Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Part Two: History vs Philosophy

Here continues my debate with a history graduate student about the merits/disadvantages of using history and philosophy for studying justice. Please read part one (if you haven't already), before reading this section. My apologies, I didn't split the two parts very well, so this post is rather long (though hopefully you'll find it interesting). Again, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

HISTORY STUDENT: Ah, dear. No, I am neither a consequentialist nor a utilitarian. What I am saying, however, is that (a) within any moral system, an examination of consequences of behavior is necessary in order to flesh out the details of a just society, and (b) human thought is itself inherently historical.

As for (a): Only rarely can I identify a behavior or system as a clear-cut violation of a moral law. In the case of slavery, for example, the Bible allows it, and so does Aristotle, and so have most societies, even philosophically inclined ones. There are abstract arguments to be made against slavery, but these are relatively new and (especially from an old-fashioned biblical perspective, which doesn't put much stock in self-ownership) far from conclusive. So I mostly condemn slavery not because it inherently violates an unchanging moral law, but because it has been shown to make many clearer violations more likely. I look at the history of how different slaveowners have treated their slaves. That record suggests that slavery typically -- though not always -- involves various moral crimes such as murder, torture, and rape. However it is that I have reached the conclusion that these are indeed moral crimes -- there are many different ways I could have -- their relationship with the social practice of slavery is revealed to me through historical thinking.

Or to take another example, the example of torture: Even if everybody in America today accepted that torture is wrong, we would still be left arguing about whether "waterboarding" specifically is torture. It is very difficult, apparently, to convince some Americans that having water poured on their face is terribly painful. There's nothing in the words themselves to indicate that it would be: "simulated drowning," "a wet cloth placed over the face with water poured over it," or (as Dick Cheney put it) "a dunk in the water" -- it sounds sort of soothing. What might help out in the debate is testimony. And no, not everybody would agree even then. But at least we could start to make sense of our fine words about not-torturing people.

As for (b): Everything I do or think has a context. There is a reason -- aside from mere biology -- that our thought typically becomes more sophisticated as we get older. We have more information, more experience, more understanding of real-world cause and effect, more awareness of different kinds of pain and joy. We have a better sense of who we are and how we respond in different situations. And we have a better idea of what other people are like. This is just history writ small.

So when I was 12, for example, I probably had the vocabulary and the raw processing power of a lot of people older than I, but I lacked other qualities necessary to sound judgment, qualities that I could only get through greater experience. I would jump to conclusions about life based on what I had read in books -- conclusions that made perfect sense logically -- or based on how I would behave, not recognizing that other people behave differently. That is how, for example, I came to be a libertarian for several years. On paper, libertarianism often looks great; it prescribes a very pure, purposeful, tidy sort of government that strictly follows its own founding law. It also claims to maximize general prosperity, minimize arbitrary transfers of wealth, and maximize personal freedom. I could easily have become a communist or a theocrat the same way, had I read different books. All three of these systems put great stock in purity of principle, in logical application of moral law to every aspect of life. All three, in other words, are based on fanatical consistency with moral principles that I pretty much agree with. And in practice, all three systems are likely to have terrible consequences -- "terrible" according to the same moral system that would lead me to embrace them. I base my analysis of that likelihood on history.

You seem to think that humans vary a great deal in their underlying conceptions of justice. I do not think so, on the whole. The communist is not always so very different from the libertarian; both are likely to share a great deal of moral intuition and usually a great deal of acknowledged moral law. Their morality may be terribly sloppy, but it is rarely diametrically opposed except artificially, that is, as a result of being too attached to their respective dogmatisms. Committed Christians from similar churches can be libertarians, communists, or theocrats without too much trouble. Or to take what might be a more persuasive example: I could favor the invasion of Iraq or I could oppose the invasion of Iraq, for exactly the same primary moral reason (wanting to minimize the violent deaths of innocents). This fact astonished my conservative friends in college; in almost every respect imaginable, I agreed with them, yet I was fiercely opposed to their politics in the end because of what I knew about Iraq's past and the history of similar experiments. If anything, my pro-war friends were the ones most concerned about following through on moral principle. They mounted impassioned pleas for liberty and humanity, while I argued that justice is not always attainable, and that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Both of us agreed on what the perfect and the good were ... and although the conservatives refused to believe it, we were pretty much on the same page as most of the liberals and the French as well.

