Monday, October 10, 2016

Pragmatism and the Meanings of Moral Terms

322 days (a.k.a. 46 weeks) until I will be sitting in my first university class in 24 years.

I have been on vacation. I hoped to do some writing, but I at least got some reading in.

I have been reading about pragmatism. I was hearing things about pragmatism - in Philosophy Bites as well as a biography of Henry Sidgwick - that made it sound interesting.

In fact, the very start of these lectures on pragmatism contained an illustration that hit close to home.

Back when Luke Muehlhauser and I were working on the Morality in the Real World podcast, we came to the conclusion that philosophers were wasting a lot of time looking for "the one true and correct definition of terms" - such as "morality" or "knowledge". Readers and listeners were expecting us - and we were expecting ourselves - to identify this one true and correct definition of knowledge. The problem is that neither of us believed there was such a definition. Language is an invention - a tool created by a committee which simply is not as "clean and pure" as would be required for such a project to work.

I had long ago come to the conclusion that I did not care what definition my readers adopted for moral terms. If they wanted to use some alternative definition then they could simply do so at their convenience, and we can translate from the language I used to their language. The question of what was true of something was a different question of what we called it. Using different names from the same thing - or the same names for different things - introduced some inconveniences but, with care, was something we could work around.

The fact is, words do not have an "intrinsic meaning" to be discovered through philosophical analysis. Instead, words had a practical meaning - a meaning that made the term useful to those who used it. A theory of morality cannot give us the one true and correct meaning of moral terms, but it can give us a practically useful definition of moral terms.

Luke offered an example:

If a tree falls in the woods and there is nobody there to hear it does it make any sound?

The answer, according to Luke, was that it depends on what you mean by "sound".

If you mean a subjective experience caused by sound waves striking a normally functioning eardrum properly connected to a normally functioning brain, then the answer is, "No. We have already stated that no such eardrum and brain is within range and, as a result, the consequent subjective experience would not have been created."

If, instead, you mean the vibrations in the air that would typically produce such a sensation if the requisite brain and eardrum were present, the answer is, "Yes. If there were somebody there then the tree falling would have produced the air vibrations necessary to have caused such a person to have such a subjective sensation."

The lesson we drew is that many philosophical problems could be eliminated if we - in Luke's terms - "replaced the symbol (word) with the substance (the exact description of what we were trying to point to with that word)".

Our defense of desirism is that it provides a practically useful set of definitions that so closely match the common uses of terms like "good", "right", "excuse", "responsibility", "praise", "condemnation", "prohibited", "obligation", and the like.

Luke's story follows exactly the same structure as a story that William James told in the first of his lectures on pragmatism, as presented in the book Pragmatism.

James told about being presented with a metaphysical dilemma on a camping trip. One of the campers was trying to see a squirrel clinging to the side of a tree. No matter how the camper moved, the squirrel would move so as to stay on the opposite side of the tree. James was asked to settle a dispute over whether the camper went around the squirrel.

James said that the correct answer depends on what one meant by the term "around".

If, by "around" you meant that the camper went from being north, then west, then south, then east, then back to being north of the squirrel, then the answer was, "Yes."

However, if by the meaning of the term "around" one meant going from the front of the squirrel to its right side, to going behind the squirrel, around its left side, and back to the front, then the camper did not go around the squirrel.

Furthermore, which definition the speaker used was not set in stone - it depended on the speaker's interests and concerns. He picked the definition that was useful to him.

There is no intrinsically correct answer to the question of whether the camper went around the squirrel - because there was no intrinsically correct meaning to the term "around".

Similarly, there is no intrinsically correct meaning of the term "morality". The answer to the question, "Is morality objective?" is not a flat "yes" or "no", it is "I can't answer the question until you tell me more precisely what you mean by 'morality'". There is no objectively correct answer to that question. However, once answered, there would likely be a correct answer to the question of whether 'morality' understood in that way was objective or subjective. There would also be a large number of other implications as well which we would have reason to examine.

There is a significant difference between the pragmatism that Luke and I came up with and the philosophy of pragmatism that James defended. Our pragmatism was a pragmatism about the definitions of words. James was defending a pragmatism about truth. For James, to say that a proposition was true meant to say that the proposition was useful. To be true in any meaningful way, a proposition had to have practical implications, and we were to look at those implications to determine if we ought (if we had reason to) accept the proposition. Luke and I were not offering a theory of truth. We were offering a theory of language - a theory of that which was used to communicate truth.

The fact that James began with a story that was almost exactly like the story that Luke used brings forth the question of how much of James' pragmatism could actually be captured in our pragmatism. There was certainly an element of linguistic pragmatism in James' defense. I have an interest in discovering just how for those two types of pragmatism can travel together, and at what point (if any) they would split up and go in different directions.

No comments: