Monday, August 26, 2013


I don't tweet, but if I did...

The following email has just depressed me:
Good Morning –
What would make you happy? A new wardrobe, a faster car, moving to a different city?  People often think these things are the key to feeling good, but experts say only about 10% of a person's happiness is related to them.
Much more happiness -- 90% -- has to do with your general outlook on life. 
You can learn a lot about your own worldview by paying attention to "self-talk" -- the conversation you have in your head about yourself and the world around you.  Even more important, changing how you talk to yourself can actually help shift your perspective, too. Take a look at this week’s attachment to learn how.  
Say something nice to yourself today  - you’re actually pretty cool and you deserve to hear it!

Where was I?

I want to explain secondary sense, absolute sense, understanding, talking lions, and much else besides. But I can't. Here goes...

In a documentary about religion in India (Extreme Pilgrim, about 25 minutes and 40 seconds in) the British narrator, Peter Owen-Jones, sees a man behaving strangely by the side of the road and asks his Indian guide what is going on. The guide explains that this is a holy man performing some kind of ritual. Roads attract holy men because they are places where energy is concentrated. In one sense this explains the situation, it provides a category in which to place the man's behavior, which had seemed so odd. Do we now understand the behavior or the man himself? Well, in one sense we do, but only in a superficial sense. We understand that he is engaged in religious behavior of some kind, but we do not understand how he comes to be living this way. We are probably not, for instance, tempted to join him in this life. It is not a live option for us. I won't speak for you, but I would not say that I get him or what he is doing. But I can make some sense of his behavior. I know that he is not just crazy (he might be crazy as well as holy, of course) or playing a game, for instance. (Wittgenstein's lion, I imagine, is something like this. We would not recognize it as talking unless we could make some sense of its words, but we would not get the lion itself. An opposite case might be reading the Tractatus and understanding its author but not its propositions. Although in this case, too, we might think that we understand the propositions at first. And in the lion case we might come to think that we had never understood the lion's words either.)

This makes it sound, though, as though there are two kinds or levels of understanding, the superficial and the deep, understanding in the categorizing sense and understanding in the empathizing sense. But that seems oversimple. There are, surely, degrees of understanding, and not just two such degrees but infinitely many shades. Correspondingly, explaining something, providing or enabling understanding of it, comes in different degrees as well. Some cases of explanation might be all or nothing (either you understand now or you don't) but others will admit of degrees. Reshef has said (in his comment at 10:20):
getting others to understand a secondary use is a matter almost of luring them to a place where it would be natural for them to use the term in this way, and then ask them to reflect where they are.   
This is understanding of the empathetic kind, and it is tricky for several reasons. For one thing, this explanation of what an explanation of secondary use would be is figurative. Secondly, it is offered with that qualifying "almost." Thirdly, what if a person in that kind of place is, by virtue of being in it, not well placed to reflect on where they are? This seems likely to me. So I'm going to try to rely on my memory of being in this kind of place and reflect on that.

First, though, some introduction of the kind of place we're talking about. In the Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein says:
in ethical and religious language we seem constantly to be using similes. But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first appeared to be simile now seems to be mere nonsense.
He is talking about absolute sense here, but this impossibility of simply stating the facts that stand behind the use of words in question is also a feature of secondary sense. It raises the question of what counts as simply stating facts. And that, I think, is not very clear. It isn't that the words cannot be paraphrased (although that might well be true in some cases). Wittgenstein says that the experience of wondering at the existence of the world is:
exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world; and the experience of absolute safety has been described by saying that we feel safe in the hands of God. The third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty and again this was described by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct.
So the experiences he uses as examples can all be described in other words. Or so he believes. But these descriptions do not count as simply stating the facts. Even, apparently, "I feel guilty" does not count as a simple statement of fact. Presumably because Wittgenstein has in mind a feeling that could be accurately paraphrased as the feeling that God disapproves of one's conduct. And not in the sense that one might then seek a cure for this feeling. It is a feeling, so to speak, that one buys into. "I am guilty" or "I am conscious of my guilt" might have been a better choice of words. ("How conscious are you of your sin?" is a question asked by another holy man in the Extreme Pilgrim series.) To make another presumption about Wittgenstein, he seems to understand these uses of words well enough to claim to be able to paraphrase them, and to use them to describe his own experiences. He has been there. He gets it. But he still concludes that they really are nonsense. Because they cannot be paraphrased by simple statements of fact. Because they were attempts to go beyond the world, beyond significant language. When he said them he wanted to go beyond significant language. He wanted to talk nonsense. It seems to me that it is perfectly reasonable to call such uses of language nonsense. But what the speaker acknowledges that he wants or means is important (because of first-person authority and because it is rude--not a matter simply of stating a fact--to accuse people of talking nonsense).

That was absolute sense. Now the related idea of secondary sense:
Given the two ideas 'fat' and 'lean', would you be rather inclined to say that Wednesday was fat and Tuesday lean, or vice versa? (I incline decisively towards the former.) Now have "fat" and "lean" some different meaning here from their usual one?—They have a different use.—So ought I really to have used different words? Certainly not that.—I want to use these words (with their familiar meanings) here.—Now, I say nothing about the causes of this phenomenon. They might be associations from my childhood. But that is a hypothesis. Whatever the explanation,—the inclination is there. Asked "What do you really mean here by 'fat' and 'lean'?"—I could only explain the meanings in the usual way. I could not point to the examples of Tuesday and Wednesday.
Here one might speak of a 'primary' and 'secondary' sense of a word. It is only if the word has the primary sense for you that you use it in the secondary one.
Only if you have learnt to calculate—on paper or out loud—can you be made to grasp, by means of this concept, what calculating in the head is.
The secondary sense is not a 'metaphorical' sense. If I say "For me the vowel e is yellow" I do not mean: 'yellow' in a metaphorical sense,—for I could not express what I want to say in any other way than by means of the idea 'yellow'.
We have here cases of the same meaning but different use, different sense. The only explanation of the meaning that can be given is the normal, primary one. That is the meaning that the speaker wants. He does not want to go beyond significant language, at least not explicitly. He wants, on the contrary, to use the usual, familiar meanings of his words. But not in the usual kind of context. If the result is nonsense this seems to be involuntary. And "Wednesday is fat" does sound like nonsense. Especially if, when asked to explain, the speaker gives the usual explanation of what 'Wednesday' and 'fat' mean.

On the other hand, "calculating in the head" does not sound like nonsense at all. It means "doing mental arithmetic." But then paraphrasing 'in the head' as 'mentally' or 'in the mind' is not using a simple statement of facts, is it? "In the mind" is not simple. The word 'calculating' might be used in a secondary sense in the expression "calculating in the head," but are the words "in the head" also used in this way? Unlike the case of the vowel e, you can express what you want to say in another way than by means of the word 'head'. The word 'mind', however problematic it might be, would work perfectly well. Or is this cheating, like saying you could use the word 'buttercup-colored' instead of 'yellow'?

