What Is This?
Stuart W. Mirsky
Kirby Urner
Join Us!

Stuart W. Mirsky (Stuart W. Mirsky is the principal author of this blog).
Last 10 Entries:

Sean Wilson's Blog:

Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Search Archives:
Every Entry

Duncan Richter's Blog:


Faith, Metaphysics and Belief (Second Draft)

This is a second draft of an essay I am hoping to include as a supplement to Value and Representation (an early draft of which is offered below), possibly to publish the two together.

My earlier work, Choice and Action, left some matters insufficiently elaborated to my way of thinking, at least it appears to me to be so in retrospect, and it now seems important to plug those gaps. Value and Representation, when completed, will address the question of how valuing works as a necessary feature of our kind of cognitive capacities (which produce a life of using and relying on reasons), an explanation to which I alluded all too briefly in that earlier book.

This essay addresses the other gap I left: the question of how religion qua the spiritual project in human culture provides a basis for arriving at and defending our moral judgments. Most in the modern world think it important to divest moral or ethical questions of specifically religious concerns and this has led to much sturm und drang in philosophy since, bereft of some metaphysical justification, moral judgments seem to hang loosely in a kind of cognitive limbo. We cannot find consensus on whether they are rationally derivable from the rules of reason itself (Kant) or are merely the feelings we have or learn in our lives, converted by some linguistic legerdemain into fake propositions (emotive expressions masquerading as cognitively significant thoughts). Since arguing that moral claims are intuitively established fails (we obviously don't all share the same intuitions even if many of us share some) because of the need for them to be arguable if they are to work as advertised, and since religious claims are inherently contentious with no obvious linkage to moral matters other than the fact that many moral beliefs in human history appear to rest on religious belief, we are left with a lack of support for our moral judgments as moral judgments.

But if there is nothing underlying them, moral judgments must seem to be no more than a kind of fakery, and then anything pretty much goes. But clearly THAT is not how we live our lives. This essay, therefore, aims to revisit the possibility of lodging moral claims in the spiritual dimension of human experience.

Without arguing for any particular religious point of view, I want to make the case that there is a commonality in the many expressions within human cultures of the religious enterprise and that that commonality is precisely where the moral question comes to rest. I want to make the point, further, that religion is not just some has-been project of the human experience but that, whatever the successes or failures of its particular expressions in the history of our species, it remains a continuing and vital aspect of human life.

Click to read more ...


Assorted Thoughts on the Implications of the Is/Ought Dichotomy for Moral Judgment

Last week I had a brief exchange with a philosopher in the Midwest, who is pursuing a project to explain why our value judgments should not be cognitively disqualified as merely emotional expressions of personal likes and dislikes. His view is that normativity, the reference we make to our valuational standards and our behavior in accordance with them, is as integrally involved in the presumably objective discourse of science as it is in our moral claims. Therefore, there is no strong reason to reject the notion that our moral claims have cognitive content just as our descriptive claims do. By showing that normativity plays an integral part in scientific (purely "descriptive") claims, he aims to show that being normative is not disqualifying for moral judgments as such.

I think he makes an interesting point although I think he errs in equating valuing (including the moral sort which is, after all, the controversial kind) with so-called normativity. So I thought I'd repeat here a few of my comments to him (though I will not include his own remarks unless and until I check with him about his willingness for me to do that).

One point I took him to be making was . . .

Click to read more ...


Second Part: Value and Representation (1st shot at it)

We value things in many different registers. Some we call good or bad, others right or wrong and others, beautiful or ugly. Some, too, we judge true or false—for even truth and falsehood can be understood as a form of valuing.

The status of being true is ascribed to statements when these are thought to match what they are statements about and in so doing provide better guidance for speakers and their interlocutors in the course of choosing which statements to rely on when acting. We have the idea that truth is whatever we say insofar as it matches how things really are in the world. It is this kind of picture that we have in mind when we speak of truth.

