Why do many people prefer moral absolutes? Why do many others prefer moral relativism? Same answer: Self-Righteousness

People tend to have a very big stake in their own goodness. So it figures that they’d really want moral truths to be simple and clear cut, and the less they’ve thought critically about hard moral issues, the simpler and more clear cut the better. But if we step outside our tendency towards self righteousness for a minute, there is really no reason to expect ethics to be somehow more simple and straightforward than, say, physics or chemistry. Most of us don’t have a hard time admitting to ourselves that we don’t know all that much about physics or chemistry. But to admit that we don’t know so much about what’s good or right is much harder. That would cast some doubt on our own goodness and many people find this intolerable.

This tendency towards self-righteousness also explains much of the appeal of moral relativism. Moral relativism rejects moral absolutes and fans of moral relativism see this as promoting more open minded and tolerance of those with other views. There are good reasons to doubt that moral relativism delivers the goods on the virtues of open mindedness and tolerance. Moral relativism is the view that what is right relative to a group (culture or individual) is whatever is deemed right relative to that group (culture or individual). But there is nothing in this view that speaks against a group (culture or individual) deeming narrow-minded intolerance a good thing. Moral Relativism deems bigotry good relative to the bigot.

But let’s focus on the role of self-righteousness here. Moral relativism deems everyone (or every group) right relative to themselves. On this view I can maintain that I am right (no matter how narrow-minded and uncritical my view is) so long as I’m only asserting that right just means right relative to me (or my group). So moral relativism invites everyone to be perfectly self-righteous relative to themselves. And it thereby prevents reasoning about ethics from playing any useful role in adjudicating conflicts. What tools does this leave us for dealing with conflicts? Well, there is always power politics, or if that doesn’t work, brute force.

An alternative to both moral absolutism and moral relativism would be to take inquiry into morality seriously. That is, to take morality to be the sort of thing we can learn about through critically examining evidence and argument. But here’s the catch taking inquiry into morality seriously requires acknowledging that maybe we don’t already know what is good and right. That is, it requires abandoning our self-righteousness.

Individualism vs. Love

There is a kind of rugged individualism that is quite in vogue in our culture. It’s not surprising that people prize feeling powerful, self sufficient and independent in a culture where everyone has their own job, car and the world at their fingertips through their phones, laptops etc. We live like gods, all knowing, all powerful and, of course, perfectly good. This seems often to be the picture we paint for ourselves and the sort of existence we aspire to.

I fear that the sort of life this leads to will ultimately be rather barren, lonely and nihilistic. But aside from that, the independence aspiration involves a good deal of self-deception. We are in fact vulnerable, needful things that can hardly survive, never mind flourish and be happy, without caring relationships. I wonder if part of what makes the rugged individualist self-deception so appealing is the very fact that deprived of our technological conveniences, nearly all of us would be far less prepared to fend for ourselves than just about all of our ancestors. Having it so easy makes it easy to forget just how totally we depend on others to meet our needs. In every past culture and time, peoples need for each other would have been a central and well recognized social reality. This is the first moment in history that very many people can afford to question whether it makes sense to care for others deeply. The temptation will be there since to love another person brings with it tremendous vulnerability. It requires a good deal of trust. It will change you in ways not completely in your control. It will compromise your autonomy in all manner of ways (any parent can confirm that). Love is a fearsome thing. It does not always go well. For most of us, failed love will be the biggest trauma we ever endure. And yet we pursue love. For most of us, its a need that simply will not be ignored.

