Our Morals Live on Our Exchanged Breath, Composing, 22/09/2016

A short post tonight, as I’ve just been quite busy today and don’t have much time to write something long. Also, what I want to write about, I’ve covered a fair bit already. At a lot of points along the last few years of blogging my research and writing, I’ve talked about the fact/value distinction.

The most interesting things I read about it are arguments and explorations that make a problem out of this. But that’s always the most interesting thing to do with anything that most people in a field (or a society) believe obviously true – blow it up.

You can't just deny that some long-accepted principle is true. That would be the philosophical equivalent of just telling someone you dislike to go fuck himself. If you really want people compelled to take up your alternative, you almost have to write like a roast.

Develop reasons why a principle doesn’t work, or show how the world is more complex than the principle can allow for. I think one of the ways academic philosophy has been running out of steam is that we accept roasting a particular argument or some particular writer’s account of a core framework concept, with the same enthusiasm as we should reserve for the most fundamental critiques. 

They've been aiming too low, shrinking expectations. 

A highlight of Cosmopolitanism is Appiah’s critique of the fact-value distinction. He gives a concise account of how the distinction splits our propositions, and then shows how inadequate it is to everything that humanity does. 

To summarize, facts are one type of thing, according to the mainstream Western conception,* and values are another. Fact: A state of affairs in the world. Value: An individual’s moral/political wishes, preferences, and desires. 

* Always an abstraction that is never quite what each person in particular thinks, but abstract enough that it applies to the overall tendency of the community, and most reasonably smart people in the community will recognize it as pretty much what they believe.

There's nothing wrong with this basic conception of what facts are. But Appiah’s criticism is that concept of value – essentially, values are themselves a kind of fact. This is because values aren’t only the beliefs of individuals, which we can lock away from the world in our heads, most of the time safely.

Values are themselves a kind of fact. Social facts. Values are communicative concepts. Our discussions about values are themselves facts, and the discussions constitute the values themselves. 

Whether we agree or disagree, all that matters is the ongoing conversation – our communities bind together through our shared investment in the same process of developing and adapting our values. Riffing on his colleague Hilary Putnam,** our values aren’t just in the head.

** In another very sly radical argument. Concepts and meanings exist in thought and in constant communication between thinkers and actors, which includes moral and political concepts. From a conclusion about the nature of knowledge to a principle about the frameworks and foundations of our social moralities.

Values are held at the level of community. I don’t find anything inherently strange about a conclusion that knowledge and morality exist as social phenomena. It’s very difficult to wrap your head around if you still have the baggage of individualistic conceptions of concepts as possessions. “I am thinking this.” Hence some very long debates by very intelligent people.

But I don't find that individualistic conception of thought very difficult to discard. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Deleuze and Guattari over the years and I just think of everything in terms of fields. Maybe I had enough critical engagement with phenomenology over the years that I don't see a firm separation between mind and world anymore. 

People accustomed to traditions of thinking that don’t really engage with these topics (whether or not they’re stereotypically ‘continental’) seem to have the most trouble accepting that it makes sense to say knowledge, thought, and morality are all social phenomena.

Either way, it blows a lot of traditional Western philosophy and philosophical discussions to pieces once you accept it. It feels like you’re writing from a new beginning for a whole tradition.

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