Do You Act As You Argue? Or Do You Argue for How You Act? (Guest Post by Rivka Weinberg)

Do You Act As You Argue? Or Do You Argue for How You Act? (Guest Post by Rivka Weinberg)


“Everybody is somebody’s fault.” 

That’s the first line of the introduction to The Risk of A Lifetimethe new book by Rivka Weinberg (Scripps), on “how, when, and why procreation may be permissible.” Those who’ve had the opportunity to talk with Professor Weinberg will recognize in the book her frank style, sardonic wit, and critical eye, which she now, in the following guest post*, turns on herself—and the rest of us. She’s curious how closely philosophers, particularly philosophers whose views have real life applications, act in accordance with what they argue for on paper, and wonders how often we end up arguing for particular conclusions mainly because we want them to be true.

(Note: no, we’re not related.)


Do You Act As You Argue? (Or Do You Argue for How You Act?)
by Rivka Weinberg

During my work on procreative ethics, I thought I was waiting to have children until I figured out whether it was morally permissible, but now I wonder whether I was arguing for (limited) procreative permissibility so that I could find a rationale to do what I may not have even fully realized I wanted to do all along.

Consciously, at least, I began my research thinking procreation was wrong and, therefore, I would never have children. But I could not find arguments to support the extreme anti-natalist view and so, in my work, from my dissertation to my papers to my recent book, I argue for limited procreative permissibility.  I did have children—but did I do so because I found procreation permissible or did I find procreation permissible because I was going to have children?

Even worse, I had two children. In my book, The Risk of A Lifetime, I argue that adult interests in engaging in the parent-child relationship as a parent is what sometimes permits us to impose life’s risks on future people. But, since we become parents with our first child, our interest weakens thereafter since we have already fulfilled it, making it harder and harder to justify each subsequent child. I cannot even pretend to myself that I applied my arguments to my decision to have a second child. 

As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper on animal rights and then stopped eating meat. But I undertook the research because something about eating meat was grossing me out. I suspect that being grossed out is not entirely intellectual. Do my actions conform to my arguments or do my arguments conform to my actions? I worry about my moral integrity. No, in the spirit of integrity, let’s be honest: I don’t worry, I despair.

What about you? Do you practice what you preach or preach what you practice?

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Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I don’t knowingly rationalize to support points I believe, because if I catch myself doing that, I stop. Rationalization is the bane of philosophy. On the other hand, I have on multiple occasions changed my ways because my own arguments convinced me that I needed to.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

Well, since there are *no* good arguments for the permissibly of eating animals produced in factory farms, and since the majority of philosophers know this and continue to consume animals raised under these conditions, I think it is clear that most philosophers don’t “follow the best arguments” in living their lives.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

There’s some danger here of conflating “I think the arguments for X are conclusive” with “no-one acting in good faith could think there are any good arguments for not-X”. I mean: I think the arguments for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics are conclusive, and so I guess I think that there are no good arguments against it, but I don’t think its critics are arguing in bad faith; I just think they erroneously think some actually-bad arguments are good arguments.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I picked this specific case because I think there are literally no good arguments for the moral permissibity of the practice.

There are arguments for the permissibity of eating animals that have been humanely raised. I don’t think these arguments are persuasive, but I can recognize that some people make them in good faith. But good arguments for the permissibity of factory farming? I’ve never encountered one.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

How about “animal welfare is qualitatively unimportant compared to human welfare, and factory farming makes food available more cheaply”? You’d then need an argument for the first premise, but there are some not-terrible ones (some, but not all, of which assume theism).Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I don’t think that is a minimally decent argument for the claim that eating factory farmed meat is morally permissible. Even if one conceded that animal welfare is qualitatively unimportant compared to human welfare, it doesn’t follow that it is permissible to treat animals the way they are treated in factory farms simply to increase human welfare in some way (even if we are also assuming that access to large quantities of meat increased human welfare and that a slightly higher price constitutes a barrier to access). I think you would need a premise like “Animal welfare is morally irrelevant”, and I don’t believe anyone could make an argument like that in good faith.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Well, what I mean by “A is qualitatively unimportant compared to B” is just that, while achieving A is ceteris paribus good, B always dominates – issues of the relative amounts of A and B don’t matter. (Otherwise, A is just *quantitatively* unimportant compared to B). From which it *does* follow that it’s permissible to treat animals the way they are treated in factory farms simply to increase human welfare.

