Posner, Rawls, and Reflective Equilibrium

by Jon Mandle on December 28, 2004

Judge Richard Posner has been guest-blogging over at Brian Leiter’s site. In his first post, he expresses a not-quite-completely general moral skepticism:


much or even most morality seems based, rather, on instinct, emotion, custom, history, politics, or ideology, rather than on widely shared social goals….Are there really compelling reasons for these unarguable tenets of the current American moral code? One can give reasons for them, but would they be anything more than rationalizations? They have causes, that history, sociology, or psychology might elucidate, but causes are not reasons.

One might think that this is a prelude to a sweeping condemnation of the American moral code – most of it is based on instinct, emotion, custom, etc. and should be replaced by a code that is better grounded. But this is not what Posner is up to. His target is not a specific code that he thinks is not up to snuff, but rather a certain way of thinking about morality itself.

Posner introduces his post by identifying himself as an atheist, but immediately claims, “You cannot convince a religious person that there is no God, because he does not share your premises, for example that only science delivers truths. There is no fruitful debating of God’s existence.” There is every reason to believe that he holds the same position with respect to moral beliefs – since there are no “compelling reasons” for the “unarguable tenets” of morality, there is no fruitful debating morality, either.

It would seem to follow that moral and political philosophers are just wasting their time. And, indeed, in his second post, he writes the following:


the sort of political discussion in which political philosophers, law professors, and other intellectuals engage is neither educative nor edifying; I also think it is largely inconsequential, and I am grateful for that fact. I think that what moves people in deciding between candidates and platforms and so on certainly includes facts (such as the collapse of communism—a tremendous fact), as well as a variety of “nonrational” factors, such as whom you like to hang out with—I think that’s extremely important in the choice of a political party to affiliate with. When a brilliant philosopher like Rawls gets down to the policy level and talks about abortion and campaign financing and the like, you recognize a perfectly conventional liberal and you begin to wonder whether his philosophy isn’t just elaborate window dressing for standard left liberalism.

This strikes me as an odd and revealing passage. Let’s start at the end. The suggestion clearly is that when we see where Rawls stands at the “policy level”, the mask comes off and we see that the entire structure is a mere rationalization – “elaborate window dressing” – for what Rawls was interested in all along – defending a right to abortion and campaign finance reform, and other such policies. But would these suspicions have been any different if Rawls wound up opposing abortion and supporting libertarian economic policies? Of course not – arguments to those conclusions would have been mere rationalization, too, since we already know that there are no compelling reasons for moral beliefs and that what actually moves people are “‘nonrational’ factors, such as whom you like to hang out with.”

The key here is to focus on the idea of a compelling reason. On the one hand, this might mean a reason that would actually move people to accept a conclusion, regardless of what else they believe. A compelling reason to accept abortion rights would move people like an irresistible force to a certain conclusion, regardless of their initial beliefs. Posner doubts there are such things, and that is why political philosophy is “largely inconsequential” – people, in fact, are moved not by arguments and reasons but by other things. That is why recognizing the philosopher’s “elaborate window dressing” renders the argument inconsequential.

But Rawls’s approach to moral reflection – and what he would count as a compelling reason – is quite different. Moral reflection is not about devising arguments to get other people to switch over to the position that you already hold. It is to help you figure out where you should be. This is the idea of reflective equilibrium – something, I should point out, is not part of the more recent “political conception” of justice, but has been an explicit part of Rawls’s theory since A Theory of Justice was first published more than 30 years ago.

Rawls’s working assumption is that the moral terrain is extremely complicated and that each of us has a not-altogether-coherent set of beliefs, doubts, principles, and hunches at all levels of generality from concrete judgments to abstract ideals. (Many – most – of them certainly derive from what Posner would call “‘nonrational’ factors”.) We’re quite sure that slavery is unjust, but the extent of permissible economic inequality is not at all obvious; it’s easy to say that all people should be treated with respect (an abstract principle), but it may not be so clear whether permitting pornography offends this ideal (a more concrete application); maybe we waiver back on forth on euthanasia; and on and on. If all of our beliefs and judgments were completely coherent and we had a high level of confidence in them, there would be nothing to need for reflective equilibrium. At that point, if others had different judgments, we would be in something like the position that Posner imagines – little point in trying to argue, there would be nothing to do in a democracy except to vote.