ME: Okay, let me be clear about something: I do think history is important. I agree with you that there is an underlying commonality in our moral intuitions (in basic form), and I believe this because I don't think that each person can make her own morality. I believe morality is an independent thing from human agents, something above us. Your examples illustrate what I mean. When you talk about history/slavery/communism/whatever --you are making value judgments. Sure, you try and make them based on life experience and common sense, and that's fine, but it is still a judgment about value, and that (in essence) is the role of the moral philosopher. So we think morality is too complex/difficult to fully understand based on our intuitions --well that seems to be what you're saying anyways. Only we don't look just to events, but rather look at those events and then beyond them. Sure, you judge slavery because of the murder, rape, or whatever else that tends to accompany it. Well, on what grounds is murder/rape wrong (you do admit that these are moral crimes, but why?? what makes them morally wrong)? That's a moral judgment, not a historical one (though that doesn't mean history has nothing to say about it). You could answer: societies that are rampant in this don't last long, well that's a utilitarian (or efficiency) concern --belying that you value the durability of a society over other considerations. You could answer: it violates respect for other moral agents...well that is a claim that needn't be tied to history (I could claim that we ought to respect aliens from Mars if they have the sort of moral capacities that we do –even if that's only a hypothetical event with no history at all). In the end you have to make judgment calls, and in the end those calls can be messy and complicated, though based on some underlying agreement about principles. Philosophers look to society, past and present, and work through the tangled web of morality --hoping to guide future action. Sure, some things seem evident, but isn't it cool to study why certain evident moral precepts are valued the way that they are? And it's important to remember that some things that were "evident" and "agreed upon" by past societies are now looked at as wrong. We can't rely solely on consensus or what seems to be obviously true.

If a principle cannot be put into place (at this time) without morally bad consequences, that is not always a reflection of the principle itself --but rather our method of applying it. Communism's principles weren't the problem, it was the method used to "implement" them. Equality isn't bad just because some political party got it wrong. Equality can be good regardless (I use that as a blanket term for other justice values, though I don't think it's the most important). So I agree that people differ in their plans of implementation (though they also disagree on the priority of principles, and even on the principles of justice themselves). But that doesn't mean they didn't at some point make a decision about which principles to adopt (whether this decision was made consciously or not).

A woman at a talk I recently attended said, "A moral claim must be wrong if it comes from a morally suspect source." But if Hitler says murder is bad, does that make murder good? No. If communists failed to put their principles into practice, does that mean the principles are themselves wrong? No. They just didn't have the right way to go about it OR there are other, more important, principles. Yes context is important, and it can help enlighten us to moral truths, but it's not the authority on morality. Ultimately, you have to make a value judgment that goes beyond context, and that is moral philosophy, whether you like it or not.

You seem to think I that I want to ignore history, but I don't. It is important. But it's not what solves moral dilemmas, because in the end you appeal to something beyond the immediate circumstance (or even collective history) to some greater principle(s). Whether you notice that you're doing it, or whether you care that a whole field of people spend lifetimes working on these problems, is beside the point. Yes, history helps us get a grasp on the bad consequences of certain institutions or practices. But no, history doesn't tell us why those consequences are bad to begin with. There is always something more to it.

This is where you come back in with: well if it can't be implemented, why bother? Because no matter what you can't escape the type of philosophy I do. You do it yourself, you just underestimate what it is you're doing.

HISTORY STUDENT: For my part, I think you underestimate the importance of historical context (broadly defined) in the conclusions that philosophers reach and their methods of getting there. The thinker is not prior to historical inquiry; being a thinker is historical inquiry. To ask what rape is, is to ask what form it has taken in the past or else how it relates to other past things. To define lying is to describe what lying has or has not been. Even Kant, as far as I can tell, in trying to identify his universals, could not escape the locatedness of immoral actions; he simply tried to locate them everywhere. Intuition itself is largely a product of experience, immediate or vicarious, from which we subconsciously draw inferences. Jesus and his chroniclers induced us to love our neighbors by telling us stories -- and living out a story for us. And even an authoritative moral text has to be interpreted in light of past interpretations and past known uses of the terms in the text.

Now, I am of course saying that history and philosophy are inseparable -- indeed, that history and everything cognitive are inseparable. So perhaps we're not that far apart. But I do not accept the idea that philosophy or any other method of discovering a moral principle is in any way prior to history.

