The “But you can’t do that!” gambit, rejected

Posted on August 14, 2017 by


As an opening note, there links and annotations. They shouldn’t be necessary for understanding the series of moves; they’re “suggested further readings” available to intellectually masochistic readers. Also, feel free to skip the italics, which are the asides I’d include if I were giving this as a talk to inject some personality.

It is common enough to run across arguments talking about how certain sorts of philosophical positions have corrupted the modern academy, destroying an intellectual commitment to truth in favor of some other set of values. These claims have come up regularly in disputes over “the atheistic worldview,” post-modernism, and moral relativism.

I find these sorts of claims pretty common in popular “Christian apologetics” literature, but they have also made their way into opinion columns and mainstream politics; it’s also seen heavy discussion at the Stone, though the philosophers there are more sophisticated than my target.

Essentially, the move (what I call the “But you can’t do that!” gambit) goes like this:

“Those folks (e.g. “academics,” atheists, liberals, etc.) are committed to position x (e.g. moral relativism, post-modernism, etc.). x conflicts with some feature of the classical view of important concept C (e.g. Truth, justice, goodness, beauty, etc.). Therefore, those folks shouldn’t use C.”

I’m unsympathetic to this view for two reasons.

The first is that this move doesn’t work. If Justin and I disagree about some concept in virtue ethics, and I think some classical concept in virtue ethics is fallacious, that doesn’t preclude me from using it in the context of that discussion. It’s pertinent to the discussion, it matters to Justin, and I’m using it consistently with the conventions. In short: it’s relevant, persuasive (to the person I’m interacting with), and appropriate.

I’m borrowing the names of my colleagues here as appreciation for their role in facilitating this thought process; they should be ascribed no fault for whatever I screw-up or mis-ascribe to them here.

The second reason is that I think the folks who espouse it generally ignore the various ways the positions and people they’re criticizing modify the concept to make it (more-or-less) consistent with their positions and maintain a commitment to certain parts of the classical view.

I’ve been told, I think rightly, that I should work on presenting these views in a way which doesn’t betray my feelings on the subject. This is a good teaching skill, and one that I’m trying to cultivate. As such, I’m going to shoot for that tone from this point onward.

I want to explore this move by illustrating the state of play and how concepts (particularly “goodness,” “meaning,” and “reasonableness”) are used in various contemporary views that shows how these controversial positions still have claim to some of important classical features, despite different commitments.

The Theism/Secularism Dispute

One of the disputes that comes up in the popular press, and academic-looking pieces popular at religious institutions and universities is the claim that a certain variety of theism is necessary to ground, explain, motivate, or justify a particular claim. That version of the claim is, “One can hold that ‘p is good’ only if one also maintains that God exists.” There are some old worries about whether the claim “God’s existence is necessary for ‘p is good’ to be true/knowable” is plausible (e.g. Euthyphro Dilemma, etc.), but set those aside for the moment and just look at the use of the gambit.

I don’t know of many serious philosophers working in meta-ethics or metaphysics who are worried about this question, but I won’t delve into why that is.

The reasoning given is that ‘p is good’ is grounded by (or otherwise closely entangled with) the existence of God and God standing in a certain relation to the object p and goodness. Even if its true that ‘p is good’ is in fact grounded in facts about God, we still don’t get the claim, “One can hold that ‘p is good’ only if one also maintains that God exists.”

There are lots of reasons and prospective grounds or justification or whatever else, some more credible than others.

There are differences between “grounding” and “justification.” In a technical context, I wouldn’t play so fast and loose with them. However, for this discussion, the two are close enough for rock and roll. As a technical note: If some fact f grounds p, then one justifies the belief that p by appealing to f; the converse isn’t true. (The astute philosopher will note this is exactly my point in the following paragraph.)

Suppose that Smith believes that the red object on the table is an apple because he can see it and it is apple-shaped. Smith might be wrong, since being apple-shaped doesn’t necessitate (or automatically make it the case that) the thing on the table is an apple. It also doesn’t mean that there might not be other ways for him to arrive at the belief that it’s an apple. (Smith might be congenitally blind, unable to consider whether it looks like an apple, but he tastes it and arrives at the belief anyway.)

Just like Smith, someone considering p might arrive at the conclusion ‘p is good’ even if they’re wrong about the grounding (that is, if their reasoning doesn’t track the facts that make p good) so long as there is a ground, something that makes it true that ‘p is good.’

Lots of smart philosophers disagree about what grounds the claim that a particular action or state is good; Parfit has a proposal that it is grounded in robustly mind-independent facts, while Street thinks that things are made good (partly) in virtue of our attitudes towards those things. Other people tell different stories about the grounds, and while those grounds differ, they can all make use of the concept of “good” even if their account of what makes ‘p is good’ true, apt, or whatever else governs those sorts of statements and beliefs is mistaken. Having a meta-level view that turns out to be wrong doesn’t mean that the lower level views are wrong. (Formally, this is a version of denying the antecedent.)

There are some useful addenda. e.g. If two meta-level theories imply different judgments about some object, then the disagreement about those theories is relevant to figure out what’s true about the object. Parfit and Street disagree about whether ‘p is good’ can be applied in some cases. In those cases, it might come down to which of them turns out to be right about meta-ethics, but this doesn’t undercut that they are both entitled to invoke goodness.