But if we are in the position that Rawls imagines – with many internal conflicts and uncertainties – this opens up room for another project: trying to get our moral beliefs right. In pursuing that goal, it makes sense to try to construct arguments from our most secure beliefs (what Rawls calls “provisional fixed points”) to conclusions regarding issues we are much less certain about. (The fixed points are provisional because even they are not in principle immune from possible revision.) In this context, a compelling argument is not one that could move anyone like an irresistible force, but rather one that we judge to provide good support for its conclusion – valid inferences from premises we have a high degree of confidence in.

Posner positions himself as a hard-nosed realist, describing how people actually behave in contrast to philosophers’ idealizations. Philosophers, he suggests, who want to turn politics into an “academic seminar” are condescending[1] to ordinary people who are unable to defend their political preferences “in debate with their intellectual superiors.” But it’s hard to imagine a more condescending attitude than one that doesn’t leave room for moral reflection and reconsideration – one that assumes that people are programmed by their environment, for example. No political theory I know of claims that people are perfectly rational and consistent and certain of their positions. On the contrary, for Rawls, it is our inconsistencies and uncertainties that gets the project of moral reflection going in the first place. To exclude the possibility of ethical reflection and progress is unwarranted. And if there is such a possibility, why shouldn’t we ourselves take the opportunity to reflect on our beliefs, with the hope of clarifying where we are (initially) confused or at a loss, in the hopes of getting it right?

Perhaps Posner doesn’t mean to reject the possibility of such a project for those who are less than supremely confident in the coherence and accuracy of their moral judgments. Maybe it’s only that he finds that project “neither educative nor edifying.” What could be more irrelevant and boring than watching someone else straighten out her inconsistencies and uncertainties, especially if you don’t share her provisional fixed points? On the other hand, if you do share her provisional fixed points, and are yourself struggling to reach reflective equilibrium, such an exercise might be very helpful. I should note that the provisional fixed points that Rawls emphasizes are, in fact, widely shared. (He mentions as examples “that religious intolerance and racial discrimination are unjust”; he never argues from a right to abortion or the necessity of campaign finance reform.) But there’s no doubt that a person who believes that members of a different religion or race are subhuman will not find Rawls’s arguments compelling. That, of course, is not Posner’s position. My suspicion is that Posner would find the arguments that “political philosophers, law professors, and other intellectuals” make to be edifying only if they really were compelling in the first sense above. But no argument could ever be like that – “A conception of justice cannot be deduced from self-evident premises or conditions on principles.” (TJ, rev. ed., p.19) Posner would not be the first self-styled pragmatist to adopt that position based on a disappointed backlash upon realizing that reason cannot generate arguments that compel.

One final twist. Rawls’s approach to ethical reflection is fundamentally first-personal – it asks what principles I should accept rather than how can I convince someone else to believe what I already know. From this point of view, a compelling reason is one that I judge that I should accept – one that I believe is a good one – not one that I predict will, in fact, move me or someone else. Rawls agrees that, in general, ethical reflection and justification can only profitably be addressed to those who share certain premises. But Rawls is interested in basic social justice, rather than a comprehensive ethical theory. And it is because of this that the first-personal point of view becomes first-personal plural. But, alas, a discussion of that point, which would be necessary to answer Posner’s rejection of “deliberative democracy” (and would take us into the land of Political Liberalism), will have to wait for another post….

fn1. Posner does not use the word “condescending” – that is Richard Rorty’s term for Posner’s philosophical opponents, in comments on this post by David Velleman.

{ 30 comments }

1

Richard Bellamy 12.28.04 at 7:38 pm

But if we are in the position that Rawls imagines . . .

But isn’t Posner’s point the descriptive (as opposed to perscriptive) one that practically no one is actually in that position?

It seems obvious to me that — for example — there are no actual good reasons to oppose gay marriage, and many good reasons to support it. And yet, the world is full of articles containing gobs and gobs of BAD REASONS to oppose gay marriage.

The fact is, practically no one has changed their mind, and they are most likely not going to. Why? Because they do NOT put themself in the position that Rawls imagines. As a purely descriptive matter, the pre-rational or non-rational beliefs aren’t the starting point — they’re the whole ballgame.