But since this isn’t actually an argument I hold myself, I shan’t try to defend it further!Report

Yer Another Anon Grad Student
Yer Another Anon Grad Student
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

Challenge accepted.

(1) Moral terms have their meanings fixed by social norms of approval and approbation.*
(2) Social norms are such that the majority of people eat factory-farmed animals without approbation.
(3) “It is permissible to eat factory-farmed animals” is true. [From (1) and (2)]
(4) It is permissible to eat factory-farmed animals. [From (2) and (3) via disquotation].

*At the metasemantic level. Moral terms are context-insensitive rigid designators at the semantic level. So ‘Necessarily, murder is wrong in all societies at all times’ is still true. The symbol “wrong” just gradually gets associated with new meanings as social conventions change. This is a dirt-common phenomenon. Open any dictionary and you will see archaic meanings recorded for a huge number of words.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Yer Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

This sounds as if someone were asked to prove that eating cherries is wrong, and managed to “prove” it by creating a semantic space in which “eating cherries is wrong” is an analytic truth. There is more than a little Humpty-Dumptyism in doing normative ethics this way.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Reply to  Yer Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Arthur, aside from being tongue-in-cheek, the point is that this may happen to be the semantic space we actually live in. You can deny it by putting forward alternative metasemantic hypotheses; e.g., that the meanings of normative terms in every possible language are fixed by latching onto a unique set of sui generis Forms that exist in a realm beyond space and time, regardless of social conventions. This is what many moral realists have in mind, though they prefer not to have it said as plainly as this. I am in exactly the same position regarding this thesis as Prof. Plumb is regarding the unimportance of animal welfare: I’ve never seen any good arguments for it.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Yer Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

“…a unique set of sui generis Forms that exist in a realm beyond space and time, regardless of social conventions…”

You seem to be suggesting that, if one rejects Platonism, one must be a nihilist. Now THAT is something I have yet to see any convincing arguments for.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Yer Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

You seem to be suggesting that, if one rejects Platonism, one is logically committed to nihilism. Not THAT is something I am yet to see any convincing arguments for.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Reply to  Yer Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Arthur… If nihilism is an ontological position then the denial of the relevant forms *just is* nihilism, as far as I can tell. If by ‘nihilism’, you mean the claim that no one should value anything (which is obviously self-defeating), or that there is nothing to value, then I’m not sure why you took my claim to imply it. It is perfectly compatible with the existence of values and even moral properties; they’re just sets of possible actions, states of affairs, characteristics, etc. picked out by social convention. Treating them as sets of actions, states of affairs, personal characteristics, etc. is far more in line with our best metaphysical and semantic theories anyway.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Yer Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

I’m confused by how nihilism could possibly *not* be an ontological position. Surely no one would deny that “people value things”, and similarly no one deny that “there are things to value”. Nihilism is the position that nothing is valuable, not that nothing is valued.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Reply to  Yer Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Arthur, forgive me for the essay, but I figured it would be better to make things explicit than engage in short back-and-forths where we end up talking past one another.

I think you’re vastly overestimating the degree to which the term ‘nihilism’ is used in a consistent and substantive way. Your claim that “Nihilism is the position that nothing is valuable, not that nothing is valued” seems borderline incoherent to me. To be valuable is just to be capable of being valued. If things are valued, then (given a very weak modal logic) they can be valued. I think what you meant to say is that nihilism is the position that nothing is *intrinsically*, *objectively*, or *mind-independently* valuable. But therein lies the rub, as the important terms are notoriously unclear when used in those sorts of contexts.

One way of understanding nihilism is as the denial that there are special entities, values, that form their own ontological category aside from other abstracta like sets, numbers, and propositions. In this sense, I am a nihilist insofar as I think the only moral properties there are are abundant properties. E.g., the property of wrongness picked out by the English term ‘wrong’ is just a set of actions (i.e. events) across possible worlds that we commonly deem wrong. But there is an infinite number of such properties. For pretty much any internally consistent value system the relevant moral properties exist. And since our conventions pick out the relevant sets, there is no reason to think that one is more special or privileged than the others. You could also take nihilism to be a stronger thesis that there are no moral properties period. In that case, I am not a nihilist. But then it’s not clear that nihilism is an interesting position. These notions don’t seem to capture the relevant notion of ‘nihilism’ when it is commonly used to describe someone who thinks that life is not worth living or that everything is pointless, etc. There’s no reason why we can’t choose to favor one set of properties because they are expressed by the value system that we affirm as a fundamental matter of will.