In referring to 'yellow' and 'fat' and 'lean,' Wittgenstein talks about ideas rather than words or meanings. Secondary use involves bringing in a word or idea that you know does not in any ordinary sense belong there but that is nevertheless exactly, and without substitute, what you want. Understanding this kind of use involves understanding what people who make it want. You have to know the primary meaning of a word, not just in the sense that you know how to use it but in the sense that you get the idea of it. And you have to get how that idea could be wanted in this anomalous situation. Now, if somebody does not get all that, how can it be explained to them? As Reshef says, getting them into the same kind of situation would be one way, and perhaps the only way.

Wittgenstein provides a few examples of how this might be done. In his first example of secondary sense he gives you two pairs of words or ideas and asks you how you would match them up (if you had to). His pairs are each of similar types, but they might not have to be. Given the ideas 'whale' and 'cucumber,' would you rather be inclined to say that Jupiter is a cucumber kind of planet and Mars a whale planet, or vice versa? I have no inclinations one way or the other here, but you might. And we can keep going until we find an example that works, that is, an example where you find that you do have a noticeable inclination one way or the other. Now, can you give a reason for this inclination, one that is not a hypothesis about your inclination's cause? Presumably, a priori, not. Reason has no foothold here. In that sense you are talking nonsense. The whole exercise is an exercise in  nonsense, or in getting someone to feel inclined to talk nonsense.

The case of the yellow e is not like that, because there is no mention of 'yellow' and 'e' having been picked from a limited range of options. The person who says "For me the vowel e is yellow" may or may not have been asked to associate a color with a vowel. But there is something that they want to say, and only those words with their usual (albeit ill-fitting) meaning will do to express it. Or, at any rate, this is what they say. Whether there really is an it that they want to express remains to be seen. That might sound too skeptical, as if the default attitude to people who speak is doubt, and the onus on them to prove that their words have meaning. I don't think that can be true. [Flag--there seems to be something important here that I am not saying much about.] But it is true that we have not (yet) seen that there is an it that they want to express.  Perhaps someone else will say that they get it, that for them e is yellow too. Or they might strongly disagree, and insist that e is purple. Would such a conversation make sense? I don't know. I wouldn't be able to make sense of it, at least at first. Perhaps at some point I would start to get it, start to feel inclined to take one side or the other, or my own third position (e is green!). Not having any inclination to talk like this at all I want to leave this one alone.

Different again is the case of calculating in one's head. This is a perfectly normal expression and, at least it seems to me, not even close to being nonsense. It may be secondary in the sense specified by Wittgenstein--you won't understand what it is unless you know how to calculate--but it is not very different from calculating out loud. It could almost be said to be merely a difference in volume (if you move your lips while doing it). That is how I would teach someone to calculate in their head, anyway, if I had to do so. Start with calculation on paper or a board, then move to calculation out loud, then move to a whisper, then silently. It might not work (calculating in the head isn't just calculating out loud at very low volume even if it is very close to this--it isn't close at all if you can't make the transition from quiet to silent), but those are the stages through which I would try to lead them. And virtually everybody can calculate in their head and does understand what this activity is. How do I know? Well, they say they can do it, they think they can do it, when asked to do it they are not thrown by the question, and they usually come up with the right answer as long as the question is simple enough.

Now what if we apply these criteria to "e is yellow"? Imagine that a large number of people say things like this. They claim to be able to identify the colors of vowels, they are sincere when they make such claims, if asked to say what color u is they react as if to a normal question, and they usually agree in their answers (I mean, let us imagine that all this is the case). Does "the color of a vowel" mean something in this case? I can't say what it means, but it looks as though it has meaning for them, as though they are able to do something that I can't, and that I don't understand. I am on the outside of this game, if it is a game, and cannot get inside it, cannot get it, by means of words because the only meanings they can give of the words they use are the usual ones that I'm familiar with--it's this secondary use that I don't get. What I don't understand is not words but a use of words, a practice or form of behavior. And in a (limited) sense I do understand it, just as I might understand that the holy man in India is engaged in a religious practice. They are naming the colors of vowels. I have a name for the practice and can do something with this concept (namely, most likely, leave them to it). I am like a (completely) blind (from birth) man with the concept seeing--I know it as something I cannot do or imagine, but that seems to have a role in other people's lives. [Flag 2--something feels off here.]

Wonder at the existence of the world is foreign to me, but the feeling of absolute safety is something that I think I understand. I have never wanted to put any experience of mine in quite those words, but I have felt a couple of times that everything is all right and (inevitably) will be all right (no matter what happens). I would at these times have been quite happy to express this with the words "We are safe in God's hands," or something of that sort at least, something referring to God. I feel that I know exactly what kind of experience Wittgenstein is talking about when he talks about these experiences that seem "to have in some sense an intrinsic, absolute value." I am inclined to say that I have felt the same thing. And so are lots of other people. Wittgenstein counts, in his lecture, on members of the audience being able to relate, getting what he is saying, even if it is "nonsense." He doesn't mean nonsense in a technical sense but in the ordinary sense of something whose meaning one cannot explain in terms of simple facts. The word nonsense, in the (or an) ordinary sense, doesn't just mean this though. It means rubbish. "When a sentence is called senseless, it is not as it were its sense that is senseless. But a combination of words is being excluded from the language, withdrawn from circulation." To call sentences like "God created the world" nonsense, then, is to recommend that they be withdrawn from circulation. Qua philosopher I don't think anyone has any business doing this. [Flag 3--I don't think I'm wrong here, but a lot more could be said about it.]

Wait though. Can we be sure that these words (i.e. "God created the world," etc.) are even in the language to begin with, that they do anything there? The fact that many people talk like this is no guarantee that these words mean what these people want them to mean, or that what these people want is to make sense, to operate within significant language. And is that even a fact? I just googled "God created the world" and got nearly 6,000,000 hits. But the only relevant ones are the ones that could equally have said "I wonder at the existence of the world." And that is surely not most of them. Usually when people say that God created the world they are not expressing wonder but repeating a kind of cliche or bit of dogma. They are not describing an experience that they have had. Still people do have this kind of experience. What kind? The kind that inclines them to use expressions like these. Can I explain in words what this is like, beyond repeating the examples? Ex hypothesi, No. I can imagine sitting around with other people who have had such experiences and sharing our stories while someone else looked on feeling very much as I would in a group of people naming the colors of vowels. It might be much like the case of someone for whom "calculating in the head" means nothing, because he can only calculate with perceptible signs. In that case, though, the people who talk of calculating in their heads can at least produce answers to mathematical questions. What can the wonderers at the world and the feelers of guilt do? Not much. Have certain kinds of conversations maybe (if these really are conversations and not orgies of gibberish). Enjoy reading certain kinds of books. Maybe they behave differently from other people. Does this show that their words make sense? No. Cranks have conversations, books, and behavior of their own.