2

Lee Scoresby 12.28.04 at 9:34 pm

How many of these beliefs, though, are truly pre-rational? That is, if you forced someone to give reasons for their ethical commitments I suspect you would quickly find ground for reflective discussion – at least on immanent grounds. Which takes us back, I suppose, to Rawls.

3

bob mcmanus 12.28.04 at 9:43 pm

It is neither generosity or magnanimity but experience that forces me to say that I have never met a person who is not constantly in a process of reflective equilibrium, with whatever knowledge and skills they have available. Certainty can be claimed for rhetorical or dialectical purposes, or as an internal defense, but it is as rare as a doubtless faith.

Although I am certain there are vigorous arguments over some basic premises and beliefs at, for instance, Bob Jones University. They would not be the same beliefs as are discussed here.

Incidentally, it is my belief :) that Matt Yglesias would not find Posner’s post all that disagreeable.

4

Dan S 12.28.04 at 9:43 pm

I am very sympathetic with Posner’s position as you describe it. From my (dogmatic, but I like it) perspective, there is no value in starting from provisional fixed points, unless you have some reason to think that they are grounded. Believing something more strongly than something else does not give it a privileged epistemological status.

But what if someone else believes strongly in the same things that you do? Why not use those as provisional fixed points for making sense of things? Shouldn’t people try to understand the world? I am all for people thinking about things, and I approve of motherhood and apple pie. But I believe in working from grounded principles. Shared ungrounded principles are still ungrounded, so thinking from them, I expect, would only be unfruitful.

I categorically reject basing moral reasoning on ungrounded principles, whether by academics, laypeople, conservatives or liberals. (I am a liberal wanna-be academic.) That is why I don’t give my (plentiful) moral intuitions philosophical credence. I don’t know Rawls, and I didn’t read the Posner, so hopefully I’m not doing injustice to anyone.

5

blah 12.28.04 at 9:48 pm

If Posner really believes that it is not fruitful to debate morality, this idea seems easily dispelled by most peoples’ everday experience. We do debate moral issues all the time, and we do change our thinking based on these debates all the time (if only incrementally). Perhaps Posner is thinking of issues on which people are deeply entrenched (e.g. abortion rights, the death penalty, etc.), where moral debate is likely to further entrench peoples’ views. But only some of the moral issues we debate produce deeply entrenched views and only in some people. Otherwise, we obviously do have fruitfull debates about our moral views. So what’s his beef?

6

Dan S 12.28.04 at 10:29 pm

To Blah:

How do you define fruitful? I don’t think those arguments, however interesting, pleasurable, and even beneficial for society, are the kinds that would be likely to get to truth about morality. Not that people should necessarily stop, but…

7

Martin 12.28.04 at 11:22 pm

Richard Bellamy says “The fact is, practically no one has changed their mind … ” On its face, this statement seems a bit odd in the context of gay marriage. I don’t have polling data, but, among liberals, it seems only a slight exaggeration to say that everyone has changed their mind in a relatively short period of time — say 10 years and maybe two or three year. I suspect that ten years ago, and maybe two or three years ago, most liberals would not have supported gay marriage — it would have seemed just too far from existing social norms. Now, favoring gay marriage is certainly a commonplace position, and perhaps is the mainstream liberal position, unless you are running for office and have to cater to non-liberal views.

Assuming I am correct about massive shifts of opinion (which undoubtedly have occurred, even if it is not clear if we are talking about most liberals or merely lots of liberals) the question in the present context is whether the change has anything to do with reflective equilibrium.

I think the answer is, to some extent, yes, though in a somewhat paradoxical way.

Clearly, the ground was prepared by the gradual increase, since Stonewall (just to pick some date)in recognition of gay people’s humanity and rights; openness and assertiveness of gay people; knowing personal contacts with gay people; etc. To what extent this entered into something describable as a reflective equilibrium process is an interesting question I will not address.

During 2004, however, it appears that, among many liberals, opinion on gay marriage moved with great speed under the influence of the Massachusetts Supreme Court decisions and (to oversimplify) a few cute wedding photographs from San Francisco. One possiblity is that this just demonstrates the importance of emotional factors in influencing ethical views. However, I think a big part of what happened is that faced with the concrete fact of gay marriage (concrete image might be a better way to put it), many people suddenly realized that gay marriage was consistent with their other ethical views and that opposition to gay marriage was inconsistent, and that they just hadn’t faced up to this fact (of logic, not empirical fact) before. If I understand reflective equilibrium, such recognition of consistency and inconsistency is a central part of it.