In fact, there’s no apparent reason why positing a special set of sui generis abstracta would help moral theory. Why would the fact that they belong to a special metaphysical category motivate (understood in a psychological rather than moral sense) us to adhere to them? What if the moral properties are just totally unpalatable and it is our interests as living embodied things that interferes with our ability to see the cold hard moral truth clearly? If you really think they’re up there independently of any facts about us, then you can’t rule this option out. In fact, it seems fairly likely. Other abstracta like numbers, sets, and possibilia are constrained by very general principles of rationality. We should expect the same for sui generis moral properties. So probably some simple theory of act utilitarianism or Kantian deontology is correct, and we really ought to accept the repugnant conclusion, or anti-natalism, or that lying to the Gestapo at the door is impermissible. What would this show? My response would be that the Forms can go hang, and that we’re better off just using things like decision theory to develop some value system we can actually live with.

This illustrates the fact that the link between ethics on the one hand and metaphysics and semantics on the other is far less clear than realists often make it out to be. When it comes to ethically fundamental claims like “Killing just for the pleasure of it is wrong” there’s not much more you can do if someone disagrees. Appealing to special entities that we don’t have empirical access to is worthless if you’re trying to convince someone. The same is true with appealing to the truth of sentences. This is what I was hinting at with my original post. The same goes for rationality. If someone wants to bash their faces into a wall repeatedly, it is doubtful that calling them irrational will do much of anything. It’s not clear to me why we are in desperate theoretical need of an objective fact about whether this is irrational. The desirable implications of not bashing one’s face repeatedly into a wall are already apparent without the claim that there is some special property of rationality somewhere that somehow conflicts with bashing one’s face into a wall repeatedly.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Yer Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Thanks for the essay. 😉

I think your last paragraph makes a leap from “it is nearly impossible to make convincing ethical arguments to people who fail to share your presuppositions” to “ethics is well-nigh indistinguishable with semantics.” I agree with the first proposition, and disagree with the second. I feel like Socrates actually spent his whole career exploring ways to make convincing ethical arguments, and he showed us the only possible way: to demonstrate to your interlocutor that they actually agree with you, even though they think they don’t. Obviously, that won’t always work; but I’m fine with admitting that, when it doesn’t, there is probably no other way.

We can’t be bullied by epistemology, though. At the risk of sounding like an ancient Academic, there could be any number of ethical truths that we lack access to, or lack ability to prove things about. (They need not be Platonic-style “moral objects”, in the abstract sense you keep focusing on, but they might be). At the same time, we could have some sort of access to these things, perhaps through something like religion or evolutionary happenstance, perhaps by considering the consequences of rational self-interest (Hobbes), or perhaps because (as in utilitarianism or virtue ethics) “the good” really is self-evident. I don’t know that these things — if true — would help us convince skeptics, but they could explain why there really is NOT very much ethical disagreement out there, even cross-culturally.

Let me make a comparison. In epistemology classes, we are surely not asking students to study the semantics of the word “to know”. Right? Such a task would be perfectly pointless, in terms of philosophy. What we are asking is that they seek to figure out what the interesting and significant concept is that often is referred to by the word “knowledge”. Disagreements about the boundaries of that concept are important to wade through, but the ultimate goal is to find something else. Perhaps this goal is a silly one, in the case of epistemology. Perhaps it is in ethics, as well. But once you say all that, it would begin to seem like all philosophical goals are silly, since we will always have to transcend semantics if we are going to try to make any interesting fundamental statements about the world. To say that our current semantics are adequate is equivalent to saying that we have (by some dumb luck) inscribed all the fundamental truths about the world into our linguistic categorizations of it.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Reply to  Yer Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Arthur, I’m not sure how you got the claim “ethics is well-nigh indistinguishable with semantics” from what I said. If anything, I was making the exact opposite claim. I think that the only worthwhile approach to ethics is to systematize our values such that their implications are clear and psychologically motivating. Appealing to semantics, or to more generally treat ethics as a form of inquiry where we form theories and then see if they match up with some portion of reality is inherently wrongheaded. The goal shouldn’t be to show that people’s value systems don’t match some mind-independent reality, as value systems have the opposite direction of fit. Noncognitivists made the mistake of taking this to show that moral claims don’t aim at being true. Of course they do. Everything in the declarative mode automatically aims at being true, pretty much by definition. For that reason, truth is fairly uninteresting. In the case of morality it is simply a red-herring. Except in cases where you can show that the value system is internally inconsistent. And even then, it is only important in virtue of the fact that people are generally motivated to value things such that they can actually hope to achieve their ends.

