Posted by: captainfalcon | March 18, 2010

Thought for the day

While we’re getting carried away, here’s something to think on: “Interests (both material and immaterial), not ideas, immediately dominate the actions of men. But the “images of the world” that ideas create, often determine like switches the tracks along which the dynamic interplay of interests drives human action” (Max Weber).

Apropos of nothing in particular, that gels with the sentiment underlying Raymond Geuss’s Outside Ethics, which I’ve been muddling about in. In the introduction, he identifies the “final framework” in which contemporary Western thought takes place (or, put another way, it’s organizing attitudes). Western thought, says Geuss, recognizes:

three broad categories of ‘things’ as unproblematically important:

(a) individual subjective preferences

(b) useful knowledge, especially warranted, empirically supported belief that tells us how the world is, how it can be predicted to change, and how we might use it

(c) a restrictive set of demands on action that could affect other people and that are usually construed as some set of universal laws or rules or principles

He goes on,

All the essays in this collection are devoted in one way or another to trying to undermine what I claim to be the usual conemporary way of looking at and thinking about the world, showing its deficiencies both as a schema for understanding significant portions of human life and as a matrix for making evaluations. The essays share the view that there are many things that are of the greatest importance but do not fit comfortably into the tripartite scheme.

So for Geuss, like Weber, the particular ethical (perhaps, also, epistemic) framework we choose is a justificatory accident. We have many different commitments – to equality, liberty, the inviolability of the person, security, community &c. – each of which can be cashed out in many different ways. Depending on which commitment (and correlate conception) we privilege, we end up with radically different ways of evaluating the world.

That said, while our choice of frameworks (from within a bounded range?) is justificatorily accidental, it has an historical explanation. That framework that best justifies the position or preferences (in Weber’s terms: “interests both material and immaterial”) of the elite is the framework that tends to become dominant. This is so, presumably, both because the most articulate members of society are the elites (and so, naturally, the most articulated framework is the one they find most theoretically congenial) and because those who articulate the elite-preferred framework those that receive the most fiduciary support.

This seems an obvious fact. It has been obscured by the implications those, like Geuss, who harp on it frequently draw out (whether rightly or wrongly). But its arguably unpleasant arguable ramifications do not change its truth-value.



  1. The choice of frameworks as “jusitificatorily accidental” doesn’t seem like an obvious fact to me. I would think that other factors (e.g., the truth, the emotional appeal…) often also has significant impact. The “from within a bounded range” hints that you recognize this, but I can certainly consider cases where there is only one idea that is likely to be accepted regardless of what combination of historic interests promotes alternatives. “Within a bounded range” of 1 seems more accurately described by saying it is not a justificatory accident.

  2. 1. I am not sure the “emotional appeal” of a claim has justificatory relevance, though it might be that some claims have emotional appeal independent of our conditioning. If so, the historical explanation I adumbrate of why we hold the attitudes we do is bounded (some attitudes appeal to all of us regardless of whose interests they serve). This seems plausible enough, although it is not sufficient that a claim is emotionally appealing e.g. to you to say that you affirm it because of its natural emotional appeal. Presumably, if you were e.g. an Ancient Greek you would find a different set of claims emotionally appealing, but that wouldn’t suffice to show that they were thus independent of your conditioning.

    2. I doubt you’re right that the truth has much bearing, at least, on our choice of ethical frameworks. (Though I suspect it does have bearing on our selection of epistemic norms.) First, the process by which we go about accepting moral norms (a combination of mimicry and emotional episodes rationalized post hoc) seem an unreliable guide to truth. Second, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious benefit to our being capable of ascertaining moral truth (by contrast, there is an obvious benefit to our being able to ascertain various contingent truths (how many lions in the den, for example); that benefit could feature in an explanation why the epistemic norms we affirm are likely to be reliable indicators of truth).

    Further, it seems fairly clear that the widely internalized moral (certainly, political) norms in various societies have been basically congenial to the elites; divine right of kings, the “mixed” constitution of republicanism (which even the most radical dissenters agreed was excellent, but which gave disproportionate power to the upper class), the “double representative” system in America, Rawlsianism (whose “difference principle” requires the resolution of a bunch of counterfactuals the answers to which are anyone’s guess), even the Soviet system of political morality (which had various contrivances – like Stakhanovitism – designed to justify inequalities in the standard of living).

    It is also worth noting that commonsense morality is congenial to the “haves.” Absolute prohibitions against stealing, for example, are good for the elites, less obviously so for the destitute. (So too, I’d think, are absolute prohibitions against murder.)

    Consequentialism – a minority view – seems least congenial, but (although I’m probably lapsing into just-so-ism here) one of the most persuasive objections to it has been that it is too “demanding.” (Pretty clear who’d find THAT persuasive…me.)

    What the implications, normative or otherwise, of all this are I can’t say. I doubt that’s as obvious as some make it seem. What still seems obvious to me is that our final moral framework, at least, is largely justificatorily accidental.

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