How, then, are we to decide whether these uses of language make sense, or what kind of sense they make, or in what ways they do and in what ways they do not make sense? Is "God created the world" said as an expression of wonder at the very existence of a world more like "The letter n is brown" or "Today I did some mental arithmetic"? What kind of question is that? It surely can't be about how many people utter words like these, and yet that seems to be highly relevant. [Flag 4--I suspect that numbers seem relevant because they causally affect what we count as sense. But numbers are no criterion of sense, no grammatical reason to count something as sense. The authors of the OED care about numbers, but it is not part of the concept of 'sentence that makes sense' that such a sentence must be widely used. And "This is nonsense even though everyone says it all the time" is not some kind of self-contradiction. Maybe this is changing though.] The question rather is about what, if anything, people are doing when they use words like these. They are describing experiences that cannot be described, for which normal language has no words. So they are not really, not exactly, describing experiences. They are expressing feelings, but not in the way that people who laugh or cry are expressing their feelings, and not in the way that people who say "I am excited" or "I am afraid" are expressing their feelings. What they are doing cannot be separated, cannot be understood separately, from the words they are using, and these words are not being used in their usual way, but do have (are required to have) their usual meanings. This is something that humans do. Any given instance of it might be nonsense or might be understood, but the general phenomenon is part of human life. A big part of it. Talk about the colors of vowels is a tiny part, at most, of our lives. But talk about what we take to be profoundly important experiences is a bigger part. And talk about such phenomena as calculating in one's head is part of everyday life. It is presumably something that all human beings, or all readers of this blog at least, get. In other words, I can't explain it but you know what I mean. Don't you?

If we now reflect on the times when we talk like this, what do we see? I just don't think it's possible to say very much about this. There are cases of more or less plain nonsense ("I am inclined to say that a is green") and cases of more or less obvious sense ("calculating in one's head"). When we find ourselves talking like this without any trouble, indeed in ways we find useful (e.g. when teaching children to add in their heads), we seem to me to have all we need to call these uses of language meaningful. Might someone point out something that stops us in our tracks and makes us want to stop talking like this? I suppose so. Then we might say that we had been talking nonsense all along. But that hypothetical possibility isn't a reason to be skeptical now.

The in-between cases are perhaps the most interesting. I keep finding myself thinking of the song "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads: You may find yourself in a beautiful house ..., You may tell yourself: This is not my beautiful house..., You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?, etc. What does it mean to say that you may find yourself in the house where you live? Here it surely means that you stop and think about something you haven't stopped and thought about before. And when you do it might all seem unreal. Not in the sense that you believe it is an illusion, but in the sense that you have a feeling that you associate with illusions, with unreality. You become aware of the dreamlike or film-like state in which you have done the things that led to your living in this house, with this beautiful wife, etc. Although what seems unreal is not your past decision-making but its results.

Reshef quotes Wittgenstein on this sense of unreality:
Wittgenstein, Remarks on Philosophy of Psychology 1, §§125-126:
The feeling of the unreality of one's surroundings. This feeling I have had once, and many have it before the onset of mental illness. Everything seems somehow not real; but not as if one saw things unclear or blurred; everything looks quite as usual. And how do I know that another has felt what I have? Because he uses the same words as I find appropriate.
But why do I choose precisely the word "unreality" to express it? Surely not because of its sound. (A word of very like sound but different meaning would not do.) I choose it because of its meaning. 
But I surely did not learn to use the word to mean: a feeling. No; but I learned to use it with a particular meaning and now I use it spontaneously like this. One might say—though it may mislead—: When I have learnt the word in its ordinary meaning, then I choose that meaning as a simile for my feeling. But of course what is in question here is not a simile, not a comparison of the feeling with something else.
The fact is simply that I use a word, the bearer of another technique, as the expression of a feeling. I use it in a new way. And wherein consists this new kind of use? Well, one thing is that I say: I have a 'feeling of unreality'—after I have, of course, learnt the use of the word "feeling" in the ordinary way. Also: the feeling is a state.    
The "feeling of unreality" is a lot like "calculating in one's head," it seems to me. We understand the feeling by having it [Flag 5--this sounds odd], or others like it, and we understand those who speak this way because they spontaneously choose the same words we do, despite the novelty of this way of speaking.

I have five flags and have gone on at some length for a blog post, so I'll stop. I also don't know what more I could say except about those flags. But I feel as though I've been saying that all along. So that's another reason to stop.

Friday, August 16, 2013

She has five toes

I've been thinking more about Reshef's comment:
Is what you are saying, then, that factual language has all the ethics we need in it already?

If so, then what do you make of this, at least apparent, difference: Suppose someone asks me how many books I have on my shelf, to decide how many boxes I need to pack my office, and I say "I have five." Compare this to looking at the toes of a newborn and counting them and saying "She has five." 

This is not a difference between factual and ethical, but it seems to me that the wonder is there in the second case, and it is not there in the first. At least to me it feels that there is a deep difference of grammar, or a of point, between the two utterances.

Is Wittgenstein recommending that we say everything in the second full-of-wonder kind of way? And if not, is there a room here for a distinction?
I think the answer to the first question is Yes, although of course much depends on what we mean by "factual language." I mean something like ordinary language, language whose meaning can be explained or is quite clear. (Or I want to mean that. Am I cheating?)

One thing I want to say about the "I have five"/"She has five" cases is that these sentences could be used in various ways, even sticking to the examples involving numbers of books and numbers of toes. "I have five books!" could be said with great excitement by a Robinson Crusoe anxious that he would lose his mind without company or books. (A silly example, perhaps, but Chesterton recommends thinking of all that exists as if we were Crusoe, and his attitude toward the world has been likened to Wittgenstein's.) On the other hand, one can also imagine a tired nurse doing a standard check of a newborn and reporting that, yet again, this one has five toes on each foot just like all the others without the slightest trace of wonder.

So what is the difference? I'm imagining a loving parent looking at the baby and doing a kind of inventory: she's got a nose, and two eyes, and two hands, and ... But the point is not to report facts. It is a reveling in the facts. Does this make it nonsense? I don't think so. There is no great mystery about what the parent is saying. It's a lot like Hooray! Even if they want to talk about the miracle of birth or life, they still are not going so far as to talk about wondering at the existence of the world. They are wondering at one thing in the world. This is love, isn't it? Maybe there's a problem for my position here: what is love? I won't try to answer that now.