So given all of this, it makes an awful lot of sense for us to love carefully. By that I don’t mean love cautiously. Once we are honest with ourselves about the stakes, it should be clear that there is no such thing as caution in loving another. To love another human being is an audacious and daring thing to do. What I do mean is that we should love with great care. We should cherish and take good care of our relationships and their participants, of each other and ourselves. The need for this caring on our part will be all the more clear if we are also honest with ourselves concerning our own very mortal vulnerability and needfulness. It’s tempting to think that the best way to take care of ourselves is to fortify defenses around any possible vulnerabilities. This is the lonely path of the individualist. But given our nature as needful social beings, the more sure and rewarding path to having our own needs met, to being taken care of, is to take care of others who reciprocate and care for us in turn. The way to be safe and secure, and not alone, is to be audacious and daring in generously caring for those we are close to. This is the sweet paradox of love.

Jordan Peterson’s analysis of Political Correctness

Peterson’s Straw Man diagnosis of campus social justice activists is concisely put here:



Peterson attributes a fairly sophisticated, if utterly wrong headed, theoretical framework to so called SJWs. He sees Political Correctness as based on an impure amalgam of Marxism and Postmodernism. I too think that Marxism and Postmodernism are terrible things and not just for the reasons Peterson articulates so well. But I think he is mistaken in his blanket attribution of Marxism and Postmodernism to social justice activists. I think Peterson hasn’t done enough field work to give an accurate diagnosis of the psychology and motivation of the average liberal social justice promoting member of the campus community. For there just aren’t that many social justice warriors that are this theoretically sophisticated. However, they do tend to be pretty evidence based in ways Peterson’s analysis completely ignores.

What is most present to mind among, say Black Lives Matter activists is the historical legacy and ongoing perpetuation of a clearly unjust and often brutal practices. The specific injustices complained of would be clear injustices on any number of theoretical approaches, perhaps most doubtfully a marriage of Postmodernism and Marxism. Theoretical commitments aren’t what really matters to the social justice crowd at least on my campus.

Trans people not getting murdered matters. Black people not getting harassed by the police matters. Women not getting sexually harassed in the workplace matters. You certainly don’t need to think that the interests of groups supersedes that of individuals to make sense out of this. The more noxious forms of Identity Politics occasionally make a brief appearance in the form of uncritically invoking some hackneyed relativistic cliche, but we’d just be mistaken to attribute sophisticated if incoherent and self-defeating theoretical perspectives to folks on this thin basis.

Of course we do talk about groups in diagnosing systemic injustices, especially those groups that have have served as the bases of historically well documented past injustices. But this doesn’t demand that we take groups to matter more than individuals. We can quite coherently coherently contend, as most people ordinarily do, that groups are mere abstractions, having no real existence apart from the members that make them up, and still be on the look out for unfair disadvantages that people face because they are black, or trans, or women. Even the current slogans avoid the mistake of reifying groups. Its, “Black lives matter” not “Blackness matters” and its “me too”, not “please also consider the collective identity of women.”

whether your theoretical framework for explaining them is some fusion of postmodernism and marxism, or Rawls, Nozick, Locke Sen or take your pick. Theoretical framework dictates judgment about individual cases no more that judgement about specific instances dictates theory.

The Emotional Roots of Prejudice and Bigotry

At the social level, bigotry and prejudice are tools of oppression where in groups dominate and exploit out groups. But analysis at this sociological level leaves important questions unanswered about why people are are so prone to in group – out group thinking in the first place. Note that the most stridently prejudiced are often not those who benefit significantly from exploitative power dynamics between groups. Prejudice, bigotry and discrimination have deeper emotional roots in individual psychology than sociological analysis can fully illuminate.

We are familiar with fear mongering in racist demagoguery and fear often does play a central role in othering The Other. We see this in the long history of racial prejudice against African Americans and more recently against Muslims. This fear is irrational given that the perceived threat is largely based on fantasy stereotypes. But fear does little to explain misogyny or other cases of discrimination like anti-semitism in Nazi Germany or the caste system in India.

Disgust, according to Martha Nussbaum, does shed broader light on the psychology of prejudice. But what exactly is disgust? And how does it lead to prejudice, discrimination and oppression? These are the questions I will briefly explore in this essay. But first, I want to mention that the occasion for this reflection was a wonderful event at Seattle Town Hall the other night where Martha Nussbaum spoke about her new book, Aging Thoughtfully, co-authored with Saul Levmore. The full event is online here. While the main focus of the evening was ageism, her discussion also explored disgust and its role in prejudice and discrimination more generally.

We should also note that Nussbaum is a cognitivist about the emotions. That is, she thinks that emotions aren’t just feelings, but that emotions have at their core a cognitive element of judgment or belief. At the core of fear, for instance, is the judgment that something or someone presents some kind of danger. Similarly it would not make sense to understand a person as experiencing grief unless that person believes they have lost something or someone dear to them. Having this cognitive component means that emotions can be well grounded or irrational. A person’s fear, for instance, is rational to just the degree that the perceived threat is real. A fear based on distorted or fantastic belief is not rational. So, given this theoretical context, exploring the emotional roots of prejudice in no way excuses prejudice and discrimination as somehow beyond the scope rational critique. To the contrary, exploring the emotional roots of prejudice will be an attempt to get at what is going wrong in the mind of the bigot or the misogynist. The goal here is to illuminate the irrationality of prejudice.

So back to disgust. Nussbaum takes disgust to be aversion to contamination. In particular, disgust is repulsion against things we associate with decay, disease and death. What Nussbaum calls primary disgust probably has a biological basis. It’s easy to see how evolution would favor a strongly felt repulsion from things like rotting flesh or signs of communicable disease. Disgust in these cases is rational, just like our fear of tigers. Of course even here we often find overriding reasons for caring for the sick or facing down our fear of the tiger.

But then, people also suffer what Nussbaum calls “projective disgust.” As she puts it, “people seek to create a buffer zone between themselves and their own animality by identifying a group (usually a powerless minority) who can be targeted as the quasi-animals and projecting onto that group various animal characteristics, which they have to no greater degree than the ones doing the projecting: bad smell, animal sexuality and so on.”

Projective disgust is neither rational nor obviously adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint. So how do so many people across so many cultures become saddled with this irrational, socially problematic emotional attitude? Well, as slightly rational, self-aware beings, we must somehow cope with the foreknowledge of our own eventual decline, decay and demise. Gifted self-deceivers that we are, a widespread strategy for dealing with this long run crisis and the anxiety it can provoke is to deny and distance ourselves from our own animality and mortality. Indeed most of our major religious traditions seem to be overly concerned with assimilating us more closely to God or gods and thereby distancing us from our essential nature as mortal, disease prone, biological organisms.

Projective disgust is a dishonest mode of dividing the person against its self, cleaving our elevated, rational, self-aware minds from our ultimately decaying flesh. Descartes had it hard wired into the nature of reality. But the comfort of this dualism comes at a steep price. In elevating ourselves as something more than animal and mortal, we extend this elevation only to those we can readily identify with. Others can be literally left to rot. And so we other The Other. There are no doubt assorted other ways in which we other The Other, but failing to come to terms with our own humanity, and our own animality and mortality in particular, is surely among the deepest and most universal. Prejudice and bigotry is, in varying degrees, grounded in self-deception aimed at evading self-loathing. But if we can muster the courage to see ourselves with clear eyes, susceptible to all manner of corruption and decay, ultimately destined to demise, we might also hope to get over our disgust and find ourselves, along with all our fellow vulnerable, decaying, mortal organisms, as lovable all the same.

James Baldwin invokes this wisdom in connection with racism in America when he writes,

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.


Leaving Paris

I’m opening this thread for discussion of the US leaving the Paris Climate Agreement. I don’t imagine many of you appreciate the historical significance of this event yet. But you will soon enough and it would be an oversight on my part not to address it in the context of ethical inquiry. In short, what happened on the 1st of June 2017, is that the US federal government abandoned a global effort, one supported by most American citizens, to avert a global calamity that has the potential to destroy human civilization as we know it along with much of the other life on the planet. In doing so we have abdicated our position of global leadership, undermined our own power and influence as a nation, and handed the economic benefits of deploying the technology that can and hopefully will sustain humanity to other nations and people. So this move was highly self-destructive as well as destructive to life on the planet. We will all have the rest of our lives to see how this plays out in the short to medium run. But we won’t have to wait long:


Of course it isn’t that every flood is caused by climate change. But every flood from here on out happens in the context of climate change and the destructive power of floods, fires, droughts and heat waves is thereby amplified.

Our president didn’t mention global warming in his announcement of the US departure from Paris. But clearly his sense that this is the right thing for America to do is rooted in ignorance about the science. Lest that be a stumbling block, you might start here:


As sad as it is to see such ignorance about basic science in a world leader, the greater flaw in this administration’s thinking, the one that makes this move so self destructive as well as environmentally destructive, is ethical. In short, our leader seems to see every situation as a zero sum game, where the only choices are winning at the expense of others or losing to their benefit. Given this mindset, ethical considerations are merely obstacles to winning. Ethical considerations aside, this kind of cynicism turns a blind eye to the assorted ways in which selfishness can turn out to be irrational even in terms of self-interest. Building flourishing societies in the context of climate change is not a contest to be a winner instead of a loser. It works a little more like this:


Conservative columnist David Brooks captures the basic ethical flaw of our current leadership very eloquently in this morning’s NY Times (fake news):


Do pass on further interesting commentary as our society tries to digest this bitter pill. Including from those who think this is sweet candy. I’ll comment as I can.


Moral Relativism


The moral relativist believes that ethical truths are relative to groups smaller than humanity as a whole.  That this is true of fundamental ethical truths, not merely derived moral rules, is essential to relativism.  To allow just one fundamental universal ethical truth that is independent of the say so of individuals or groups is to abandon relativism in favor of a realist view of ethical truth.  There are as many versions of moral relativism as there are groups or individuals ethical truth can be relative to.

A simple version of moral relativism, societal moral relativism, holds that a type of action is morally right relative to a society if it is deemed right by the majority of members of that society. Moral relativism is a view about what makes ethical truths true. It is not a view about how we come to hold moral beliefs.  There is very good reason to think that in fact we often acquire our moral views from elements in our culture. What people come to believe depends on cultural influences, but this is not moral relativism.  Moral relativism is the view that what determines the truth or falsity of moral beliefs is just what is endorsed by the prevailing culture. According to moral relativism, moral truths are made by the dominant view in a society, not merely propagated by the dominant culture.

Many would endorse some version of moral relativism on the grounds that it supports tolerance and respect for societies with differing moral views.  Moral relativism seems to be a view that allows for different societies to embrace different moral standards that are right relative to the respective societies.  Moral relativism rejects the notion that the moral standards of one society could be objectively correct.  So if moral relativism is correct, no society could be justified in forcing its moral standards on other groups because its standards are objectively correct. This line of thought has lead many who value diversity and tolerance of diversity to embrace moral relativism. But this is a mistake. because moral relativism leaves open the possibility of intolerance justified by other means.  In fact, the result of a straightforward application of societal moral relativism is that being intolerant towards other groups is right relative to a society if the majority of members of that society deem intolerance right. So for instance, assuming the majority of Germans in Nazi Germay approved of the persecution of Jews, then according to societal moral relativism, intolerance towards Jews was right relative to Nazi Germany. Those who value tolerance and respect of individuals or groups with differing moral views would do much better to endorse tolerance as an objective realist ethical value than to endorse moral relativism.

