Bedrocks and Double Standards

Talking of perhaps irrational features of the philosophical
world, sometimes I’m worried that there are certain kinds of double standards
in our community. What goes for you, does not go for me, what goes for those
people, does not go for certain other group, and so on. I agree with many comments
in the previous thread that in assessing normative and metaethical views we
cannot but accept certain moral ‘truisms’, normative bedrocks. But, I often
wonder whether these bedrocks are given the same weight in different debates. If
this is not the case, then I’d like to know why.

Here is one bedrock. Killing more than 6 million Jews is wrong, bad,
evil, ought not to be done, and there are decisive reasons not to do so. Doing
this was, is, will and would be wrong because of the unimaginable amount of
suffering, pain and loss of human lives involved. Everyone seemed to think that
it would be a knock-down argument against expressivism if it implied that,
depending on our attitudes, genocide could turn out not to be wrong. Expressivists
have, more or less successfully, denied that their view implies any such
possibility.

 

Of course the same objection can be made against other
views. Take relativists and subjectivists. At least they cannot deny the
relevant counterfactuals in which genocide is not wrong, etc. (well, maybe they
can by rigidifying our uses of the moral terms). In many cases these views imply that the mentioned moral bedrock is outright false and even that actually for
many communities and individuals genocide is not wrong. However, unlike the expressivists, some relativists
and subjectivists are willing to bite this bullet. Harman in his classic paper
writes that “It sounds odd to
say that Hitler should not have ordered the extermination of the Jews, that it
was wrong of him” and “oddity attends only the judgment that Hitler was wrong
to have acted in that way”. According to my bedrock, saying such things is
outrageous – a reductio ad absurdum if there ever was one.

 

So, what seems to be a wannabe knock-down argument against
expressivists by their own lights is not a knock-down argument against the
relativists and subjectivists by their own lights…

 

Things get even worse if we look at the Williams styled
views about reasons-internalism. According to those views, roughly, an agent
has a reason to phi only if there is a sound deliberative route from the agent’s
antecedent subjective motivational set to being motivated to phi. My sense is that
there are a lot of people who hold this view. We can imagine such a Hitler from
whose motivational set there is no sound deliberative route to not being
motivated to kill 6 million Jews. Thus, internalism implies that he had no
reason not to do so. As Harman puts it again ‘for Hitler, there might have been
no reason at all not to order the extermination of the Jews’. So, the pain,
suffering and death might not have counted at all against Hitler ordering the genocide. Say
What! But, Harman insists on denying this bedrock or truism as do many other
internalists. I’ve often put this objection against them but usually they just
shrug their shoulders. I just cannot help but to think that there are double
standards – what would not go for the expressivists seems to go for the
reasons-internalists. Of course there is nothing irrational or incoherent here
unless the people who are putting the objection against the expressivists are
reason-internalists themselves. I often wonder.

7 Replies to “Bedrocks and Double Standards

  1. Hmm. I’m not sure about the double standards bit. I’ve never heard Gil object to expressivism on the basis of the objection that expressivists can’t show that Hitler had a reason to do . . .(fill this in as you like). And in fact, he obviously recognizes the counter-intuitive implications of a pure agent relativist view, such that he adds speaker relativist elements (roughly that judgements must be relative to standards that the agent is committed to on the assumption that the speaker and audience accept those standards). So, as far as I can tell, his arguments don’t involve double standards. Similarly, the other (former?) relativist I know well, Jamie, doesn’t use arguments against expressivism that would equally apply to relativism. In fact, Jamie often seems to be trying to figure out whether expressivism can solve some of the problems (such as the embedding problem) that it seems subject to.
    None of this is to say that different people don’t have different ideas of which bullets to be bitten are more or less palatable, and often one’s choice of theory is reflective of that. But that is not a matter of applying different standards to different competing theories, but of people having different views about the weights of various standards as applied to any theory.
    As for bedrock, I think it’s overrated. For any claim that someone might legitimately regard as reasonably indubitable, there’s still going to someone who doubts it. So your still going to have to figure out something to say on its behalf to that person. This means that even if some claim is sufficiently plausible that I am reasonable to regard it as bedrock in forming my own beliefs, I can’t do a very good job of convincing someone else if I’m not willing to act like it isn’t bedrock in conversation.

