Note to Jack

One of the joys of having an open-source text out there is occasionally getting pleasantly surprised with who it reaches. Glad you’re finding my Intro worthwhile. In an introduction to philosophy I’d rather hope to raise more interesting issues than I settle. It’s very gratifying to see you’ve latched on to some good questions here. Wish more of my students would read this closely.

So, you’re raising a question concerning the epistemology of value. How can we know what is good, or in the case of works of art, what is beautiful or has aesthetic value (let’s not assume these are the same thing). It might look like things are easier in the case of knowing what is good for your friend. You can ask your friend. But that might just be a starting point. Most of us don’t have perfect self-knowledge. Often enough, we are masters of self-deception. To take a pretty clear case, if your friend is a drug addict, he might tell you quite earnestly that what is good for him is a bag of dope. And he’d probably be wrong. So, there are challenging “how do you know?” questions concerning what is best for the people we love as well.

Before we get to the “how do you know?” question, though, let’s consider some data points. In both the case of your friends and works of art, it does seem we can inquire into what is best and come to have a decent appreciation of what is best. I think the text had a link to Khatia Buniatishvili playing Rachmaninov.

Khatia Buniatishvili plays Piano Concerto No. 2 by S. Rachmaninov – YouTu

Even if you are not a fan of classical music, you can probably appreciate the artistry of her playing. If you are a fan, you may have a more refined appreciation of what counts as great musicianship in this tradition. This isn’t something Buniatishvili gets to decide for herself (any more than the drug addict gets to decide for himself that another dose of herion is what’s best for him). 

Classical music is a good case to consider because it seems pretty clear that what is good is not totally subjective but determined in good measure by standards of excellence adopted in that musical tradition. Still, a great interpreter of Rachmaninov like Buniatishvili isn’t just slavishly adhering to those aesthetic standards. Rather she is articulating, refining and shaping those standards of excellence. She is adding something new of her own that complements and further develops the aesthetic values of the tradition. So perhaps, this is one view anyway, aesthetic value is created, but not arbitrary or subjective. We might have a hard time resolving our disagreements about who is the greatest blues guitarist, but it is clearly and objectively not me.

We have similar data points in loving relationships between people. Granted lots of relationships are dysfunctional and won’t be so helpful here. Frankfurt argues that self-love is loving what you love. This view is based on the idea that what is good for you is a function of what you love. But then we aren’t infallible judges of what we love. Sometimes your friend or mate knows better than you what is best for you. So, I might fancy the idea of owning another motorcycle at the ripe age of 57, but my wife sees better that this doesn’t cohere so well overall with the things I love (including her, of course). 

So, what I’m submitting as data points here are cases where people do have a pretty good appreciation for what is good or best, and these look like cases where our standards of excellence aren’t entirely subjective. And yet, as you astutely point out, our standard methods of rational inquiry into what is true don’t appear to be all that helpful. I don’t arrive at the “true” view of what is a great classical music performance, or whether it would be good for me to buy a Harley, through any process of inductive or deductive reasoning. This is beginning to look like a serious epistemic quandary.

So here is one suggestion. Perhaps we when are looking into what is best (in ethics, meaning in life or aesthetics) we aren’t looking into what is true. We are just looking into what is best. There may be kinds of understanding we can aspire to that aren’t exactly knowledge (since knowledge aims at truth). It may be that we can grasp, aspire to, or appreciate standards of excellence that aren’t merely subjective or totally up to us, but at the same time aren’t real entities in the world where we can have knowledge of truths. 

[Note here that having knowledge of truths itself looks to depend on standards of excellence that can’t be easily captured in terms of inquiring into truths. We can say quite a bit about what it is to have a good justifying reason for holding a belief. But here epistemology is just as normative as ethics or aesthetics. It’s not like our standards of excellence in inquiry are objectively existing things in the world about which we can have true beliefs. And yet we can pretty clearly get things wrong when it comes to justifying our beliefs (witness QAnon).]

So, the suggestion here is that there is space to explore between things being subjective, or up to us, and things being real, out there in the world where we can inquire into truths about them. I’d point you to Christine Korsgaard as one scholarly source to explore along these lines.

