Still working on the ecophilosophy manuscript, impeded by the humid weather, and left wondering whether any future success in my writing career could be invested in a summer home in the Rocky Mountains or elsewhere in the far less sweltering country of British Columbia. I did, however, get some work done, but unfortunately have isolated a paragraph of manuscript that it increasingly appears will have no place in the chapter.
Some context for the orphan. “All these theories” I refer to are three attempts to build a theory of environmental moral philosophy that is based on a principle of nature’s intrinsic value. One author, Arne Næss, started writing on environmentalism in the 1960s, and advocated a belief system about reality that combined Buddha and Spinoza into a kind of universalist pantheism, which would replace atheist scientism and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Despite this, he said the reason for accepting this was a common intuition of nature’s intrinsic value, arrived through experiences like mountaineering. Paul Taylor’s major book was published in the late 1980s, advocating a general principle of respect for nature, but also the radical changes in lifestyle this would engender, like the scaling back of industrial society and at least paying lip service to ethical vegetarianism. Nicholas Agar, writing in 2000, accepted the common sense intuition that only that which had a mind was intrinsically valuable, but redefined intelligence so that all living creatures possessed some measure of it. He did not often touch on the issue of lifestyle changes.
“An interesting quirk of all these theories is how, despite the underlying conservatism of their reliance on what their authors take to be widespread intuitions, they grow more radical with their distance from us in the past. It suggests that radical philosophies eventually have to make concessions to critiques from the very perspectives they are trying to overcome. If a central motive of developing a new philosophical system is to shock people from their dogmatic slumbers and see the limitations of what they take to be common sense, then philosophical criticism, rather than refine and improve ideas, actually strips them of their power to make a radical new beginning. If a philosophical radical must permit a conservative opponent to appeal to common intuitions in critical discourse, then adversarial philosophical argument forces a radical to concede authority to the very institutions and moralities she set out to undermine.”
Yes, this is another of my knocks on the appeal to intuition in philosophy. This will probably happen a lot in many different articulations and contexts. But it also amounts to a problem with contemporary philosophical manners. I mean manners as in etiquette.
First consider the typical timeline of an academic philosopher introducing a new idea to the community. It doesn’t need to be a big idea, and my argument here works best with more modest ideas. Most of the time, a philosopher will write an essay of about 5,000 words about his new idea and publish it in a journal. Being a new idea, it’s content departs from the consensus view, as well it should. If the writer had nothing new to say, no way in which his thinking departed from the professional consensus, his essay wouldn’t have been published.
But the usual reaction to such a new idea is criticism. The mainstream idea is well-established, and if it’s especially well-entrenched most folks in the field would consider it intuitively true. For example, when I talk about my distaste for retributive justice (a perspective I’ve only really embraced recently, after a long period of thinking on issues of law enforcement, and the role of the military, police, prohibition of drugs, and prisons in our society), I often get push-back from people who tell me that it’s intuitively true that the perpetrator of a crime or injury deserves to be punished. And the usual reaction to criticism is to make a compromise.
Because a new idea isn’t going to have a game-ready response to every possible critique it may face. And if there isn’t a game-ready response, our philosopher must concede in part. When people argue, there’s a winner and a loser. Those who can’t decisively shoot down criticisms are losers. Usually, that’s the advocate of a new idea. New ideas need time to be explored in all their implications. Sometimes, it takes generations to see all the implications of a new idea. Sometimes longer.
So when the first response to a new idea is the criticize it, the new idea dies stillborn. Its new versions include more and more compromises to the perspective it was invented to challenge in the first place. Instead of being intrigued by a new idea and exploring its subtleties, the common reaction is to attack the idea and force it to defend itself, usually before the idea’s advocates have fully explored all the idea can do.
I referenced dogmatic slumber for a reason. That was Immanuel Kant’s line about the effect David Hume’s philosophy had on him: it woke him from his dogmatic slumbers. Hume’s ideas were epoch-making departures from what has come before. In many ways, we’re still exploring the subtleties of his thinking, and the implications of his concepts. Kant’s response wasn’t to argue or critique these ideas, defending the mainstream against an attack. He didn’t want to defeat Hume, but to include him as the foundation for a new way of thinking about knowledge. In response, Kant wrote works that have had equal, if not greater, longevity and affects as Hume’s.
Being creative and open-minded to new directions in thought and life, not being critical and confrontational by instinct, is how philosophical progress is made, how new ideas are made and transform the ways we think.