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Entries in Hume (5)


Philosophy and Practicality

Updated on July 29, 2014 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

Not being a member of the academic community of philosophers, and yet having an abiding interest in that community's subject matter (some elements of it, at any rate), I have often wondered about the meaningfulness of the field. This is partly a reflection of my own decision more than 40 years ago not to pursue a a graduate philosophy degree (I doubted my ability to make a mark in that particular arena and also the value of doing so). I was drawn to Wittgenstein back then, perhaps partly because he seemed to be the epitome of the anti-philosopher but, I think, even more because his strategy and approach to the business philosophers did seemed to clarify so many of my own concerns. I was caught in the web of idealism at the time, after a flirtation with logical positivism and, briefly, American pragmatism. But I was always and primarily drawn to the analytic approach of which Wittgenstein was a part even after leaving that reservation in his later years. The fact that there seemed to be no solutions to the pressing philosophical questions both kept my head spinning and suggested, to me at least, the virtual pointlessness of bothering with such questions. Yet I could not simply divest myself of them, not even after exposure to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.

I spent a number of years, after graduating, still troubling the same philosophical bones but finally gave it all up entirely and moved on. Yet, in my later years I've found myself drawn back to these kinds of concerns. Although I have improved my understanding of many of the issues and, I think, of Wittgenstein himself, it has seemed to me that there are still areas worth chewing over for those who are philosophically inclined. Of course, if Wittgenstein was right in his later years, we're all better off moving on to more practical endeavors but perhaps, when one has finished the practical part of one's life, a return to philosophy is just what's called for. And so I've engaged on and off over the years in philosophical discussions on Internet sites like this one. They have not always been satisfying but have often been edifying. . . .

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Toward a Comprehensive Account of Value Discourse

Still working my way through Hall, on the 12th chapter now and have reached a point, I think, where I have enough of a sense of where he is headed with his analysis to make some comments:

Hall builds his account of valuing, and moral valuing specifically, on the notion that valuing just is emotion and that it occurs in parallel (though intermixed with) occurrences of perception (perceiving). He proposes that there are parallel linguistic forms within what he calls our conventional language (ordinary language governed by a convention-based grammar) which reflect or express the underlying elements (emotion and perception), with each having its own distinct logic, also occurring in rough parallel. Thus he argues that the polarities of truth and falsity represent the dichotomies intrinsic to perceptive/descriptive language, as represented by the truth tables of logic, while a favorable/non-favorable/indifferent trichotomy characterizes emotional language. Both forms of language, he proposes, in keeping with their underlying (natural) basis, i.e., reflecting the two ways we relate to the world around us, have semantic content. That is, they refer to entities outside themselves. This referential trait, he holds, is an expression of the fundamentally intentional nature of both.

For Hall, then, the solution to the problem posed by Hume's is/ought dichotomy is to demonstrate that Hume missed the linguistic/semantic character of value claims and to show that oughts and is's are interconnected because of their parallel reliance on the intentionality of the language user. . . .

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Acts, Intentions and Agents

Writing at page 174 of his book, Our Knowledge of Fact and Value, Hall makes the point that

Our moral and aesthetic judgments are not about our emotions; they are renditions of our emotions, having the same object as our emotions have, saying (in part) exactly what our emotions say. They are expressions of emotions.

Here, it seems to me, is the crux of Hall's claims about value and our knowledge of it. He seems to want to say that valuing is just the expression of our emotions and that emotion language is like descriptive language (contra Hume) in that both are directed at objects, both refer and thus both types of language say something that is determinable from the facts. But there are certain differences in the logic he notes, for descriptive statements are true or false based on the adequacy with which they depict the facts which our perceptions capture for us while:

Evaluative sentences in conventional language receive whatever probability they have from their truthfulness to emotions.

He adds

I need not remark that the 'truthfulness' to which I refer is not correctness of depiction but faithfulness of translation.

In this way, Hall sets out to explode the Humean account which severs fact from value. . .

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How to Derive "Ought" from "Is"

Back when I was in college and taking up philosophy, the received opinion concerning ethics claims, the standard doctrine espoused by all my teachers, was that, since Hume at least, we can all agree that one can't derive "ought" statements from "is" statements, that is claims about what we ought to do in any given case do not follow based on the descriptions of the facts of the case alone. Of course, this is moderated somewhat by the realization that some "is" statements present us with reasons to make "ought" claims to the extent that we are so inclined and that we believe others share the same inclinations that we do. Confronted with a fact that prompts us to choose X, for instance, we will naturally expect that someone else with values like ours will be susceptible to the same prompt and recognize the same reason to act as we do. To the extent moral assertions are built on that, it is possible to move in a seemingly logical way from what there is to what we ought to do about it. But the problem, particularly in the moral case, boils down to situations where the prompts themselves are in question.

If seeing someone in danger or in pain serves to prompt me to try to alleviate the conditions causing the other person pain or putting them in danger, it doesn't follow that that prompt will have the same effect on someone else. Nor does it follow that it should have that effect on me if it so happens that it doesn't. This is the problem of deriving oughts from is's. And it lies at the very heart of the moral case.

Since Hume this has been standard stuff in moral philosophy . . .

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A Matter of Ethics

Updated on November 7, 2013 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

Considers some possibilities in finding justifications for the validity of our moral claims. If the basis of such claims cannot be justified in some bottom line way, can the claims we base on them be argued for at all?

I once tried unsuccessfully to argue that moral claims are based on the general principle of self-improvement and that self-improvement takes many forms and that how we understand it will determine the nature of the moral judgments we make . . . in the final analysis there is only one really reliable form of self-improvement [I argued] because all other options are too limited in scope to truly represent real improvement of the self . . . because, I thought, the self was rather like Kant's transcendental subject, clothed in our experiences, memories, beliefs, etc., and the point was to act in ways that most aligned with this purest core of our being. Alas, for me, the argument could not even withstand my own scrutiny of it.

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