A strong argument against moral relativism is the argument from change. Sometimes our view about the moral status of some practice changes.  A person might, for instance, think that eating meat is morally unproblematic at one time and then become convinced that animals deserve some kind of moral regard that speaks against eating meat.  When a person’s moral views change in this fashion, the do not merely drop one moral belief in favor of another.  Typically, they also hold that their previous moral view was mistaken.  They take themselves to have discovered something new about what is morally right.  Likewise, then the prevalent moral belief in a society undergoes a significant change, as in the civil rights movement, we are inclined to see this as a change for the better.  But the relativist cannot account for changes in our moral beliefs being changes for the better.  This is because the relativist recognizes no independent standard of goodness against which the new prevalent moral beliefs can be judged to be better than the old prevalent moral beliefs.

A closely related problem for moral relativism is the moral reformer’s dilemma.  We recognize a few remarkable individuals as moral reformers, people who, we think, improved the moral condition of their society in some way.  Common examples might include, Buddha, Jesus, Ghandi or Martin Luther King.  While the relativist can allow that these individuals changed the moral views of their societies,  none can be said to have changed their societies for the better according to the relativist.  Again, this is because the societal moral relativist recognizes no standard of moral goodness independent of what is accepted in a society according to which a society that has changed can be judged to have changed for the better.  A relativist that takes ethical truth to be relative to the dominant view in a society seems to be committed to taking institutionalized racism to be morally right relative to per-civil rights American society and wrong relative to post civil rights American society. But since standards of goodness are determined by the prevalent views in a society, there is no standard goodness to appeal to in judging that the change our society underwent in the civil rights movement is a change for the better. According to societal moral relativism, anyone who takes Martin Luther King to have improved American society by leading it to reject institutionalized racism is just mistaken about the nature of ethical truth.

Three levels of ethical theory:


Meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics.

Ethics is a normative discipline, not a descriptive discipline.  The aim of ethical theory is to give a reasoned account of how we ought to be or act, individually or communally.  Ethics is not concerned with describing the sorts of moral views people in fact hold or how they came to hold them.  Ethics is concerned with the justification of moral belief.


Meta-ethics is concerned with the nature of morality in general.  It is concerned with what justifies moral judgments.  Two central meta-ethical issues are whether there are any moral truths and, if so, what makes moral truths true. The view that there are no ethical truths is alternatively known as moral anti-realism, nihilism or subjectivism.  With regard to what grounds ethical truth, if there are such truths, the view that there are ethical truths and their truth is independent of any person or group’s power or command is moral realism.  The view that ethical truths are grounded in the power or say so of persons is called conventionalism.

If there are moral truths, an account of what makes moral truths true can be given in terms of a theory of value.  Another way to put the fundamental meta-ethical issue is asking if there is value to be discovered.  The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle would say all say yes.  While these ancients differ in their positive views about the good, they would all agree that goodness exists and is independent of the command of men or gods.  The modern empiricist Hume argues that there are no moral truths.  Hume takes moral expressions to be expressions of sentiment or feeling.  While the ancients were value realists and Hume was a value subjectivist, Nietzche offers a value conventionalist position according to which value is created by willing of great individuals. A society’s system of value is created by its great poets, artists, mystics or leaders.

Normative Ethics

Normative Ethics is concerned with how we ought to live and act.  A normative theory of right action is an attempt to say what it is for an action to be morally permissible, obligatory or wrong.  A normative theory of the good life is an attempt to say what it is for a human to live well.  A theory of social justice is a normative theory of how a society should be structured and how goods, liberties, and power should be allocated in a society.

Applied Ethics

Applied Ethics is concerned with applying general normative theories of how we ought to live, act, or structure our societies to specific types of circumstances.  For instance, whether or not abortion is justifiable according to a respect for persons normative theory of right action is an applied ethical issue.