Is Wittgenstein recommending that we say everything in a full-of-wonder kind of way? He certainly doesn't say so, and it would seem like a weird thing to say. But on the other hand, how would we talk if we took Chesterton's Crusoe-attitude, or agreed with Wittgenstein that everything is a gift from God? How would a good actor playing Father Zossima (or Jesus or the Buddha or whoever you like) speak? Not with an exclamation point or "Wow!" at the end of every sentence, certainly, but maybe not the same way I speak. Thankfully it doesn't really matter. If we live in wonder we will speak however we speak. And if we don't, it's our loss. What Wittgenstein would have thought is neither here nor there.

Reshef's next set of questions was this:
So, to say something with an ethical intention is to say something that uses normal vocabulary, but uses it in a way that somehow charges it with special meaning?

Also, what would make a sentence nonsense: (1) the vocabulary it uses, or (2) the intention (or lack thereof) with which the vocabulary is used, or (3) something else?

Part of what I'm not sure I understand--if that's what you mean--is how there might be logical room for using the same words with a different, ethical, intention.
I don't really like the sound of special meaning, but the answer might be Yes, depending on exactly what terms like "special meaning" and "ethical intention" mean. I don't think that ethics requires a special vocabulary, so my inclination is to say Yes. Here's a possible example of using the same words with an ethical and with a non-ethical intention. Take the words "You'll kill him." If two people are debating what to do about someone who has been causing them problems they might quickly agree that this person needs killing, and then it might become clear that one of them has the better chance of success. At this point one says to this other: "You'll kill him." It's just saying out loud the rational conclusion of their conversation, given their goals, etc. In another case I might be beating a prisoner to get information from him, but he isn't being very forthcoming and I hit him harder. Seeing that I am behaving this way, and hoping to stop me, someone might say "You'll kill him" to point out the danger of my committing murder. This might be motivated by a desire to avoid trouble with the police, but it might also be motivated simply by a desire to prevent murder. That, I take it, would be an ethical intention. Same words, different context, different intention. But there is no need to refer to human rights or moral duties or higher pleasures or anything of that sort. In fact that kind of talk would be unlikely to have the desired effect. "You'll kill him" is an ordinary sentence that can be used for different purposes, one of which is trying to get someone to stop what they are doing. There is nothing absolute or mysterious about that. It isn't nonsense

What nonsense is is hard to define, I think. In the Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein refers repeatedly to what is obvious, to common ground, to the common sense of a word, to perfectly good and clear sense, and so on. Nonsense might best be understood as what cannot be translated into terms of this kind. So what makes a sentence nonsense would be neither the vocabulary used nor the intention but something else--the impossibility of its being explained in ordinary language. But I can't define 'ordinary' in any precise way. Perhaps this is a problem, but the position seems to be inherently non-technical, imprecise. It depends on appeal to common ground and what's obvious. And perhaps anything that relies on that kind of appeal can only be defended to one small audience at a time, or needs to avoid dogmatism completely.    

What about other possible objections to what I've been saying? Here's something I wrote in an email recently:
I'm not convinced yet that "Cruelty is bad" is really nonsense. I can imagine a military leader urging his troops to believe that cruelty is necessary, perhaps as a means to a desirable end. Or someone giving relationship advice suggesting that sometimes one has to be cruel to be kind. And I think Nietzsche advocates cruelty at some point. These are all different cases, but in each of them isn't it possible to imagine someone responding, "But cruelty is bad!"? This would be a rejection of the advice given (or a suggestion that 'cruelty' can't really be the right word), and perhaps a reminder of commonsense ethics. It doesn't seem like nonsense unless one has a theory of nonsense according to which this kind of thing counts as nonsense, [...]. I can also imagine, I think, a philosopher going step-by-step through an argument designed to show that something or other is wrong, and getting to the conclusion that X is cruel, only to follow this with the unnecessary "And cruelty is bad" for the sake of completeness or just as a joke. Either way, again, the word 'nonsense' doesn't seem quite right. 

Secondly, I wonder about other kinds of propositions that one might use or encounter in ethics. Not "cruelty is bad" or "murder is wrong" but, say, "abortion is wrong" or "no matter what the case may be, it is always best to maximize good consequences." There are also less obviously evaluative claims, like "water-boarding is torture". These all seem more debatable and less redundant than "cruelty is bad."  
How would I respond to my recent self? In the first part of the first paragraph that I just quoted I give various things that "Cruelty is bad:" might mean, or that someone might mean by these words. If they mean any of these things then the words have a meaning. And so they aren't nonsense in the sense I've been talking about here. They aren't attempts to articulate anything absolute or beyond the world. In the philosopher example I think "cruelty is bad" means something like "we all agree that cruelty is bad." It is a statement of fact, not of ethics. If it were meant to express an absolute value then it would be neither funny nor redundant.

I'll go through the other three examples one by one. "Abortion is wrong"--this could mean that abortion is never a good idea prudentially, but it probably more often means something like "abortion is unjust" or "abortion ought to be illegal." In the "there oughta be a law" sense it probably isn't nonsense. Otherwise it might be. People do talk a lot of nonsense about abortion, e.g. comparing it with murder without thinking for a second that it ought to be treated like murder, i.e. saying things they don't mean. I would call that nonsense. And claims that it violates the rights of the fetus might turn out to be nonsense too, depending on whether this talk of rights, and the attribution of rights to a fetus, and so on, can be explained. If they just mean "I don't like it" or something like that, then that's a statement of fact. So that's OK.

"It's always best to maximize good consequences"--there are things to be explained here, perhaps most obviously 'best'. If it can be explained, OK. If not, there's a problem. But if the sentence is just a report of the speaker's love of consequentialism then that's a factual statement and not nonsense.

"Water-boarding is torture"--this is perhaps most likely to be said in a discussion about whether people like the CIA should carry out water-boarding. It could mean something like, "water-boarding naturally belongs in the same category as the use of thumb-screws and the rack." As a statement about similarities it looks like  a fact to me. There is also a history of people, including the US Government, I believe, objecting to the use of water-boarding by other nations as torture. Or it could be a statement of fact about the speaker's position. If it's meant to be something else, though, then it does start to sound like nonsense. That is, I don't know what else it might mean.