My original post was largely tongue-in-cheek. But it does sort of illustrate the pointlessness of treating ethics as a sort of descriptive theoretical enterprise. If most people are fine with eating factory farmed animals, you can’t just dismiss it as being totally unjustifiable. Obviously people are operating by some sort of value system in which it is. The best you can do is either point out some sort of inconsistency in that value system (which will be difficult given that the folk don’t really subscribe to any general ethical principles that it could easily conflict with), or attempt to lure people away to a new value system by appealing to their compassion or showing them that their value system has some apparently bad implications.

Your claim about epistemology doesn’t really fit at all with most of the epistemology I know, where people like Williamson and Stanley argue directly for epistemological claims from semantics. I’d also point out that there is a ton of moral disagreement. People all over the world across history have held all sorts of views about how great it is to slaughter your enemies in battle, or how you’re required to respond with violence when someone insults you, or that sex for the sake of pleasure is immoral. It’s true that people do seem to have shared values when it comes to very basic actions that would basically destroy society if everyone did them (e.g., killing, theft, etc.). But that is hardly in need of a non-naturalistic explanation. I guess you could say that once people are exposed to global capitalism and consumerism they tend to start having the same value system. But again, that is hardly in need of a special non-naturalistic explanation. But all of this is somewhat beside the point.

As far as your second paragraph goes, I would just point out one thing. My point wasn’t that there can’t be sui generis primitive moral facts because we can’t know anything about them. My point was that there is no theoretical benefit to positing them. It’s a claim about our evidence for their existence. We don’t need them to convince people, we don’t need them to make moral claims true, and positing their existence doesn’t really explain why moral claims are motivating. The fact that positing them creates problems for our epistemological theories *does* count as evidence against their existence, given the requirement of total evidence. (I.e., for the same reason that biologists aren’t allowed to posit new fundamental physical particles to explain phenomena their theories can’t accommodate, and then say “let the physicists worry about it”.) So I just don’t see how they could survive any reasonable principle of theoretical parsimony.Report

Anonymous Philosopher
Anonymous Philosopher
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

Do not underestimate the number of philosophers who sincerely believe that (a) we have no moral duties or obligations to animals that lack the potential for even a minimal form of rationality and (b) the animals people commonly eat (chickens, cows, pigs, fish) fit this description.

These beliefs may be false, and they may be odious. But they are common, and belief (a) is difficult to refute. Every argument I have ever seen against (a) begs the question. Pointing out that animals feel pain and asserting that pain is bad is not likely to convince someone who is not already persuaded. Those who believe (a) generally do not believe that all forms of pain are morally significant.Report

ejrd
ejrd
5 years ago

I worry about things like moral dumbfounding and think philosophers should be more worried than they generally are about it though I’m generally convinced that reasons are probably not a distinct kind and much our talk of rationality is tinged with very specific historical baggage.

Do I act as I argue? I try, though I take my inability to act as I argue to sometimes be evidence that my arguments are bad.Report

praymont
praymont
5 years ago

I try to act as I argue, though I’ve caught myself not doing so (or changing my erstwhile assiduously defended beliefs due to new, first-hand experiences that I had previously heard of other people having). E.g., I’ve been in support of legalizing active euthanasia, but after experiencing the death of a loved one I’ve a new-found appreciation for some reservations about the practice that hadn’t much moved me before. In R. W. Johnson’s memoir, *Look Back in Laughter*, he alleges that Mary Warnock had a tendency for dismissing (supposedly) decent objections to her positions on euthanasia, admitting women to previously men-only colleges, etc. and then (much later) reversing her position in the light of her changed living circumstances.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
5 years ago

The problem of induction hasn’t stopped me from acting like natural laws exist, so no.Report

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

Generally I think one should act as one is an advocate–for that portion of one one’s teaching that constitutes advocacy. But clearly good liberal arts instruction presents divergent points of view, and certainly ones that the instructor does not actually endorse. I think instructors should try to advocate for positions they reject as strongly as possible and not deliberately weaken them for rhetorical purposes of strengthening those that they endorse. That is just being intellectually dishonest. (Not that there isn’t enough of that going around in politics as well as in bad philosophy, for example–but one task we must undertake is to point all that out.) All this I suppose is almost a platitude of what constitutes good teaching.