Finally, here’s another suggestion. Perhaps values are real, including moral values, the good life, and aesthetic values. Perhaps there are truths to discover here, but reasoning (deductive or inductive) is just one of the tools at our disposal for getting at these truths. There is also evidence. Sometimes your best and only reason for believing something is that you’ve witnessed it. In the case of Buniatishvili’s musicianship, she has, through the course of her training, been shown what excellent classical piano playing sounds like and she has developed a keen ear for this kind of excellence. In the case of typical moral maturation, we are shown some evidence when as children we are asked how we’d feel if someone treated us like that (or even more vividly when someone does treat us like that).

Hope you weren’t looking for an easy answer here Jack. When you get past the introduction, things only get more, well, complicated or interesting, depending on your sensibility.


Against Cruelty

A popular view in our culture is that people who do wrong should be punished as a matter of retribution. Retribution is holding a person responsible by treating them according to the standard they set for themselves in their wrong action. But then we don’t steal the car thief’s car, we sent him to prison. Prison seems like the more humane alternative to raping the rapist and you generally can’t defraud the fraudster who would be broke without his ill gotten gains. But prison is still pretty severe punishment since it not only costs the wrong doer a significant chunk of their life, but given the way we have set things up, a prison sentence grants the convicted very few realistic paths back into the social order.

I worry about retributive punishment. It frequently functions as a thin morally righteous veil over vengeful motives. In principle, retribution is treating the wrong doer the way he deserves to be treated. Retribution, in principle, is entirely about what is just for the wrongdoer. Revenge differs in that it is about the victims and evening the score. But in practice we get these things mixed up. And punishment is often enough about satisfying our sense of righteousness when we identify with the victims of crime. The desire for revenge, I think, is best understood as a fight or flight response after the fact. We are horrified at the evil act of the wrong doer and feel a powerful emotional impulse to hit back, even though there is no longer any ongoing fight.

The Russian/Armenian tile setter that did my bathroom several years ago commented in conversation that “When the fight is over, you stop swinging your arms.” Wise words, I think. My worry about retribution/revenge is that it mainly serves as an indulgence of our own cruel impulses. We have a whole media machinery set up to whip up our outrage at the wrong doings of fellow citizens (it’s called the local TV news). And politicians are quick to capitalize on our fear of crime with get tough on crime measures. But getting tough on crime doesn’t bring crime down, it only sates our lust for vengeance. Crime statistics since the crime ridden 70s show clearly that dramatic reductions in crime are not correlated with “get tough” measures. Crime has fallen years ahead of “get tough” measures in many places and crime has remained intransigent in other places that have gotten tough. One of the leading hypotheses in the ongoing mystery concerning why crime has fallen so dramatically since the 70s it that it’s a salutary effect of removing lead from paint. 

We have an immediate sense of our freedom to make choices and a deep sense that people should be held accountable for these. But we also know full well that our choices are influenced in ways we don’t always appreciate. The choices we make, for instance, are heavily influenced by the options we see as open to us. Consider that crime rates overall among black men are higher than among white men, but crime rates among employed black men are about the same as crime rates among employed white men. Unemployment does predispose people towards crime. Race doesn’t. Among the most significant aspects of systemic racism in America is racial disparity in pay and employment opportunities.

People with decent characters sometimes make bad choices. Punishing them won’t often make them into better people. Though it might make them into worse people. The cruel impulses that lay beneath the veils of retribution and “personal responsibility” do a great deal of damage in our society, and most often to people who have very little power to begin with.

My caution about the cruel impulse to punish is not an argument for letting dangerous evil doers go free with no consequences. There are other models for criminal justice that would be more effective at protecting society and cultivating more peaceable, responsible and productive citizens. One is the public health model. Society should be protected from dangerous individuals. But we can do this by treating dangerous criminals in the same manner we treat people with dangerous infectious diseases. Prison should be like quarantine, unpleasant when necessary, but making it unpleasant isn’t the point. There are ways to protect society from criminal danger that aren’t cruel. But indulging cruel impulses doesn’t do anyone any good.