29 March 2012

Utilitarian Skepticism At Its Best

Click here for the abstract of  Brian Leiter's essay In Praise of Realism (and Against “Nonsense” Jurisprudence). From there you can download the full essay if you wish. Although long, as with most of Leiter's work it is very well written. More clearly than anywhere I've read before, Leiter explains why he believe that moral reasoning is a waste of time. Discursive reasoning with respect to moral matters is absurd because (1) there is no such "thing" as moral truth (or, one supposes, truth at all although Leiter doesn't explicitly say so) and (2) such reasoning doesn't get anyone to change. From Socrates and Plato to John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, moral realists have been a complete waste of time.

Well, almost a complete waste.
Normative theorizing can serve only two practical purposes: (1) to make vivid to the agent what he or she is already disposed to care about, or (2) to change the affective predispositions of its audience such that they will care about, or value, other things.
Because affective dispositions are nonrational, the medium of traditional philosophy—discursive reasoning—will be causally inert with respect to (2). And vivid and emotionally moving representation of what the agent is already disposed to care about has never been the strong suit of traditional philosophy, per (1).
How does Leiter know (if that's the right word for a committed pragmatist) that discursive moral reasoning doesn't work, doesn't get people to do what they already weren't committed to doing? Well, he cites some studies about judicial reasoning that purport to show that it has less to do with judicial decisions than politics (by cherry picking hot button topics, but I'll let that pass), and Thucydides for observing that geo-politics is less about justice than power. Shocking!

We might observe that Leiter is engaging in discursive (and, I contend) moral reasoning to the effect that we shouldn't engage in discursive moral reasoning. I might also suggest that in picking on Dworkin, and especially Rawls, Leiter has made his job easier. Moral realism without God, and a very specific one at that, is a house of cards. Battling with a serious Christian moral philosopher like Nicholas Wolterstorff would have made Leiter's job much harder. (Search "Wolterstorff" in my blog for my summaries of his arguments for and about justice.)

But Leiter is onto something: moral reasoning has far less impact than vivid examples:
People change their moral views, but they do so, as Humeans and Nietzscheans claim, because their passions and emotions are suitably engaged and aroused, not because they follow the conclusions of discursive reasoning. Such reasoning can establish the truth of no moral position.
Overstated a bit but far from wrong. There's a good reason why the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament are primarily narratives and poetry. It's stories that capture our imaginations and poetry that inspires us. I wonder if Leiter has ever read the teachings of Jesus, the story-teller par excellence.

My posts about James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom make this point as well (check here). Cultural practices or liturgies form us, not abstract theology. But here's the catch, discursive reasoning (including theological) can teach us which stories, poetry, and liturgies malform us. Leiter can make no argument for why judicial (non)reasoning should give us decision x or y. Sure, McPherson v. Buick Motors wasn't true to earlier precedent but why does Leiter think Cardozo did the "right" thing? And if he doesn't, why should we care about what Leiter writes?

Ultimately, and as so many have observed so often, pragmatism and skepticism are self-defeating. Nowhere are their incoherence better reflected than in their arguments against moral reasoning. They can't be true because there is no truth and if they're false, who care?

But don't take my word for it. Read Leiter's essay for yourself and let me know if you agree.

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