Rethinking Knowledge

Maarten van Doorn
Oct 13, 2018 · 8 min read

In 1964, the state of Ohio tried to ban the film The Lovers because it involved “pornographic” material that was “obscene”.

The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s hard to determine whether something counts as obscene. The term lacks clearly defined parameters.

Yet, a decision needed to be made.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward ruled that the material at issue in the case was not pornographic, and therefore wasn’t obscene.

In explaining his judgment, Steward famously said about pornography:

I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

We might not be able to give an exact formula of what it takes for something to count as ‘pornography’, but that’s not a problem.

We don’t need to give an exact specification of the concept, because we know it when we see it.

In the case of ‘moral progress’, the situation appears to be similar.

In theory, there is an inconvenient truth about a gap between facts and values: descriptive information never suffices to justify a value judgment.

On paper, one cannot derive an ‘ought’ conclusion from what ‘is’. In practice, there’s no one who takes this to be a reason to worry about the justificatory status of her values. Philosophical cleverness has never led anyone to seriously doubt that suffering is bad, for example.

Does that mean that the fact-value gap is not a real problem?

It’s just obvious

When we ask what matters, part of the answer is obvious:

The alleviation of misery, ignorance, and powerlessness and the elevation of most of our fellow human beings to a minimally decent standard of existence, seem overwhelmingly important.” — Thomas Nagel, Equality and Partiality

These aims are overwhelmingly important.

But when we ask what else matters, the answer is much less obvious.

For example, if the quality of future people’s lives would be lower, would that be outweighed by the fact that there would be more people who would live?

My PhD-supervisor Simon Rippon makes the same point in a different way:

It is not difficult to name some of our shared values: democracy, liberty, rule of law, equality, but philosophy shows us that our concepts of democracy, liberty, equality, and so on are fuzzy and unclear. What counts as meaningful democracy, and why is that a valuable thing? When our values conflict, as when the liberty to accumulate private property conflicts with equality, how should we resolve conflicts? What kind of equality do we value anyway? Equal outcomes? Equal opportunity? And, just who should we expect governments to work toward equality for: fellow citizens, or human beings in general?”

Okay, so there are still some relevant questions for philosophers to sort through. (Wow, I might actually have a slight chance of ever getting a job.)

But, alas, the predicament is deeper than that. (My future finances almost looked stable for a second there.)

We know it when we see it

The issue is more profound than that. There is an alarming discrepancy. On the one hand the above questions about abstract concepts like equality seem genuine puzzles that need to be solved. On the other hand, such philosophical inquiries seem to be irrelevant in daily life.

Nelson Mandela was a good man.

Slavery is bad.

Denying women a vote is unjust.

Etcetera.

When it comes to moral progress, we know it when we see it.

Does that mean that philosophy only becomes relevant when we are considering the leftover questions — those that our garden-variety moral intuitions couldn’t handle? Is ethics only about far-fetched Trolley problems and about fleshing out the nitty-gritty details of what exactly counts as meaningful democracy?

“I dine, I play a game of back-gammon…”

There are matters which trouble intelligent minds in philosophy seminars, that don’t seem to cause any concern other intelligent minds that are not locked in a philosophy classroom.

Sometimes, that’s a source of philosophers jokes. Some other times, these concerns are more riveting.

In a famous passage from 1739, the Scottish philosopher David Hume describes the “wretched condition” which his philosophical thinking has left him in. Hume has reached various skeptical beliefs — he denied, for example, that humans have an actual conception of the self, that necessary connections exist, that inductive inferences can be rationally justified and that moral judgments are about mind-independent facts — which conflict deeply with the beliefs of other human beings. He is, he writes

“Affrighted and confounded with that forlorn solitude, in which I am placed in my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expelled and left utterly abandoned and disconsolate.” — David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

He waxes lyrical about how simply living life will drive all skeptical musings from one’s mind:

“I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three of four hours of amusement, I wou’d return to those [skeptical] speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any farther.” — David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

The point that one cannot derive values from facts is often called “Hume’s Law”. If the fact-value gap is legit, it’s influence greatly extends beyond shallow tweaks in judgments about trolley cases.

There’s a real question here

Why?

Because moral philosophy is about more than about producing acceptable solutions to the odds and ends of ethical life. It also concerns the justification of all our value judgments.

It would seem that such a justification requires a kind of yardstick, a criterion of value, by which we can assess our ideas.

The Ancient Greek philosophers, already, hoped to find out how it would be best to live. Aristotle, for instance, believed that everything has some natural purpose. Then, to justify the claim that certain lives are best, we can appeal to facts about Nature.