Thus, I would argue, in 2004 there was a sort of reflective equilibrium attained by sudden Zen satori, but a reflective, rational, equilibrium nontheless.

More broadly, I think a lot of ethical change (and ethical stability, for that matter) arises out of an interaction between the causal factors (emotion, interests, changing circumstances, etc.) Posner respects and the more academic logical type of ethical thinking.

In honor of Posner, I will close by suggesing that, in the model of ethics in the previous paragraph, academic ethical theory plays a role somewhat similar to abstract economic principles in the marketplace. It’s easy to find empirical evidence that principles such as making decisions at the margin or whatever play no role in individual business decisions (at least by non-MBAs), but, in interaction with the blooming buzzing confusion of life, the logic of the abstract principles actually plays a pretty significant role in determining what happens. (For present purposes, 10% < "pretty significant" < 90%.) The same may be true of abstract ethical logic.

8

Dan Simon 12.28.04 at 11:22 pm

The heart of Posner’s critique, I think, is that in practice, political philosophers simply don’t come to conclusions that are significantly different from the prevailing ideological orthodoxies. That makes their work either incorrect (because the orthodoxies are wrong), and quite possibly dishonestly so (because the errors are all in the direction of an attractive orthodoxy), or else of little practical use (because we don’t need philosophers to come up with or justify such orthodoxies–politicians do a fine job of that already).

Consider, for example, Peter Singer. Singer does exactly what Jon claims Rawls intends to do–establishing some basic moral principles and trying to draw conclusions from them about the right political and social positions to take. The difference is that Singer’s conclusions are surprising, even bizarre: reducing all Westerners to poverty to pay for foreign aid, making animals legally equal to humans in every way, and so on. As a result, most devotees of Rawls dismiss Singer as a bit of a nut, and stick to their conventional liberalism, as blessed by Rawls.

Now, there are two possibilities. Perhaps Rawls is simply right, and Singer wrong, about all the issues on which they differ. If so, then one can (and Posner implicitly does) ask the question: if ordinary folks, using ordinary intuitions and social interactions, have magically hit on the same conclusions that Rawls’ brilliant philosophical heavy breathing led him to, then mightn’t all that intellectual hard work have been completely unnecessary? Perhaps we can just rely on politics, and let it go at that.

On the other hand, perhaps Singer–or someone with comparably unorthodox views–is actually right about some things. If so, then something very suspicious has happened: someone (say, Singer) has widely disseminated some disturbing but morally correct arguments for some highly unconventional political positions–seemingly fulfilling the very greatest potential of Rawls’ method. And the result is that political thinkers have overwhelmingly voted for convention over the moral clarity that the method was supposed to promise. In other words, Posner’s accusation would be quite correct: the political tail would have been found to be wagging the moral dog, not vice versa.

But perhaps Posner is wrong, and the world of political philosophy is actually chock-full of Peter Singers, all gamely following their careful reasoning to its highly unconventional but morally enlightening conclusions. Anyone care to come up with some examples?

9

blah 12.28.04 at 11:36 pm

How do you define fruitful?

I would say fruitful moral debate would allow someone to, for instance, make his moral views more coherent, straighten out inconsistencies or uncertainties, develop deeper and broader understandings of moral consequences, recognize moral dilemmas and competing values, etc. There are lots of ways in which moral debates can be fruiful.

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blah 12.28.04 at 11:41 pm

Oh yeah, and fruiful moral debate may allow us to replace unanalyzed or poorly thought out views with ones that are analyzed or better thought out. It has happened to me a number of times.

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blah 12.28.04 at 11:49 pm

You cannot convince a religious person that there is no God, because he does not share your premises, for example that only science delivers truths. There is no fruitful debating of God’s existence.

I would also take issue with this statement. Probably most theistic people are not going to be convinced that God does not exist based on argument alone, but it does happen. My first real moments of disbelieving in God occurred after reading Nietzsche in high school. I knew religious people in college who did not want to read Nietzsche or Freud because they feared it would weaken their faith. So at least for people on the cusp or in the process of figuring out whether or not they believe in God, it can be fruitful to debate this issue. For those with firmly held beliefs, probably not.