Constructivism, Post-modernism, and other social-y views

There’s a general critique of what I refer to as “social-y” views; I call them this because they maintain that the object of discussion, a concept like meaning, knowledge, reasonableness, etc. is responsive to (or, more strongly, grounded by) social considerations. The goal here is just to define these views in the broadest possible way, because it covers views in academic fields ranging from anthropology to philosophy to medicine. On my broad view, a position or view is “social-y” just in case it maintains that the conditions for applying particular concepts include social factors.

A view might be more or less social-y depending on how often it thinks those social factors get applied. As a painfully boring illustration: a view that says, “goodness is always responsive to social factors,” is much more social-y than a view that says, “goodness is sometimes responsive to social factors.”

Consider a social-y view of meaning where the meaning of a word is responsive to it’s use in a community of speakers.

In one of my favorite children’s books, the protagonist starts to use the word “frindle” to refer to pens. Once a community of speakers (the kids in the protagonists school) adopt the word, it becomes the case that “frindle means pen” within that community of speakers.

One might object on a number of grounds, as the teachers and administrators at the school do. For example, Kripke maintains that meaning (at least for names) is determined by a particular causal story; such causal stories, or stories about how ideal beings would group objects, give different theories of meaning.

Suppose Brandon and I are arguing about the meaning of a particular philosophical term t. Brandon says, t is just a property of mental states, like beliefs or desires,” and I say, “no it’s not; t can be a property of sentences and all sorts of other things.” In this disagreement, Brandon appeals to the first use of t, while I appeal to the way that t is used by modern philosophers. Brandon says, “those philosophers are confused, and so are you,” and I say, “your view is antiquated, and so is your face.” Brandon and I can still, though, equally claim “the word triangle means (roughly) a closed figure with three sides,” even if we disagree about how it came to have that meaning.

There are those who maintain that, for some concepts, if one maintains that they’re social-y, then one cannot keep certain important properties. For example, since I think that meaning is determined by a community of speakers, I can’t make broad statements like, “the word triangle means a closed figure with three sides.” But this simply isn’t true; I can say that, it’s just that the statement has to be evaluated in its context, because my use is going to be conditioned by the relevant social stuff (in this case, the community of speakers).

There are other, more sophisticated objections to various particular social views, i.e. views about whether certain concepts or certain domains can be social-y. Those are beyond the general survey, though.

Reasonable Positions on what are reasonable positions

Now is the part where I do the thing philosophers (and writers) love and take the subject and try to make it meta (in the storytelling, non-philosophical sense).

Suppose Sally believe that whether or not a view is reasonable is responsive to social facts and parameters. She thinks that, in a room full of modern mathematicians, it is unreasonable to believe that a graph can only have three vertices. In a middle-school geometry class, it might be totally reasonable; after all, we can visually represent a graph with three vertices, but a graph with four or more is hard to imagine, though there are ways.

Someone might deny that the latter is reasonable; the kids are unreasonable because they don’t actually have a sufficient reason for believing that a graph can only have three vertices. They just believe they have a good reason, and they’re wrong, both about graphs and about the quality of their reasons. A strong version of this view might be, “a belief that p is only reasonable if the reason the believer has is also the reason that makes p true.” (We can get such a theory if Nozick’s reliabilism is applied to “reasonableness” rather than “knowledge.”) But that theory seems way off.

The kids are mistaken about whether or not being able to visualize a graph with four or more vertices is a sufficient reason to believe it. But, given that the kids believe it is a good reason, and believe it is true, and meet minimal conditions for justification and coherence, then the belief is totally reasonable.

There’s a different between, “Timmy wrongly believes a graph can only have three vertices” (which seems obviously true) and “Timmy is unreasonable in believing that a graph can have three vertices.”

Suppose Alison and I disagree about whether some scientist’s view that “philosophy is useless” is unreasonable. Alison and I definitely agree that the view is wrong (since we’re both philosophers) but she might suppose that the scientist is unreasonable because his view is tempered by a particular set of philosophical assumptions, which makes the position incoherent. I, on the other hand, think that it is reasonable for someone to suppose “x is useless” based on the social conventions of what it means for something to be useful within that community. Because, on that scientist’s (wrong) evaluation, philosophy isn’t the sort of thing that’s useful within the scientific community, it’s not unreasonable. In this example, I’m using a social-y version of usefulness, while Alison is not.

This is where it gets meta.

Should we say that folks who make the gambit are being unreasonable?

Well, if we hold the view that being reasonable is social-y, then there are going to be some contexts where they are and some where they aren’t. If they’re on Twitter or Youtube, then they’re wrong, but perhaps reasonable based on their own level of knowledge, the social norms and backgrounds of those platforms, etc. (If they’re at a philosophy conference, or writing a book with academic aspirations, then they’re in a social context that isn’t going to do them any favors.)

However, if being reasonable isn’t responsive to social facts (and, generally, these critics maintain being reasonable, good, justified, etc. is not) then they are patently unreasonable. They wind up hoisted by their own petard, operating under the strict, social context-independent assumptions of what counts as reasonable, and their listeners and interlocutors are permitted to do whatever you’re permitted to do with unreasonable people.

Hopefully this is a useful rehearsal of the argument and some of the salient philosophical points in the literature that are useful. As always, I’m not really brief by blogging standards, but (for this social context) I think I did passably.