptably close approximation only for the simplest cases, and a complete failure as a model of both actual and normatively rational behaviour for all cases beyond. The game is not self-interest maximisation, it’s exposure minimisation. To be rational and moral is to act in full awareness of the (epistemological) difficulties of being self-interested. Morality is for those who want to be really tough-minded.