Arguments are powerful tools for seeing how commitments hang together.
Take the classic reductio ad absurdum, where I try to show that my opponent is committed to something absurd.
Here’s the general form:
You think X.
But X commits you to Y.
And that’s goofy!
So X is goofy, too.
And here’s an example:
You think moral beliefs can’t be wrong.
But what if I think wrong moral beliefs are widespread? (Isn’t that a moral belief?) Now you’re committed to thinking I can’t be wrong.
So now you think moral beliefs can’t be wrong, including mine that wrong moral beliefs are everywhere. And that’s goofy!
So the idea that moral beliefs can’t be wrong is goofy, too.
Just in moral philosophy, here are a few conclusions I think have really devastating arguments behind them:
You should probably be at least a vegetarian.
We should all be way more thoughtful about using words like ‘crazy,’ ‘stupid,’ and ‘insane.’
Moral progress is possible but hard.
I think most people underestimate the power of what argument can show.
But many philosophers overestimate the power of what argument can achieve.
Even good arguments fail to convince all the time. Your committed opponents can just ignore you. And your sophisticated opponents can come up with more and more elaborate countermoves to try to muddy the waters.
Some philosophers pledge to follow the arguments boldly, wherever they may lead.
But that usually tethers them to all sorts of fanciful or outlandish commitments. Peter Singer and Derek Parfit are two huge names in moral philosophy that I wouldn’t trust or even consult before making any important decisions in my life. (Even if I deeply admire Derek Parfit.)
Here’s the basic problem:
When we’re faced with a clever argument—even if works logically!—it’s up to us whether to accept the conclusion or start rejecting the premises.
And I’m not confident enough in my initial premises to just extend infinitely outwards, wherever the arguments lead.
So what are our alternatives?
Many philosophers talk about reflective equilibrium, where we ping pong back and forth between our individual judgments and general theories:
I produce Theory A to account for Judgments 1, 2, and 3.
But Theory A really struggles with Judgment 4. So it’s time to produce a revised Theory B.
And maybe Theory B makes us reconsider Judgment 2 in a new light…
Crucially, we don’t take the judgments or the theories to be final or definitive. Instead, each has to respond to the other.
The hope is that over time, the process of reflective equilibrium improves both our judgments and our theories.
Arguments are powerful tools in that process. But in the end, we have lots of commitments that on reflection would probably come to seem wrong or goofy.
And I’m not sure how big a deal that is. It seems important to respond in the most egregious cases, especially where our commitments could harm others. But no one’s perfectly rational or self-consistent and I think that’s just fine. It’s not clear that such a philosophically purified worldview would be part of an improved life, far less a recognizably human one.
Arguments are powerful tools. But philosophy—and definitely life—is about so much more.
And that’s what I’ll be thinking about while I’m with family and friends this Christmas. Happy Holidays.