12

Matt 12.29.04 at 12:40 am

Something that’s truly weird about Posner’s postion about argument in morality and politics (as characterized by Jon, rightly I think) is that it should apply just as well to pretty much any area of inquary, including the natural sciences- there are no “compelling reasons” in his sense anywhere- we can always hold on to a belief by making enough revsions elsewhere in our web of belief. At the very least anyone who’s any sort of Quinean (or perhaps Wittgenstenian or Kantian) should reject his veiw. Since Brian Leiter has sometimes said his own view is a sort of Quinean naturalism this is just one more reason why I find it absolutely strange that he’s as fond as Posner as he is. I just don’t see that Posner’s view isn’t a very sloppy one at best, and one that should not be taken very seriously w/o being significantly scaled back.

13

A Scott Crawford 12.29.04 at 3:05 am

Here’s the intro from Spinoza’s “Tractatus Politicus”:

“1. PHILOSOPHERS conceive of the passions which harass us as vices into which men fall by their own fault, and therefore generally deride, bewail, or blame them, or execrate them, if they wish to seem unusually pious. And so they think they are doing something wonderful, and reaching the pinnacle of learning, when they are clever enough to bestow manifold praise on such human nature as is nowhere to be found, and to make verbal attacks on that which, in fact, exists. For they conceive of men not as they are, but as they themselves would like them to be. Whence it has come to pass that instead of ethics they have generally written satire, and that they have never conceived a theory of politics which could be turned to use, but such as might be taken for a chimera, or might have been formed in Utopia, or in that golden age of the poets when, to be sure, there was least need of it. Accordingly, as in all sciences which have a useful application, so especially in that of politics, theory is supposed to be at variance with practice; and no men are esteemed less fit to direct public affairs than theorists or philosophers.

2. But statesmen, on the other hand, are suspected of plotting against mankind rather than consulting their interests, and are esteemed more crafty than learned. No doubt nature has taught them that vices will exist while men do. And so while they study to anticipate human wickedness, and that by arts which experience and long practice have taught, and which men generally use under the guidance more of fear than of reason, they are thought to be enemies of religion, especially by divines, who believe that supreme authorities should handle public affairs in accordance with the same rules of piety, as bind a private individual. Yet there can be no doubt, that statesmen have written about politics far more happily than philosophers. For, as they had experience for their mistress, they taught nothing that was inconsistent with practice… ” etc.

(A plague on both houses?)

14

Thomas 12.29.04 at 4:52 am

The fact–and it is a fact–that academic theorizing about morals and politics is neither educative nor edifying can be separated from the rest of Posner’s claims about the origins of moral views and the basis of moral motivation.

One can separate out the Humean socio-biology and still leave that point standing.

Matt, I can’t speak for Brian, but I’d guess that Brian doesn’t hold Posner’s epistemological views against him. More, I’d guess that, since Brian is a lawyer as well as a philosopher, it is Posner’s legal views, and not his philosophical views, that Brian is fond of. (That would be in addition to whatever personal fondness that Leiter might feel for Posner–which feelings I’d find strange.)

15

Matt 12.29.04 at 4:53 am

Dan S.-
I must admit that I know much less about Singer than I do Rawls, but my understanding is that Singer’s conclusions follow, as far as they do, from pushing a particular form of utilitarianism as far as it goes. Rawls, on the other hand, thinks that utilitarianism isn’t one of our “provisional fixed points” but is a competing comprehensive moral doctrine, one that he argues we have good reason to reject. Perhaps Singer’s more extreme results should then be taken as a reductio of his position from Rawls’s point of view? Anyway, the important point is that they are not starting in the same place, if I understand Singer properly, since he’s assuming a form of utilitarianism, and Rawls wants to start before that.

16

Dan S 12.29.04 at 5:19 am

To Matt about natural science:

It is hard to be a skeptic about the natural world. It’s possible – you can be some sort of idealist, but I have not found the idealist arguments against realism compelling.

I think it is easier to be a skeptic about the moral world. It is not an appealing position to have, but that aside, much easier.

The evidence for the existence of the natural world is compelling, and once you take that for granted, you need some sort of explanation for how it works. The best explanation you can think of at any given time may fail the “compelling” test, but that’s fine. If your current favorite is wrong, there is bound to be some other right answer, and maybe you’ll think of it later, or maybe you won’t.

There are good reasons not to believe in the moral world. My current ill-informed opinion is that the reasons for disbelieving in the moral world are stronger than the reasons for believing in it. So until that changes, I am not interested in philosophically straightening out my moral intuitions, which may be about nothing. If someday I am given reasons for believing in the moral world, they would hopefully inform me in building a moral philosophy. The same should be true of natural philosophy. The reasons we have for believing in the natural world should inform our science. But I don’t know anything about phil of science, so I could easily be overlooking something obvious there.

BTW, I have no idea whether this would be Posner’s argument.

To Blah: fair enough, but if I have good reasons not to believe in moral philosophy, I wouldn’t consider your examples to be fruitful philosophically, although they may be fruitful socially/politically.

17

Matt 12.29.04 at 6:01 am

Dan S,
I think I only need a position that’s weeker than the one you discuss- I don’t need to argue that anti-realism about science or the natural world is as plausible as anti-realism about morality, rather all I need is that there are not “compelling” reasons in the sense Posner (in Jon’s reconstruction) makes use of in science either, and I think that’s pretty clearly right. Note that that’s a totally different question than one about realism or anti-realism- it’s essentially a question about belief formation and perhaps justification. Of course people often do change there minds for what seem like reasons in science, but then, it seems pretty clear they do so in the case of morality, as well. My point isn’t one about realism- it’s that the argument Posner gives for skepticism (as an espistemological view) about morality is also an argument for skepticism about science, but he clearly rejects that, and says nothing (at least that I’ve read) to justify the distinction.

18

Randolph Fritz 12.29.04 at 8:04 am

“You cannot convince a religious person that there is no God, because he does not share your premises, for example that only science delivers truths. There is no fruitful debating of God’s existence.”

This is just wrong. People are, in fact, sometimes persuaded on these subjects.

“I think that what moves people in deciding between candidates and platforms and so on certainly includes facts (such as the collapse of communism—a tremendous fact), as well as a variety of ‘nonrational’ factors, such as whom you like to hang out with—I think that’s extremely important in the choice of a political party to affiliate with.”

This, however, is unquestionably true of the vast majority of voters. An issue has to be huge before it is even visible to a majority of voters.

“I also think it is largely inconsequential, and I am grateful for that fact”

Why? Is he then grateful to be governed by unreason? This is an astonishing argument from a major legal theorist. Posner is arguing that all ethical philosophy is post hoc–that philosophers do not reason but rationalize, and their rationalizations serve only to reinforce beliefs based in irrational sources. And there, we know, he is wrong. Quite the opposite: over time, philosophical reasoning ultimately informs public belief and conduct–it does persuade. Posner apparently finds this a useful position–it allows him to claim that ethical critiques of legal theories are simple rationalizations and therefore may reasonably be ignored. But if one does not apply some ethical theory to legal reasoning, what is one to apply instead? Prejudice, intution, … raw power?

19

Shai 12.29.04 at 12:59 pm

Hiding behind it is an image of human nature, pessimistic about biases and nasty evolved traits, so it is unsurprising that he thinks reason is relatively ineffective.

But nihilism isn’t exactly coherent. If you think of it in terms of ordering of outcomes along one or more scale, reason can accomodate unoptimal outcomes, and interests and irrational human qualities don’t necessarily conspire to preclude progress in one or more sphere. This can co-exist with a government coopted by interests and the possibility that we will all be annihilated tomorrow by human stupidity.

20

Mike Huben 12.29.04 at 2:15 pm

Whether or not the people Posner observes ever change their minds based on moral argument, the fact is that as we develop to adulthood, we do create our moral positions based on moral arguments that we hear. They do not spring forth full grown from the brow of Zeus, except perhaps for the few who are carefully indoctrinated and isolated from conflicting ideas. Hence Christian schools.

The battle is being fought over the “provisional fixed points” supplied at a very early age. Sesame Street was probably the most effective weapon against conservatism ever created.

21

bob mcmanus 12.29.04 at 2:26 pm

“Why? Is he then grateful to be governed by unreason?” r fritz

“deciding between candidates and platforms and so on certainly includes facts” …Posner

The inclusion of “facts” is very important. Many would say that slavery and Jim Crow ended not because of a general change in moral philosophy but due to a newly recognized fact, the humanity and equality of blacks.