Some meta-ethical positions:

  1. Moral subjectivism has epistemological and metaphysical variants
    1. Epistemological variants deny the possibility of moral knowledge or justified moral belief.  But this leaves open the possibility of there being unknowable moral facts.
    2. The metaphysical variants denies the existence of moral properties.  On this view, moral claims are either all false or they lack truth-value.
  2. Conventionalism is the view that there are ethical truths and that these are made true by the will or say so of some person or group of people.  Devine command theory, the view that what is right is right because God commands it, and moral relativism are both conventionalist views. Popular varieties of moral relativism are also typically conventionalist theories.
  3. Realism is the view that there are ethical truths and they are grounded in some aspect of the world that has objective value independent of the will or imperatives of persons or groups of people.

Some realist normative ethical views

  1. Utilitarianism, according to Mill, is the view that good actions are those that tend to produce the greatest amount of happiness conceived of as pleasure and the absence of pain.  The utilitarian theory of right action is grounded in a theory of objective value that takes happiness to be the only thing that has intrinsic value.
  2. Respect for Persons is the name often given to the view advocated by Kant that we have a moral obligation to respect persons as beings that have intrinsic value.  Kant’s theory of right action is given in his various formulations of the “categorical imperative” (one version says we are obligated to act only according to maxims (general motives) that we could consistently will that everyone act on.
  3. Aristotle offers a theory of the good life grounded in the functions and capacities that are natural and essential to humans.  The good life, according to Aristotle, is the life of actively exercising one’s rational capacities.
  4. Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice
  5. Rawl’s theory of social justice as fairness

Some issues in applied ethics

  1. Is abortion morally permissible?
  2. Ought we be vegetarians for ethical reasons?
  3. Under what conditions is a nation morally justified in waging war?
  4. Do moral responsibilities towards future generations require that we regulate our use of the environment and natural resources?



Design for Living


Intelligent design theory posits the existence of an intelligent creator as the best or only available explanation for the appearance of design we allegedly find in natural phenomenon like the cell. Intelligent design theory does not provide an argument for the existence of a God as conceived by any particular religion because it commits us to nothing specific about the nature of the creator except its capacity for intelligent design. And intelligent design is not grounded or justified on the basis of religious belief. The grounds offered for the existence of an intelligent designer are phenomenon we have discovered scientifically. Michael Behe (Design for Living, The New York Times, February 7, 2005) offers the following argument for intelligent design:

1. “We can often recognize the effects of design in nature.”

2. The appearance of design is present in biological phenomenon.

3. “We have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn’t involve intelligence.”

4. “In the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life.”

5. So, we are justified in thinking intelligent design was involved in life.

Behe claims the first two premises of this argument are uncontroversial. We can look at the Rocky Mountains and at Mt. Rushmore and see that one is the product of human design whereas the other is not. The appearance of design in this case is explained by what we know to be the case, that Mt Rushmore was in fact designed by humans.

Behe thinks we also find the appearance of design in biological phenomenon, notably in the structure and functioning of the cell. In the functional aspects of its parts and organization, the cell seems much like a factory, complete with machinery for locomotion, chemical processing and waste removal. But do the specific aspects in which we find genuine similarities justify seeing the parts of cells as machines? Complex molecules in the cell perform the function of transporting proteins from one place to another. Trucks perform a very similar function. But is this similarity sufficient for seeing the molecules that perform this function in the cell as intelligently designed transportation devices? Transporting things is a relatively generic function. Stars transport their satellites around galaxies, but this hardly warrants seeing stars as trucks or any other sort of transporting machine. Any number of further similarities between designed artifacts and cells and their parts may be identified. But supporting the second premise of Behe’s argument requires that we show that natural things like the cell are similar to artificial designed things like trucks and factories in at least some of the respects that are relevant to our judgment that the artificial thing is the product of design. This may or may not be possible. My only point here is to identify an appropriate standard for the justification of (2). If accepted, the second premise provides prima facia evidence for life being the product of intelligent design. But this prima facia case for design holds up only in the absence of other ways to account for the appearance of design. In the absence of alternative accounts, the existence of an intelligent designer is the best explanation of the appearance of design and this would give us abductive grounds for believing in an intelligent designer.