But how do we know there is ever any actual matching between the words spoken and the world we speak those words about? After all, the world we know (that we can see, speak of, etc.) is contained in our thoughts about it, both expressed publicly or privately considered, and so is always embodied in language in some form. There is no distinct reality apart from what we know of it or can, at least in principle, know of it. If there is language and world, it is yet always the case that the world is already entirely contained in our language. It’s not that we don’t acknowledge a world beyond the linguistic, of course, but that the very notion of the world, in all its ramifications and variations, is only extant, as notion, in the expressive capacities language provides us with.

But this only means that the dichotomy between language and world that we recognize is somewhat artificial. We must assume a world about which language speaks, towards which it is directed, because language, itself, makes that dichotomy so. Language delineates a world but it’s not as if there is language and world, one apart from the other, for language implies the world and the very idea of having a world implies a language in which it is had.

Thus we assume the language-world dichotomy and, in doing so, live within it. Thus, too, the notion of truth as match between words and the world arises. But to the extent we are inside that world it is not the matching that characterizes the truth status of a belief but the effectiveness of it, i.e., that when we rely upon it, it works. . . .

Click to read more ...


Value and Representation -- Third Draft

It's taken a while but here is the third draft of my earlier piece of the same name. It is now much longer so the only part reproduced here is the first third which roughly follows and expands upon the initial draft. When it's done I hope to have a substantial paper plugging in the gaps I left in Choice and Action, my small effort to address issues of moral philosophy (ethics) in book form. Unfortunately I concluded, after re-reading it that there was a significant element I had left seriously under elaborated. Perhaps it wasn't essential to the final conclusions of that book, but it forms a crucial underpinning for those conclusions.

This new version tries to take account of, and to answer, some of the criticisms offered by readers here of the first version. It is by no means complete yet, though. When finalized it will include the other two sections (I think), if they continue to seem to warrant inclusion, of course. The synopsis of the full paper follows:

That values and facts are logically distinct, neither implying the other in any actual judgment, is an old story since Hume, the resultant fact/value dichotomy challenging thinkers to account for the significance we typically apply to moral judgments ever since. Of course, no one thinks it unreasonable to look to one’s own needs or wants in most cases but, when following a moral course, we suppose we must find reasons to subordinate our own interests to those of others. But what fact makes this so? What is it about the world, or about some actions or objectives we may have within it, which provides us with reason to put our own interests aside? If valuing is nothing more than finding ways to satisfy our particular momentary needs (or expressing personal sentiments, as suggested by Hume), then the moral type of value must stand on quicksand—dependent on the next feeling we may have and the next. Moral valuing then can differ in no significant way from any other craving or desire we have, unrelated to any fact of the matter beyond the occurrence of the motivation itself and the fact in the world that motivates us. In what follows, I attempt to show that it is not facts that support our moral choices but a valuing mechanism which infuses our total experience and which joins with the representative power of language to make even discourse about facts, themselves, possible.

Click to read more ...


Value and Representation (1st Draft)

Updated on January 13, 2016 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

We see the world and talk about it using the mechanisms in our language to characterize its elements, distinguishing phenomena according to the different observable relations which they present to us, their observers. That is, we can refer to the world in a myriad of different ways, depending on the different relations we can discern between observables.

Things that are red aren't blue, large things aren't small, fast things aren't slow, soft things aren't hard, etc., etc. Of course there is relativity in relation. Being soft or hard, fast or slow, red or blue depends on the contexts in which the observed qualities present themselves. Lighting conditions affect observations of color, textures and firmness are recognized in terms of our expectations based on other experiences, on what else is around to compare against. Something that feels hard is that only to the extent that there are things that it is harder than. The features of observed things are themselves observables: observed things. But the occurrence of observables implies the phenomenon of observation and thus, observers. The world before us is a world of referents, of things we can see, count, report on and so forth -- but it also includes us, the observers, the counters, the reporters.

The means we have for doing the things observers do (for observing, counting, reporting, etc.) include our sensory faculties, of course, but also the systems we make use of to communicate with others about what we see or feel, touch or hear, smell or taste . . . about what we know. Language and mathematics are systems which enable us to organize what we know, to know things at all in fact, for knowing implies organization within a broader framework of knowns. Language and mathematics organize the inputs we receive as observers and, organizing them in various ways, makes them known by us. Knowing assumes the apparatus of our sensory faculties which give us the capacity to gather and make use of what we observe. But language and mathematics enable us to utilize what we observe. Within the parameters provided by our linguistic and mathematical capacities we develop and maintain conceptual schemas, pictures of the world in which we stand. Logic consists of the rules of conceptual relation which language rests on just as mathematics consists of the rules of relation which counting rests on.