  2. Mark, this is an interesting thing to say,
    . . . For any claim that someone might legitimately regard as reasonably indubitable, there’s still going to someone who doubts it. So your still going to have to figure out something to say on its behalf to that person.
    I don’t doubt the first sentence as it’s written, but why conclude (unless you’re feeling really generous) that you have to figure out something to say to each person that doubts it? But maybe I should be paraphrasing your first sentence this way,
    For any claim that someone might legitimately regard as reasonably indubitable, there’s still going to someone who reasonably doubts it.
    This doesn’t seem true to me. Not to invoke Hitler so early in the day, but I don’t think someone can reasonably doubt whether killing 6 million people is, you know, wrong. Can that be reasonably doubted?

  3. Mike,
    I’m not (overly)generously saying that any claim can be reasonably doubted. But I do think that most claims, including the ones I myself would think unreasonable to doubt, are in fact doubted by (otherwise) reasonable people. This happens just as often within philosophical discussions as in other contexts. And yet the conversation goes on, and I think that is a good thing. I just don’t see any reason to limit what I’m willing to argue about and to try to find reasons for to just those things that people could reasonably doubt (by my lights).

  4. Mark,
    I did not intend to say that Harman or Dreier are making the kind of objections against other views that could be launched against their own views. I just wonder why the attitude-dependence and its repugnant normative implications are so often brought up against expressivism (and taken seriously by expressivists) and not against the reasons-internalists (and not taken seriously by them).
    I’m not also sure about whether I see the dialectical role of the bedrocks in the same way as you. Of course, I’m willing to take part in the debates about even unreasonably rejected bedrocks with otherwise reasonable people. I think it is more to do about the burdens of justification in such debates. If someone’s view implies that I would need to abandon something that I regard as a bedrock, then, if the argument is to give any rational pressure for me to change my mind, the argument better start from premisses that are more justified and bedrocky than the bedrock that becomes threatened. I guess this is the Moorean point. If there are no such premisses, then giving up the bedrock would be really odd on the basis of beliefs I’m less certain about and justified in believing in. Other man’s modus ponens in that case seems to be my modus tollens.

  5. Jussi,
    I’m not saying I should disregard what I take to be bedrock in figuring out what I think. But I think in argument and conversation with others the most I can do is say that I think some claim is hard or impossible for me to doubt, but I still think I have to go on and defend it in some other way if the people I’m talking to don’t agree.

  6. Mark,
    that’s true. But, there are two sorts of cases. In one case, you can try to find something from the opponents own set of beliefs that would commit them to believing in what I regard as a bedrock. If they have in this situation denied the bedrock, then this option requires that they have been internally incoherent so far. Our attempt to get them to agree with us consists of making their incoherences explicit for them and hoping that they solve the incoherences the right way.
    However, not many people in philosophical debates are incoherent in this way. I wonder what arguments you could give in that case to get them to accept the bedrock they reject. Any other premises in such arguments would seem to be even more dubitable than the bedrocks they are already rejecting. Of course, you can point to the bedrock and make it vivid – show the horrors of concentration camps and say ‘don’t you see!’. If they don’t, I’m not sure there is much left to do. You start to wonder whether they are even competent with the moral terms that we have – whether they are playing the same game.

  7. As philosophers we have a tendency to think of all rational persuasion as a matter of arguments involving moves from premises to conclusions. I think that this is a bit too limited as your suggestion of making something vivid points out. I do think that sometimes highlighting what a person already knows can sometimes get them to feel its force differently. And I think pointing as you suggest might be one way of doing that. So is offering analogies to explain why you see the force of a consideration as cutting in a certain way. Sometimes showing further implications of a view brings out a feature that makes it more or less plausible. Probably there are other things that don’t amount to knock down argumentation but seem like rational argument nonetheless.
    I’m not saying we could in principle never run out of things to say. Nor even less plausibly that the things I find to say will change the other person’s mind. But as a matter of fact in real life I rarely hit a point at which there is nothing left to say. And I’ve never in a serious philosophical discussion thought that any impasse reached was due to lack of linguistic competence.

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