I hope I haven't contradicted too much of what I said in my last two posts. I also hope I haven't defended them in a way that removes all interesting content from them. But please feel free to point it out if I have.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Facts versus values

My last post talked about a distinction that Wittgenstein makes between the scientific, practical attitude and the ethical, wondering attitude. He might value the former, but he certainly values the latter. When he says that human beings have to awaken to wonder, though, it seems clear from the context that he does not mean this as a moral imperative--the point is rather that we don't start out wondering at things like birth, sickness, death, madness, catalepsy, sleep, and dreams because they are such everyday occurrences. Animals don't wonder at these things, and there is no reason to suppose that our primitive ancestors must have either. Wondering or marveling at phenomena like these requires an awakening. But having said this, it is also fairly clear that he regards such an awakening as a good thing. And science, he says, has the opposite effect. I don't think he's anti-science, though, so much as he is against a certain kind of attitude common in contemporary science (according to him). This is a debunking, demystifying, reductive attitude. Not that he supports bunk or mystification. Rather, I think, he opposes the combination of arrogance and disappointment that comes from the project of deflating the universe. The best way to do science is with wonder, not in a spirit of opposition to it. And wonder does not mean superstition or myth-making, of course.

In a way, then, the two attitudes have to be fused. Or Wittgenstein wants them to be fused. But it is less a matter of mixing the two together than of injecting the spirit of wonder into the practical work of science, of discovering facts and exploring the world. Infusing rather than fusing, then. 

He also distinguishes two kinds of language or use of language, the factual and the ethical. But the former is the only one that actually makes sense, he argues, so really we don't have two kinds of language at all. There is only the distinction between sense and nonsense. And of course he is not in favor of talking nonsense. So there is no question of fusion or infusion here. We either talk (sense) or we don't.

The suggestion I wanted to make was that the realization that ethical talk is actually nonsense might lead us to avoid it and stick to factual language, i.e. language that actually makes sense, and that, far from meaning an abandonment of ethics and everything 'higher', this might be the saving of ethics and of us. Because there would be nowhere for all those feelings (attitudes, beliefs, whatever you want to call them) to go except into our practical work and its language. The fact/value distinction takes value out of the world, so it is good to reject it. And by rejecting all talk of value we reject that distinction.

One problem with this suggestion is where to draw the line between facts and values. Anscombe suggests dropping talk of what is morally right and wrong, etc., in favor of talking about virtues such as injustice. But is "Capital punishment is unjust" a statement of fact or of value? It looks like a value judgement. Are we to stop saying things like this? And what about a claim such as "Water-boarding is not torture"? It looks like (a claim to be stating) a fact, but doesn't it contain a value component?

I think any appearance of a problem here is an illusion. Because Wittgenstein's distinction is really between sense and nonsense. The essence of what he calls the ethical is the desire to go beyond significant language. So the question to ask is always simply, "Does this make sense?" If we can say what it means then it is OK. If not, not. Forget about questions of value, explicit or implicit. Look for meaning in concrete, practical terms, i.e. not "cosmic meaning" or "higher meaning" but ordinary, everyday meaning. As long as you have that then, so far as Wittgenstein (or the person I am describing here) has a test, you have passed it. He might look like a naturalist or a realist, and in some ways he is, but he is not looking to reduce anything to anything else, and his spirit or purpose is not one of disenchantment but of a kind of perfectly honest enchantment. He wants, as it were, to get the value back into facts, back into what we acknowledge as the world.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wonder and science

In the 1929 Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein says:
Let me first consider, again, our first experience of wondering at the existence of the world and let me describe it in a slightly different way; we all know what in ordinary life would be called a miracle. It obviously is simply an event the like of which we have never yet seen. Now suppose such an event happened. Take the case that one of you suddenly grew a lion's head and began to roar. Certainly that would be as extraordinary a thing as I can imagine. Now whenever we should have recovered from our surprise, what I would suggest would be to fetch a doctor and have the case scientifically investigated and if it were not for hurting him I would have him vivisected. And where would the miracle have got to? For it is clear that when we look at it in this way everything miraculous has disappeared; unless what we mean by this term is merely that a fact has not yet been explained by science which again means that we have hitherto failed to group this fact with others in a scientific system. This shows that it is absurd to say 'Science has proved that there are no miracles.' The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle. For imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself miraculous in the absolute sense of that term. For we see now that we have been using the word 'miracle' in a relative and an absolute sense. And I will now describe the experience of wondering at the existence of the world by saying: it is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle.
The miraculous is, so to speak, a way of looking at things, looking with surprise and wonder. The scientific way of looking at a fact is different.

This is a misleading way to put things, I think, because it is not as if scientists are immune to surprise and wonder. Michael Faraday's The Chemical History of a Candle (a favorite of Wittgenstein's, as I remember) contains the words 'wonderful' and 'wonderfully' a total of 21 times, for instance. But obviously the attitude of someone who is amazed by the transformation of someone's head is not the same as that of someone who has recovered from such surprise and now wants to understand and perhaps reverse the change. Or both people might want to understand, but one does so in a "What the...!?" kind of way and the other is much more practical. One says "Wow!" and the other rolls up their sleeves. I don't think it's insulting to science to use its name as a label for the second kind of attitude, as long as this caveat is kept in mind. But Wittgenstein comes close to identifying ethics with the former and science with the latter, thus contrasting ethics with science, which does sound a bit insulting.

He makes a similar contrast in 1930 in remarks collected in Culture and Value:
In order to marvel human beings--and perhaps peoples--have to wake up. Science is a way of sending them off to sleep again.
I.e. it is simply false to say: of course, these primitive peoples had to marvel at everything. But perhaps right that these people did marvel at everything around them.--To think they had to marvel at them is a primitive superstition. (Like that of thinking that they had to fear all the forces of nature & that we of course do not have to fear. On the other hand experience may show that certain primitive tribes are very strongly inclined to fear natural phenomena.--But we cannot exclude the possibility that highly civilized peoples will become liable to this very same fear again & their civilization and the knowledge of science will not protect them from this. All the same it is true that the spirit in which science is carried on nowadays is not compatible with fear of this kind.)
Here Wittgenstein is not talking about wondering at the existence of the world but wondering or marveling at this or that phenomenon in the world. But he does contrast both marveling and fear with the spirit and the effect of contemporary science. Knowledge of science, he explicitly says, does not rule out fear of natural phenomena, and I think it's reasonable to add that it doesn't rule out wonderment either.

Right after this he writes:
What Renan calls the bon sens précoce of the semitic races (an idea that I already entertained a long time ago) is their unpoetic mentality, which heads straight for what is concrete. Which is characteristic of my philosophy.
Things are right before our eyes, not covered by any veil.--This is where religion & art part company.
He was talking about Renan on the (ancient) Semitic people when he talked about primitive people and marveling, etc. Heading straight for the concrete sounds not only unpoetic but scientific in the non-ethical sense, but perhaps one can head for the concrete while still marveling at it. Facts are not miraculous in the absolute sense, but they might not be absolutely non-miraculous either. That is, something like lightning can be regarded as a natural phenomenon to be understood and perhaps exploited or as wonderful or frightening. Neither is the absolutely correct way to regard it. Not because something else is the absolutely correct way but because there is no such way, or perhaps because the only meaning that "the absolutely correct way to regard things" has is as a personal endorsement, but the words "absolutely correct" were meant to head off that meaning.