Yes, it is quite true that many people have, in the past, excused (e.g.) rape. I suspect that this favors my way of looking at things more than yours. For it suggests that nobody has ever actually transcended her historical context when reasoning about these things. Generally speaking, the people who first turn against a particular moral evil aren't the people who have attained some sort of intellectual detachment. Instead, they are people who have noticed historical evidence that others have not -- or more likely, who have lived through things that others have not, perhaps by living among the homeless, tending the wounds of war victims, or listening to a former slave. It is probably through hearing the testimony of rape victims, not through abstracted speculation, that we came to condemn rape. And it is through publishing victims' stories that we are likely to persuade others. History makes it possible for those who have not experienced various evils to imagine them clearly.

As a discipline, in other words, history can help us get a little closer to context-transcendence by showing us how things could be different from the way they are for us -- which is essential to minimizing the danger of subjectivity. Without extensive historical knowledge, we tend to assume that everybody is like us; we, or our local sources of information, become the universal standard. This severely limits the value of any rational inquiry. With historical knowledge, however, we can tune our moral intuition to the experiences as well as the common moral sense of others.

ME: I think I see where our paths cross. You want me to recognize, more so, the importance of history as something prior to our transcendent philosophizing. I agree. I just want to make sure you realize that after you study the context, you do make judgments that (in essence) transcend that very context you're studying. So I agree with you that I can't think abstractly until I can understand my reality, even my history. To understand what rape is, I have to understand it's history, other people's stories, etc. This touches on philosophy of language, where the meaning of words (or utterances) is not divorced from circumstance, but rather springs up from our real experiences. That's okay by me. Where I differ is not in our need to understand what things are (or how things were), but in how we understand the way things ought to be. Moral philosophers like to invoke the constraint of "ought implies can." If I ought to do something, then I better be capable of doing it. I think history can play an important role in answering what we 'can' do. We can't begin to understand what we ought to do until we understand what we're doing now, what we have done, what we are capable of doing. But then there is another step, a step that goes beyond historical context. That is the ought. Among the various options for what we 'can' do --and other humanities disciplines are better at getting to these-- we need a mechanism for choosing which ones are better, which ones we ought to do. How do we understand what better is? We need some sort of standard for what is best, or some way to compare the options available to us, even if what is 'best' is not in our grasp.

How do we begin? Well you're right in that we begin after already operating within a historical context/understanding/familiarity or whatever. But then we try and rise above with what's called the reflective equilibrium. The reflective equilibrium takes our context, our intuitions, our history and tries to make a coherent principle that adequately captures our values, and is compatible with our other beliefs (about morality, about reality, etc). The reason I'm okay with relying on intuition about moral judgments (and many philosophers aren't okay with this), is that I believe we were specifically equipped to tap into moral knowledge. I attribute this to the divine, others attribute it to our capability to reason (the same capability that lets us discover mathematical and logical truths, truths I think are akin to moral truths ---though again, not all philosophers would agree). So objective? Yes, because I believe moral principles like "respect fellow moral agents" is as evident as 2+2=4. I think we can all see that when we boil it down. And I think that a moral principle is true regardless of time/location. In a similar way (though probably not entirely the same), the mathematical fact that 2+2 will equal 4 is true here and in China and in back in the year 1500 and even in the year 3500. Yes, we use context to understand those truths (like counting m&ms to figure out the solution, but if you used apples, you'd reach the same answer!). Once we're there, the principles can apply to a multitude of contexts. In the case of the moral truth, it's application can and will vary in appearance dramatically --and it's application will be aided tremendously by understanding historical contexts and such. Take “respect fellow moral agents” as an example. Respect in a Western society will vary quite a bit from respect in an Eastern society (though in some ways it won't or shouldn't), and that's okay. The application can fit the specific context while the principle itself remains unchanged.

Make sense? I don't really think we ever disagreed. I think we both just want our disciplines (or my future one at least) to have their proper due. I wanted you to recognize where you transcended history, and you want me to recognize where I use it. Understood.


Anonymous said...

interesting discussion. i've had these types of debates before (physics vs. philosophy), where it seems like both parties are talking by one another, heels dug in stubbornly, but in the end agreeing that they are on the same side, just coming to the answer on opposed trajectories.
i remember a history professor asking: does history make great men, or do great men make history? i think your debate asks the same question.
it is probably 6 of one, half a dozen of the other. As any good student of kant remembers, "Concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind."
Something like squaring the rational vs. empirical circle...

Anonymous said...

Lindsey won. Hands down.