(3) claims that evolutionary theory has failed to yield a complete and adequate account of the origins of life. This may be true for reasons that have nothing to do with any defect in the theory of evolution by natural selection. It may be true, for instance, because we simply lack access to the historical evidence that would be needed give a complete developmental history of the cell. So scientists might have pretty good excuses for not being able to tell a detailed story about the development of cells in terms of natural selection. But mere lack of evidence is not an argument against thinking that natural selection played the sort of role in the advent of cells that we have good grounds for thinking it played in later evolution.

Even if (3) is true, it is deceptive in its suggestion that we do have a good explanation in terms of intelligent design. Here is the salient question: in just what way does the hypothesis that cells were designed by an intelligent designer explain? That humans designed trucks has explanatory power because it makes reference to a causal process that we have some acquaintance with. It is a process that involves engineers sitting at computers, building models, and so forth. But an appeal to a supernatural designer posits non-causal means about which we have no grasp what-so-ever. A supernatural creator is in some way acting outside the causal order and thereby producing effects in the causal order. Intelligent design theorists owe us some account of just how the design hypothesis is supposed to explain at all.

Finally, the main defect I find in Behe’s argument is a formal difficulty. If (2) is accepted and we grant the appearance of design in biological phenomenon, then we require some explanation of the appearance of design. But the issue shifts in Behe’s third premise. (3) claims that no adequate explanation has been given of the origin of life. The result of this shift of issue in (3) is that the argument presupposes without warrant that nothing short of an account of the origins of life through natural processes would suffice as an explanation of the appearance of design. But why should we expect that explaining the appearance of design requires giving a complete developmental history of the origins of cellular life? It could be, and I think in fact it is the case, that we have perfectly good explanatory principles at hand in the theory of evolution by natural selection but we simply lack adequate access to the historical evidence to explain how all of the impressive features of cells came to exist through natural selection.

Terrance Hayes

Great session with MacArthor fellow and award winning poet Terrance Hayes at BC’s Carlson Theater today. The event was billed as Terrance Hayes talking about social justice for black lives. This is what happened, but it took the form of Hayes reading new poems, poems written since the election, and talking about poetry in the Q&A. And his poems are multi-facted in the themes he explores and the ways he explores them. So the poems were hardly just about social justice and black lives. Unless that’s taken to encompass his own black life, sometimes in relation to social justice but always in rich contours and textures.

My analytical mind was overwhelmed, so I’m looking forward to the volume so I can process Hayes’ writing at something closer to my accustomed plodding pace. A few lines still stick with me. Well, one that is illuminating, for me and perhaps concerning Hayes’ method as an artist.

“Anger is a form of Heartache”

My analytical mind is not poetic, but it is fascinated with the emotions and heartache I can readily identify as a manifestation and symptom of love. We like to see love as a positive feel good sort of thing. Yet love has another face, one Elizabeth Harazim has aptly described as “fierce”. In the absence of love we’d never have anything to be angry about. And yet that condition hardly seems enviable.

Hayes described an aspect of his poetry as taking a word, and idea, turning it on one side and then another, examining its back side and so forth. So what’s the backside of love? As naive and inexperienced as I am with poetry, exploring things like this is something I make common cause with as a philosopher.

But enough of philosophy. Here’s some more of Terrance Hayes poetry.

Why you might not want to say “What’s True for You isn’t Necessarily What’s True for Me”

Here is a common sense view about truth. There is an external world that is the shared object of our experience and it is some ways but not others. To say the world is a certain way is just to say that it has some properties and lacks others. This is the standard issue common sense metaphysical view. As we are parts of the world, the way the world is includes all of the various ways we are as individual subjects. Your experience is every bit as much a part of the world as anyone’s

What we believe or what we assert with a claim is true when it corresponds to the way the world is. True beliefs and claims are true because they represent the way the world way it is. A false belief or claim is just one that fails to do so. This is how we understand the notion of truth in the everyday mundane and uncontroversial cases like when we say “It’s true that Nichols is Mayor of Seattle in 2006” or “It’s true that the Space Needle is taller than any sailboat on Lake Union.” So far, I’m just trying to describe how we use the terms “true” and “false” in ordinary discourse. What I’m going to do now is examine a few ways of understanding what people might mean when they say things like “that might be true for you, but it is not true for me.”