22

Richard Bellamy 12.29.04 at 3:31 pm

Richard Bellamy says “The fact is, practically no one has changed their mind … ” On its face, this statement seems a bit odd in the context of gay marriage. I don’t have polling data, but, among liberals, it seems only a slight exaggeration to say that everyone has changed their mind in a relatively short period of time — say 10 years and maybe two or three year.

I think this is more an issue that 10 or 20 years ago, no one actually cared, since there was no large concerted effort to win gay marriage rights. In other words, if there were a large anti-gay-marriage rally 15 years ago (which there wasn’t), no one who is currently pro-gay-marriage would have attended. Part of “do you support” is “do you believe there is a relevant political base supporting this goal.” A lot of people’s viewpoints shift with their “I want to be with the winner” mentality.

“Politics” is largely a game of getting your issue to the front. Remember when everyone was opposed to flag burning, and there was almost a constitutional amendment banning it? Now, it doesn’t get mentioned anymore. If you decided to conduct a survey, lots of people probably will say they don’t support that amendment anymore. Not that they’d actively oppose it if it came up again — the just don’t care anymore.

23

C.J.Colucci 12.29.04 at 4:12 pm

Posner writes elsewhere that our belief in the wrongness of deliberately running down a baby that has crawled into the highway when we can easily avoid doing so is far stronger than our belief in any conceivable form of argument purporting to show it. This is obviously true, but I’m not sure what follows from it.

24

Dan Kervick 12.29.04 at 7:13 pm

I don’t quite see how the issue of moral skepticism vs. moral realism, moral rationalism, moral intuitionism etc., etc. bears one way or another on the question of what is permissible legislation under American law.

Americans live in a constitutional democracy. There are constitutional prohibitions on the kinds of laws that can be enacted. If a legislative enactment is not constitutionally prohibited, then it is constitutionally permissible. A legislative majority is constititutionally empowered to enact laws for whatever purpose, or on the basis of whatever priinciples, happen to move the members of that majority, so long as that purpose is not constitutionally proscribed or limited.

Whether the principles involved are true or false, defensible or indefensible, superstitious or sober, eternal verities or projections of personal preference would seem to make no difference to the question of legal permissibility.

25

Clarkl 12.29.04 at 9:15 pm

It seems that people are both making good points, but missing something fundamental about what Posner is arguing. I think he’s not arguing that we don’t change our minds or that evolution doesn’t happen. Far from it. However the reason that changes happen in the aggregate isn’t because of these reasons. Rather it is other effects.

Consider the example someone gave of gay marriage. Yes views have changed, and perhaps rapidly. But is this primarily due to reasons? Or is it due to the fact that homosexuals stopped hiding the fact and more people simply became acquainted with them? Are the reasons liberals give that purportedly changed rapidly over the last 10 years the cause? Or are they, to use Posner’s comments, rationalization for simply the fact that homosexuality is more open. It is due to acquaintance, as Posner points out in his second blogging post.

I’m not sure I agree reasons don’t matter. I think they do. Further I agree that many are in a way always questioning. (Although I think this much more of a minority)

Yet, for serious change in the aggregate how much does this questioning happen? Consider the person who went from theist to atheist after reading Nietzsche. Aren’t there also people who go the other way? (I know many) Further was this change due to Nietzsche’s reasons or because of the community he now associated with in college? i.e. should it be described in terms of reasons or in terms of friends and aquaintances. Is it coincidence that many atheists with many religious friends move towards theism?

Once again I’m not discounting reasons. I just wonder if there isn’t a lot of truth to Posner’s comments that perhaps many reasons are actually rationalizations. Reasons we give for a change of view that already took place. I think he pushes it too far. But I think there is a great deal of truth to what he says.

26

Dan S 12.29.04 at 9:57 pm

On morality, science, realism and belief formation:

It seems likely that some of Posner’s criticisms of morality, which I accept, would stick well enough to science too. So must I, to remain consistent, be as skeptical about science as I am about morality?

I still think that realism is a relevant issue. I believe in science because it works, it reliably produces miracles. I am not attached to any philosophical story about scientific belief formation, I just believe that whatever it is that scientists do must somehow work.

That is not the case with moral philosophers. They could lack a subject matter and go thousands of years without noticing it. As soon as I became convinced that moral philosophy WORKED, I would become much less concerned about the methodology. I would assume that there must be something about their methods that was working, and I would be happy to follow the methods now and understand them later. Since I don’t know believe in the field for some other reason, the methodology itself needs to convince me.