I don't know where religion and art are supposed to part company. Does religion cover things with a veil? Not Semitic religion, apparently. So presumably it is art that Wittgenstein thinks veils things.
The work of art compels us--as one might say--to see it in the right perspective, but without art the object is a piece of nature like any other & the fact that we may exalt it through our enthusiasm does not give anyone the right to display it to us. (I am always reminded of one of those insipid photographs of a piece of scenery which is interesting to the person who took it because he was there himself, experienced something, but which a third party looks at with justifiable coldness; insofar as it is ever justifiable to look at something with coldness.)
This last qualification is important, because "every life & everything whatever" is worth contemplating qua  "God's work of art" (also Culture & Value 1930). So justifiable coldness is only relative coldness. Still, apparently art is unjust, perhaps even dishonest. Thankfully there is an alternative:
But now it seems to me too that besides the work of the artist there is another through which the world may be captured sub specie æterni. It is--as I believe--the way of thought which as it were flies above the world and leaves it the way it is, contemplating it from above in its flight.
The way of thought that leaves the world the way it is sounds like a reference to Wittgenstein's later idea of philosophy, but contemplating the world from above does not sound at all like that. So I'm not sure what he has in mind here. Maybe just literally a kind of thinking about things, contemplating the world.

Speaking of the world, we cannot marvel at the very existence of the world because the world just is whatever there is, the set of all that is the case. Someone who has the experience described as wondering at the existence of the world does not wonder that there is this rather than that, but at there being something at all. Even if what there is is an empty set? Or is that inconceivable? If it's inconceivable, why is that? Is it because there is always at least possibility? Which is to say something like logic or meaning, not as a necessary being  but as something presupposed or given by any question or thought. Its 'non-existence' is unimaginable or inconceivable because to imagine and to conceive is to already be in its realm. But I'm not sure how much sense that makes. Kant seems to think we need to go back further than this:
The supreme concept with which it is customary to begin a transcendental philosophy is the division into the possible and the impossible. But since all division presupposes a concept to be divided, a still higher one is required, and this is the concept of an object in general, taken problematically, without its having been decided whether it is something or nothing. (CPR A 290/B 346)
I don't know whether this is really thinkable either.

What about "The world is all that is the case"? We can't conceive of that's not being the case either, can we? So by Wittgenstein's lights, which are not particularly technical (I'm going by the Lecture on Ethics), we can't think this either. "I wonder at the existence of the world" was meant to be nonsense because the world is all that is the case. But now "The world is all that is the case" looks like nonsense too. Indeed, sentences of the form "... therefore x is nonsense" look like trouble. Nonsense is not a product of facts, or an empirical matter. Nothing turns out to be nonsense. There is nonsense and there is sense, there is no border between them. And in fact there isn't really nonsense either, any more than the world can be divided into the things that are and the things that aren't. But if the world cannot be divided like that, then it is inconceivable that it could be. I didn't mean that it just so happens that the world cannot be divided that way, after all. So saying that it can't be is nonsense too. The only thing to do is to shut up about all this metaphysical stuff (which isn't actually stuff or metaphysical at all).

Does this mean that we can only talk science all the time, facts facts and facts but no ethics? No. Because science (in the sense I'm using the word here) is not a language but an attitude. The attitude of ethics won't be killed off by sticking to factual language, i.e. language that makes sense. In fact the opposite might well be the case. If we have only one language instead of two (the language of value and the language of facts) then maybe the spirit of value will live in all our talk. The existence of an ethical vocabulary invites the non-use of this vocabulary in scientific work, which invites the keeping at bay of the ethical attitude during any serious business. We might be more ethical if we talked less about ethics. The proposal that we stop talking about it might sound risky, but actually, if Wittgenstein is right, there is no it to talk about in the first place. There are no rights, duties, obligations, persons, evils, and so on. (Which is not to say that there are no people or that there is no such thing as murder, for instance.) So not using those words deprives us of nothing that we need. And it might do us a lot of good.

At least it's possible that this might be a Wittgensteinian/Anscombean position that could be worth exploring. If there's anything both good and original in all this I suspect I stole it from Ed Dain, but of course if I've made a mess of it then that's not his fault.

Paul Tillich

It is not really news, and perhaps not blogworthy, to say that Tillich was quite good at theology. But I don't know his work, and want to quote something I found when looking for something Stephen Mulhall has written about God. Edward Feser quotes Tillich:
The ground of being cannot be found within the totality of beings, nor can the ground of essence and existence participate in the tensions and disruptions characteristic of the transition from essence to existence.  The scholastics were right when they asserted that in God there is no difference between essence and existence.  But they perverted their insight when in spite of this assertion they spoke of the existence of God and tried to argue in favor of it.  Actually, they did not mean “existence.”  They meant the reality, the validity, the truth of the idea of God, an idea which did not carry the connotation of something or someone who might or might not exist.  Yet this is the way in which the idea of God is understood today in scholarly as well as in popular discussions about the “existence of God.”  It would be a very great victory for Christian apologetics if the words “God” and “existence” were very definitely separated except in the paradox of God becoming manifest under the conditions of existence, that is, in the christological paradox.  God does not exist.  He is being-itself beyond essence and existence.  Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.
All the quotes Feser provides in that piece are worth reading. Actually I think they are great, but perhaps that's just a shallow enthusiasm. And I'm not snarkily implying that Feser's commentary is not great. I simply haven't read it yet. I will do so, but I want to get this post done before my enthusiasm wanes.  

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Experience and evidence

I didn't bother reading Gary Gutting's piece on Zeus when I saw that he said that "back in the day (say, 500-400 B.C.), there would seem to have been considerable evidence," for the existence of Zeus. I can't take this seriously, but I was impressed by the thoroughness and care of Miles Rind's criticism of it at Skeptical Observations. As he says there:
if I were an ancient Greek, I would experience religious observances as involving the presence or the influence of Zeus and company. That does not mean that I would regard my experiences as having a sort of divine-presence quality to them and then, from the fact that I had experiences of this character, draw the conclusion that I had genuine experiences of divine presence. Such a manner of thinking would be a bizarre case of self-dissociation.
He now has a shorter piece on the same subject, in which he argues that:
The issue of whether the ancient Greeks could have had good evidence of the existence of their gods comes down to the issue of whether a theistic explanation of their religious experiences can be a better explanation than any naturalistic one. 
It seems to me that experience is not evidence, that evidence is something like clues, and that direct experience is not so much a really good clue as no clue at all. If someone asks me what evidence I have that deer have been eating the berries in the garden, and I reply that I have seen them do it, then I am not supplying the evidence requested but insisting that there is no question of evidence. I don't need evidence, I have seen it with my own two eyes. (But according to Wikipedia evidence is "anything presented in support of an assertion," so maybe I'm wrong. In that case there could, it seems, be evidence that 2 + 2 =4. This sounds wrong to me, but perhaps does not to others.)