In language, logic is those rules by which we combine and arrange information gathered by the senses (by observation) to represent the world that is observed. But logic alone does not exhaust the rules of language . . .

Click to read more ...


Morality is Merely What We Feel

Wedding sociological and psychological speculations to well reasoned philosophical analyses that cover the ground laid out before him by Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Mill and Nietszche, Jesse Prinz, who teaches philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center, argues in a recent book, The Emotional Construction of Morals, that morality is entirely grounded in our emotional life. Elaborating on the classic Humean position that moral judgment is the application of our sentiments to the things we encounter in the world in which we operate, Prinz builds the case for understanding moral systems, and the judgments they constitute, on a purely emotional basis. Hume argued that human beings have a natural tendency towards sympathy for others and that morality is the manifestation of that, albeit shaped by the cultural education (both explicit, through education, and implicit, through observation and imitation) that we undergo. Prinz' book sets out to offer a more detailed and refined account of this picture, one suitable for our modern era, arguing along the way that while moral relativism is an outgrowth of this position, precisely as its critics maintain, such relativism is not nearly the problem for us and for the practice of moral valuing that it appears to be.

Prinz' account hinges on an analysis of our emotional life which he maintains is grounded in some core, basic biologically determined experiential reactions we have to the world in general. With William James, Prinz proposes that emotions are our experiences of our own bodily reactions to the world in terms of what we are biologically programmed to want and need, as well as to fear and avoid. Such emotions, he notes, are representative in the same sense that our perceptual experiences of the world around us are representative of that world. In the case of emotion, the experiences represent not the elements outside of us that affect us but the "concerns" we have as the organic creatures we are. That is, our emotions represent our reactive interests to our world as opposed to the world itself. Prinz goes on to suggest that it is from these basic building blocks, these core concerns as represented in our feelings, that we develop more complex, sophisticated emotional responses. One class of these more sophisticated, compound emotions (jealousy, for instance, is described as a compound of more basic emotions like anger, fear, suspicion and desire) are, on his view, those we take as moral. That is, only some of our more complex emotions are of a moral nature, those, he suggests, which prompt in us reactions of anger, disgust, contempt, etc., or their opposites and which, he proposes are different depending on their target (whether at others or at ourselves). Dispositions to have certain groups of emotions he calls "sentiments" thus linking his analysis to Hume's moral sentimentalism.

On Prinz' view, our moral life cannot be reduced to our biological programming, however, the way animals respond. Rather, he suggests, our more complex emotions, including and especially those with moral import, grow out of the social potentials built into human behavior by evolution, potentials which enable us to build a framework of socially binding dispositions, sentiments, which encourage and support social binding through cooperative behaviors, e.g., the granting of rights to others, the capacity to hold others accountable and to enforce such accountability, etc. As Prinz puts it towards the end on page 299:

Moral systems are tools for social organization

Click to read more ...


Anscombe's "Intention"

I recently picked up Elizabeth Anscombe's monograph, Intention, for a second time after an abortive first attempt to get through it. As before, I found the first half dry and abstract and overly focused on what I take to be the minutia of usage re: some key words and, especially, "intention." But this time I saw the first half through and went on to finish the book. It was better, because of the second half, than I initially thought.

Anscombe contended that one could not properly engage in ethics (the doing of moral philosophy) if one had not already developed a suitable analysis of the concept of intentions, the personal element in every morally relevant human action. Intentions underlie, and so underwrite, human activity in its deliberative mode even if there is a wide range of human actions for which the idea of what is intended is irrelevant. It is the intention of the human agent, she thinks, that gives the act to moral evaluation. We don't judge involuntary or reflex or coerced actions in terms of their rightness or wrongness, of course, but keep such forms of judging for those acts which we think about and choose to do for reasons. Yet, the concept of intention is an odd one as Anscombe demonstrates in the first half of this ninety four page monograph. . . .

Click to read more ...