If you want to catch me with a double standard, you might say that I’m too credulous of other philosophical fields. But I think moral philosophy is at a special disadvantage, since it has issues coexisting with naturalism, and is easy (intellectually) to deny.

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Jay Gischer 12.29.04 at 11:48 pm

Put me in the camp that says that reason the primary mover in morality.

Or, more simply, people, including myself, are rational because being rational makes them feel good.

I don’t consider this a pessimistic view. Understanding how emotions work, in me and in others, gives me the ability to manage them better.

Of course, I can use this ability to make other people happy, or to make them miserable. But I happen to like making other people happy, so that’s my general tendency.

My experience suggests that indeed, you will never sway someone with strong emotions through rational argument. Instead you must find a way to reduce the negative (to you) emotion and strengthen a different postive one.

Usually, homophobia is the result of ignorance. Not the ignorance that comes from lack of book learning, but from the lack of day-to-day experience with a real, flesh-and-blood gay person.

When a homophobe’s cousin comes out of the closet, it’s extremely uncomfortable to the homophobe. Something has to change, and very likely it isn’t going to be the existence or gayness of that cousin.

So the pictures from San Francisco are all to the good, despite the short-term reaction. They show flesh-and-blood people, trying to care for one another and take responsibility for each other. This is not a bad thing.

It’s very alarming to those who think that they are losing their hold over the mores of America, and who know that they are fighting a losing battle. Thus the short-term reaction, and it’s exploitation by politicians who are eager to dramatize their morals.

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micah 12.30.04 at 3:38 am

Rawls’s approach to ethical reflection is fundamentally first-personal – it asks what principles I should accept rather than how can I convince someone else to believe what I already know.

I think this point about Rawls’s approach to moral argument is very important. He aims at justification rather than at persuasion. But it may seem like Rawls shifts gears in certain places. For example, in his later work, Rawls considers what he calls “reasoning from conjecture”–which entails arguing for a reasonable political conception on the basis of what we consider to be unreasonable comprehensive views. I think this is an example of arguing for something we already know or accept. This is second-person moral argument. Yet it is still an attempt at political justification. Even if we don’t think that another’s comprehensive view is reasonable (or if we think parts of it are unreasonable), we might still argue that it provides those who adhere to it with reasons for respecting the demands of a political conception of justice. This need not be merely an effort at persuasion or manipulation. As long as we’re clear about what we’re doing, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with arguing from reasons we don’t believe in favor of conclusions that we do–a point I’ve tried to make “elsewhere”:http://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/001507.html. This isn’t first-person moral argument, but it’s still a recognizable form of political justification.

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micah 12.30.04 at 3:40 am

Rawls’s approach to ethical reflection is fundamentally first-personal – it asks what principles I should accept rather than how can I convince someone else to believe what I already know.

I think this point about Rawls’s approach to moral argument is very important. He aims at justification rather than at persuasion. But it may seem like Rawls shifts gears in certain places. For example, in his later work, Rawls considers what he calls “reasoning from conjecture”–which entails arguing for a reasonable political conception on the basis of what we consider to be unreasonable comprehensive views. I think this is an example of arguing for something we already know or accept. This is second-person moral argument. Yet it is still an attempt at political justification. Even if we don’t think that another’s comprehensive view is reasonable (or if we think parts of it are unreasonable), we might still argue that it provides those who adhere to it with reasons for respecting the demands of a political conception of justice. This need not be merely an effort at persuasion or manipulation. As long as we’re clear about what we’re doing, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with arguing from reasons we don’t believe in favor of conclusions that we do–a point I’ve tried to make “elsewhere”:http://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/001507.html. This isn’t first-person moral argument, but it’s still a recognizable form of political justification.

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Randolph Fritz 12.30.04 at 8:04 am

“Or is it due to the fact that homosexuals stopped hiding the fact and more people simply became acquainted with them?”

But homosexuals came out for reasons and were accepted and defended for reasons. Sometimes ideas are important. Coming out was after all a form of civil disobedience, which is an idea of persuasion.

“As soon as I became convinced that moral philosophy WORKED, I would become much less concerned about the methodology.” We sure know it can fail. So…sometimes it works. Sure wish we knew why.

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