Experience is a funny thing. One thought about religious experience as evidence of the existence of Zeus (or any other deity) is that we might look for a correlation between the existence, or actions, of Zeus and the occurrence of religious experiences. But of course we can't do that. So in a way we have no evidence at all. Or we could ask what the most likely explanation is, and here we are in Hume-on-miracles territory. What are the odds that this phenomenon has a natural explanation, and what are the odds that it has a supernatural explanation? But we can't even guess at the latter, so this gets us nowhere. Those arguments from design that say, "The universe's being as it is statistically is like the various parts of a commercial jet being assembled into a working plane by a strong wind, therefore God exists," suffer from the same problem. Is God's existence more likely than that? How do you know? (It is a logical and ethical mistake, an error in grammar and theology, to think of the existence of God as a question of probabilities. This might become clearer if one tried to calculate the odds, although I think people have done this and not achieved the clarity I have in mind. In case it isn't clear, it's a mistake because it treats God as the same kind of thing as a fluke gust of wind, i.e. something whose odds we might calculate or at least estimate, i.e. as something natural, however super. To think of God this way is to misunderstand what believers believe in a way that is both simply wrong (that isn't what they believe) and insulting (it is to treat God as something less than what they believe). This is complicated by the fact that some believers (or "believers") are idolaters in just this way, but that isn't the kind of belief that interests me. There's also the question whether non-believers like me should care about the alleged badness of insulting God, but we can at least respect the feelings of believers. And I think we can respect the concept of God, too, and want to do justice to it.)

Religious experience is something like the feeling of absolute safety or that everything is (is going to be) all right. It's weird that experience can have propositional content, but it sort of does. There is some gap, a kind of elastic field between the experience and the description or verbal expression of it, but not much. You can't have one without the other. Perhaps one can feel that Zeus is in control. All's right with the world. This feeling might cause belief in Zeus. It might make it impossible for one to make sense of life without religion. But it doesn't prove anything or provide evidence of anything beyond itself. And once the experience has faded it is always possible (conceivable) that one might dismiss it and say, "What was I thinking?" That might be the only way to make sense of life too. It depends on one's life, on one's ability to make sense of things, and one's style or way of doing so. These are culturally and historically shaped, of course, but there's room for individual variation, at least in our culture. Not infinite variation though. Not belief in Zeus, for instance. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Flexible Constitution

Sean Wilson's book The Flexible Constitution is a pleasure to read, which is not something I expected to say about a book on constitutional interpretation. It's very clear, full of examples and diagrams to illustrate its points, and a quick read.

So what is it about? Near the end Sean writes that:
scholars of all stripes in the American academy [are] suggesting to one another that the "true meaning of the law" is found in the secrets one can unearth about historical lives, debates, speeches, and so forth ... I wrote this book because I desperately wanted to see this conversation end.
He's unlikely to get his wish, but he presents a good case. It's unlikely to work because one book rarely silences a whole crowd, and because I think to have any chance of doing this he would have to engage in more detail and at greater length with his opponents than he does here. Perhaps he'll write a sequel that does that.

He rejects the idea that the US Constitution means what its framers had in mind when they wrote it on the grounds that we can't know what they were thinking, they may have been thinking different things, and it makes more sense to be guided by what they wrote and agreed on than by what they were thinking as they did so. He rejects the idea that it means what it meant when it was framed on the grounds, roughly, that it doesn't say so but, on the contrary, is written in ordinary language and so, presumably, has a non-technical, hence non-rigid, hence flexible meaning. The Second Amendment might provide a useful example. It would be silly to take the "right to bear arms" to refer to a right to carry only muskets and the like on the grounds that this is what "arms" meant to the people of 1791. (It wouldn't necessarily be silly to argue that we should interpret it this way in order to protect lives, but it would be silly to think that this is the only correct interpretation regardless of the consequences.) Similarly, Sean argues, it is silly to think that we should take words like 'equality,' 'citizen,' and 'cruel and unusual' as meaning only exactly what they meant (designated, referred to) to people in the United States in the late 18th century.

History matters to constitutional interpretation only in the sense that if, say, the word 'arms' ceased to mean weapons at all then we would have to bear in mind that it did mean weapons, and not just limbs, in 1791. I think Sean acknowledges this point in his Twist example on p. 193, but he doesn't spend a long time on it. So history does matter, but it isn't the only thing that matters. Because the Constitution lacks much definition and technical language, it is open to interpretation. Which interpretation is correct? In a sense the answer is none. To think otherwise would be to pretend that the openness or flexibility is not there. But the best interpretation will be, Sean argues, the one that both makes a proper use of the words of the text and provides the best and most coherent account of the ideas contained in the document. I'm no expert, but this all sounds about right to me.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Nice things are nicer than nasty ones

Two striking examples of the terrible (I would say chilling, but that's too weak) effects that incivility can have, one in connection with climate change and one in philosophy. I've said nothing about the McGinn case because I have nothing to say that hasn't been said before, but his threat to write a book about the case makes me wonder whether everybody shouldn't say something, so that there is a chorus of opposition that makes any such manuscript unpublishable. Sadly it would just as likely have the opposite effect. Anyway, the New York Times has a story about it (not the possible book, but the case and sexism in philosophy generally), which quotes Jennifer Saul:
In an essay on implicit bias in the forthcoming book “What Needs to Change: Women in Philosophy,” Ms. Saul recalled the terror of overhearing faculty members at Princeton, where she earned her Ph.D., casually sort graduate students into “smart” versus merely hard-working — or worse, “stupid.”
Women, she said, are more likely to be categorized as “stupid,” to the detriment of the field as a whole.
Fear of being labeled not smart “is bad for philosophy,” Ms. Saul said. “It makes you not want to take risks.”
Of course in a free country people can express such views as that this or that student is stupid. But they ought not to do so, especially when there is a chance they might be overheard. And one reason why they ought not is that, as Saul says, it is bad for philosophy. (There are words people can use other than 'stupid,' I mean, and a Princeton graduate student is unlikely to be stupid in fact.)