This excellent OP presents an opportunity for another kind of observation about good pedagogy. Advocacy for a position that one does not actually pursue in one’s life, but intellectually is also acknowledged as not merely a defensible position, but likely a correct one.

I teach a very vigorous defense of, if not outright veganism, then wholesale reform of current practices of large-scale domestic animal “harvesting” for producing various food products. Those farming/marketing practices are morally indefensible, and I personally take Singer’s view on this as a kind of utilitarian. Yet–I eat meat, and frankly (no pun intended) a fair amount of it. This is why I do I make a point to my classes–I am a classic case of akrasia to put it mildly, but more aptly a hypocrite. My mind yields to the reasons against eating meat (especially as currently “farmed”) as more than sufficient to change my behavior by rational standards–but I do not. (I’m unsure if I *cannot*. I’m not sophisticated enough to be able to analyze that for others, much less myself.) But I make it clear–I’m unhappy (in some way) with my life-style of not merely eating meat, but enjoying (in another and obviously most swaying way) sophisticated preparation of it in recipes–I’m an excellent cook. So I wish it were otherwise in some ways, but I do not reform my behavior in light of my reflections. Maybe it is a social phenomenon of peer reinforcement: I have lots of colleagues I respect and admire for their civilized and reflective lives–as I gorge myself on their generous invitation to a roast-beef dinner and praise them for having prepared it so very well. But that is no defense. FWIW I do not eat veal, and not for decades. A small concession no doubt to make my greater transgressions rationalized by the familiar, “Well at least I’m not THAT bad!”

What I do in class is not just admit I am a sinner, but point to better examples. I don’t know Singer. I did know my good friend and colleague Professor Helene Dwyer. She taught Singer way back when, and was converted by her teaching not merely to veganism, but very strong advocacy for animal lib. Up to the time of her untimely death from ALS a few years ago–how horrible a disease–she worked tirelessly to stop abuse of animals in every area of our lives, from large-animal mega-farming to over-breeding pets for our own amusement. I present her as someone to admire for acting for the right reasons. With my own sullied soul, it’s the best I can do.Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

My rough and ready view is that those who are the most unwilling to admit that they argue as they act lack humility-and those that pose as moral paragons are much more likely to do this. What Prof. Weinberg’s concerns reflect is a concern for rationality and consistency. My (purely anecdotal) observation is that this demand is often motivated by status concerns within the community and that these status concerns in fact destabilize people’s moral compass rather than guide it. So here’s an example of what I mean: (1) philosopher takes public stance–sometimes the one most approved of by others (2) philosopher has desires or needs that conflict with the public stance (3) philosopher diverges from public stance. This explains why the most morally concerned philosophers are sometimes the most abusive toward others and why hypocrisy is a problem. If we were able to simply admit that we don’t always act as our arguments direct–and that it is quite hard to do this, we might find we are better people overall.Report

PeteJ
5 years ago

I may be missing the exact point here, but I wonder whether rationalising our intuitions is not actually what we are supposed to be doing. It might be unfortunate if we decided we should never do it. In the case of solving altruism, say, the rationalisation of our intuitions seems to be the whole project.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

I like to follow the tradition of the famous philosophers Glaucon and Adeimantus. They didn’t rationalize their own commitments to action. They did, however, hold onto certain interpretations of ethics even when they lacked the evidence to support them. If you do not hold onto views after you are uncertain about them, your philosophical investigations will be unmotivated. At the same time, one must not argue in bad faith. When I believe something I lack arguments for, I hope I have the courage to admit that fact.Report

John
John
5 years ago

Why not be agnostic about the relationship between the arguments we produce and the actions we take? While, for myself, I tend to endorse most of the arguments I produce in the course of engaging in philosophy (though these arguments do not obviously “entail” any sort of action), this attitude seems unnecessary and even possibly undesirable. Unless there is both a very explicit endorsement of the argument produced and a specific action “entailed” by the endorsed argument, it’s not obvious why we should care whether we should “act as we argue” rather than “argue for how we act.”Report