Many other people have believed that God dictates what’s right and wrong. To justify the claim the certain acts are wrong, we must appeal to the commands of God. In Dostoyevsky’s phrase, if God does not exist, everything is permitted.

I think that these teleological and metaphysical tenets are unfounded. We were not created by a God, and the cosmic process of natural selection is wholly amoral.

That invites the question of whether we can we ground moral truths at all, if not in claims about Nature or God.

How can a fact support a value judgment?

During a recent phone call, Kunal Shandilya asked me how I bridge the gap between facts and values in my personal value judgments.

I could only answer that I don’t worry about it. I take myself to — when I think about the case at hand, consider the various arguments, and so forth — have the ability to arrive at approximately true judgments about values.

The fact-value gap is a theoretical problem. In practice, I simply cannot but take myself to be in principle capable of recognizing what is worthwhile. Therefore, I allow myself to ignore this theoretical problem in real life.

And not because I stick my head in the sand and pretend that there’s no problem here. I believe that there’s no problem here.

For some worry to succeed in undermining our ability to recognize moral truths, it must be more plausible than the moral beliefs that it would compromise if it were a legitimate worry.

Since many moral beliefs we have are very plausible, it’s not.

Therefore, skeptical questions harnessing Hume’s Law must be somehow misguided or illegitimate or beside the point.

Socrates’ mistake

When Kunal asked for an answer, I wasn’t able to justify my confidence that my value judgments are not left hanging in the air. I could only point out that many moral truths — many ‘fact-value bridges’ — seem obviously true to me.

Yet, I felt like I needed to say more to properly justify my confidence.

But maybe I didn’t.

There’s an assumption lurking in the background here that we might want to examine critically.

Some 2500 years ago, when Socrates requested Meno to tell him what virtue is, Meno confidently replied:

There will be no difficulty, Socrates, in answering your question, what is virtue? Let us take first the virtue of a man: he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies; and he must also be careful not to suffer harm himself. A woman’s virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described: her duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband. Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless, and no lack of definitions of them; for virtue is relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do. And the same may be said of vice, Socrates. — Plato, Meno

Meno undeniably succeeds in giving us a good idea of what the Ancient Greeks understood by virtue.

Socrates, however, is unsatisfied. With characteristic irony, he replies that he is remarkably fortunate, for while he asked for a single virtue Meno presented him with a swarm of them. What he would in fact like Meno to specify is the common nature that makes all these different virtues into virtue.

The demand for definitions as the correct form of explanation was an innovation of the historical Socrates, who, according to Aristotle “fixed thought for the first time on definitions”.

By contrast, explanations of the sort provided by Socrates’ interlocutors are legitimate and often the most appropriate ones.

Contrary to our background assumption, then, to know what a word means, one need not be able to define it. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein espouses an opposing view on the nature of knowledge that he exemplifies by the concept of ‘game’:

Isn’t my knowledge, my concept of a game, completely expressed in the explanations that I could give? That is, in my describing examples of various kinds of game, showing how all sorts of other games can be constructed on the analogy of these, saying that I would hardly call this or that a game, and so on.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

By the same token, Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” standard was praised as “realistic and gallant” and as an example of candor.

Many moral judgments seem similarly self-evident. When asked which things are bad, “I know it when I see it” is a fine response.

‘Seeing’ the truth

As Nietzsche observed about his English contemporaries, these philosophers

Believe that they know ‘intuitively’ what is good and evil … and they therefore suppose that they no longer require [God or Nature] as the guarantee of morality.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Such justifications are everywhere once you start looking for them. Here is Martin Luther King Jr, citing the United States Declaration of Independence:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

The fact-value gap is right that we cannot derive values from facts. But we don’t need to derive them from facts.

To justify our moral beliefs, we don’t need to appeal to any descriptive facts. Deciding whether moral judgments are true does not require us to answer questions about Nature or God or about anything that exists.

It’s not that we have to find out that ours is a world in which everyone is equal. or in which suffering is bad. These things could not have been false.

Convictions like ‘suffering is bad’ are justified because they are self-evidently true. If we fully understand their content, we can ‘see’ that they must be true.

Originally published here.

The Understanding Project

Applying insights from cognitive science and social epistemology to everyday opinion-forming

Maarten van Doorn

Written by

PhD philosophy. Essays about why we believe what we do, how societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better (crazy times)

The Understanding Project

Essays about why we believe what we do, how post-truth societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better.

Maarten van Doorn

Written by

PhD philosophy. Essays about why we believe what we do, how societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better (crazy times)

The Understanding Project

Essays about why we believe what we do, how post-truth societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better.

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