The second example is from a Financial Times article on climate science. The whole thing is well worth reading, but this part stood out to me:
In the wake of the “Climategate” and “Glaciergate” controversies four years ago, a raft of inquiries eventually found no evidence of serious wrongdoing, let alone anything to raise doubts about the IPCC’s conclusions. But the scientists remain the target of a vigorous group of critics sceptical about their work. They have been branded “criminals” (Britain’s Lord Monckton) guilty of “massive international scientific fraud” (US senator James Sensenbrenner) who should commit “hara-kiri” (US pundit Glenn Beck) for duping the world with “snake oil” (former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin).
This has had an impact on the people doing this latest IPCC assessment, according to several of the scientists interviewed for this article. “I see it in the tension in the author team,” as they check, recheck, then check again all their work, said David Vaughan. “I think there is a point at which that kind of stress can become difficult to manage,” he added, explaining it has made IPCC work “a very cumbersome, slow process”.
Free speech is one thing, but the free market in opinions has an ugly downside (although I don't know that Beck's and Palin's positions can even be called opinions, i.e. things they actually believe). It might be the least bad way to do things, but there is a lot to be said for rational and civil debate (and for good old-fashioned shutting up) rather than the (conscious or otherwise) manipulation of opinion through rhetoric and the abuse of access to a large audience.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Somehow this fantasy curriculum has become the most viewed post I've ever written (apart from a couple I deleted because they weren't what they sounded like and were attracting people to the blog who were looking for something else). One of the courses I imagined was called Scientific Origins, and now I see that someone else has had the same idea, except on stage and online as an event rather than a course. I haven't watched the video yet, but I'm glad to see it being done.

Sen on development and patience

Another post without much of a point, I'm afraid, except to recommend this interview with Amartya Sen. Some interesting passages and then a little on charity and politics:
The consciences of the Indian middle classes can be stirred, and, when they are, political action follows.
But he admits "intellectual wonder" at how it is that more people can't see that economic growth without investment in human development is unsustainable – and unethical. What underpins the book is a deep faith in human reason, the roots of which he traces to India's long argumentative tradition going as far back as the Buddha. If enough evidence and careful analysis is brought to bear on this subject then one can win the argument, and it is this faith that has sustained him through more than five decades of writing on human development. It was his work which led to the development of the much cited UN's Human Development Index.
Influential he has certainly been, but he acknowledges he still hasn't won the argument. To his dismay, there are plenty of examples where people seem set on ignoring the kind of evidence he stacks up; in passing he asks: "How can anyone believe austerity with high levels of unemployment is intelligent policy for the UK?"
Some argue that Sen is the last heir to a distinguished Bengali intellectual tradition that owed as much to poets as it did to scientists, politicians and philosophers. Sen is the true inheritor of Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet and thinker of the early decades of the 20th century. A family friend, he named Sen as a baby; the only photograph in Sen's Cambridge study is that of the striking Tagore with his flowing white beard.
But on one issue Sen admits he now parts company with Tagore, and instead he quotes Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bengal's other great poet who became an iconic figure for the nation of Bangladesh. Tagore was too patient; Nazrul was the rebel urging action. And he repeats a quote he uses in the book: "Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue." 
Perhaps the truth is that despair is sometimes disguised as patience, but it's understandable that a chapter of his new book (co-written with Jean Drèze) should be called "The Need for Impatience." 

Now for some more on economics and charity, politics, etc. I linked earlier to a post at NewAPPS about Peter Buffett on charity. Now he has joined in the discussion over there. It's worth reading, although my side (against Buffett) seems to have more or less lost. The winning side is led by Dan Kervick, who writes:
A system in which liberals tolerate massive inequality, exploitation and structural dysfunction on the one hand, and then lobby rich people to "give back" in various ways - creative and sometimes effecting though those give-backs might be - is an embrace of injustice and the prerogatives of power, not a challenge to it. Charity-state liberalism and the cult of philanthropy are neoliberal capitalism's way of defending itself against structural change while buying indulgences for its sins.
This might be true, but can't one support charitable organizations and their work, and encourage the rich to do so too, without tolerating massive inequality, etc.? There is a kind of libertarian or "nice Republican" position that does indeed tolerate massive inequality (and the rest) but regards "giving back" as a moral duty. This is pretty much the thinking of old-fashioned British Tories from the days when the Church of England was called the Conservative Party at prayer. It sometimes seems to show up in the ideas of some people in the Shepherd Poverty Program, with which I'm involved. Noblesse oblige would be one way to put it. But that isn't the view of most liberals. People like Obama are against massive inequality. They only tolerate it in the sense that they fail to eradicate it. But so does everybody else. It seems to me reasonable to do what one can politically to reduce inequality, exploitation, and structural dysfunction, while simultaneously supporting non-political means to make people's lives better. This might in some ways suit neoliberal capitalism, but what's the alternative? The comment about a bunch of white people getting angry about capitalism comes to mind. We can refuse to "embrace injustice" and let things get so bad that the inevitable revolution comes and fixes everything, but I suspect we'll be waiting a long time. And it won't be people like me who suffer most in the meantime. (I doubt I have captured what Buffett and his supporters really have in mind, but I honestly don't know what it is if it isn't this kind of hard-hearted wishful thinking.)

As I write the most recent comment there is from Mike Otsuka. He says:
Suppose that it were impossible to do any good, via charitable donations, beyond of the borders of one's country. It's only possible to assist those in one's own country. In that case, I think people who are outraged by the conditions of the domestic poor would not be so keen to embrace philanthropic giving as a means to address their plight. Rather than encouraging the rich to give a lot to charities that will provide assistance to the homeless, or resources for underfunded schools in poorer neighbourhoods, or better health care for the poor, energies would be directed towards getting the government to address these problems. And I don't think this is because they necessarily think such political action would be more effective than charitable giving. Rather, it's because they regard domestic poverty as a systemic, institutional injustice for which we're collectively responsible and which should be addressed collectively. A focus on philanthropy would be regarded with suspicion as a refuge for those who think of poverty, not in these terms, but rather as something that engages a duty of charity: noblesse oblige, George Herbert Walker Bush's Thousand Points of Light, David Cameron's Big Society.
I think he's right that a lot of what bothers people about philanthropy at the global level is what would bother people about a focus on philanthropy domestically in this kind of situation. But isn't the dichotomy here false? Why not embrace philanthropy as a means to address the plight of the poor while also working for a larger-scale political solution? Are you really going to turn away the hungry at the door? And why contrast energies being directed towards getting the government to address problems with encouraging the rich to give a lot to charities? Can't we do both? Is our collective energy that limited? And why switch between talk about "a focus on philanthropy" and just "philanthropy"? It's true that poverty is a systematic institutional injustice for which we're collectively responsible and which should be addressed collectively. But this doesn't mean that we shouldn't help people out in the meantime, and encourage those who benefit from the system to see that they have a duty to help too. It doesn't take long, and its effects are far more certain than those of political agitation. Anyone who refuses to help on the grounds that it will be better in the long run if suffering is allowed to get worse now should be first up against the wall come the revolution. (Well, maybe not. But nothing but swearing comes to mind.) Not that anyone is saying this, but they aren't clearly saying anything else.