As a Claim about Belief

The most plausible interpretation of claims like this is that talk of something being “true for a person” just means that it is believed by that person. To believe something is just to take it to be true. So perhaps when a person says “P might be true for you but it is not true for me,” all they mean to say is that perhaps you believe that P, but I don’t believe that P. But people believing incompatible things presents no challenge to the common sense metaphysic of a shared world or our commonsense understanding of truth.
The common sense picture does require that if two people believe things that are genuinely inconsistent, then one of them must be hold a false belief. There is no guarantee that we can figure out which belief is true and which is false. But as the common sense view does posit a shared world, the possibility of distinguishing the truth in some cases may be open.  We can examine our shared world more closely, share our observations, and think critically about whether our world really does correspond to this belief or that. Science, in this manner, seems to have made a good deal of progress in understanding a few things about our world. Science does not answer genuinely ethical questions, of course. But the lack of shared purely empirical evidence for or against ethical claims does not mean that we have no reasons to consider at all when evaluating ethical claims for truth. Ethicists formulate and evaluate arguments in support of ethical claims all the time. It’s what they do. So understanding talk of things being true for some people but not for others as really just meaning that some people believe this and other don’t makes this kind of talk intelligible. But it also invites us to inquire into the truth of the matter by examining what reasons are available and it presents no special obstacles to discovering that someone’s belief really is true or really is false.

As a Conversation Stopper

Yet when people talk about things being true for some and not for others, this talk is often intended to cut off debate. But why would anyone want to stop a conversation about ethical issues. Morality matters a great deal to us. People make huge personal sacrifices for what they think is right. As much as doing good and avoiding wrong matters to us personally, you would think conversations about morality would draw enthusiastic participation. But in fact the very passion and conviction with which moral beliefs are held probably does more to explain why people are reluctant to talk about ethical issues. People are used to only seeing ethical issues discussed in the context of heated emotional conflict. In fact, through cultural phenomena like cable TV political pundits, the heated rhetoric of special interest politics, and the ever present impassioned expressions of evangelical religious conviction, we are trained to only see ethical issues discussed in a context of emotional conflict. Well nobody likes emotionally heated conflicts. So, people just avoid conversations about ethical issues (except perhaps when they are confident that they are in the a-men choir). While conversations about ethical issues can be very unpleasant, they don’t have to be. The conversations philosophers have about ethics can be difficult, but they are typically not emotionally unpleasant. To the contrary, they are emotionally pleasant on account of being interesting. The standing habits ordinary folks in our culture have of talking about ethics in unpleasant ways doesn’t generalize. It’s just a bad habit. I say it is a bad habit because it’s a habit that generally discourages folks from learning anything new about ethical matters. The people who aren’t driven from conversation make it into something personal and combative rather than collegial and informative. When people go to battle in defense of a cherished belief, they are not typically open to understanding and learning new things.

One obstacle people face in breaking the bad habit of talking about ethics only in emotionally unpleasant ways is that people tend to self identify with their passionately held convictions. Many people have this tendency. In this situation an argument against one’s cherished moral belief may feel like an argument against one’s self. But a person is not the conclusion of an argument. The conclusion of an argument is a statement that expresses a thought. A thought that might be entertained, or doubted, believed or disbelieved by any number of people. Personally, as a philosopher, it’s really not a big deal to me whether someone holds this opinion or that. People believe all sorts of crazy things and I tend to like them anyway. However, I often find that I have very little patience for the people who are reluctant to examine the reasons for and against holding a belief.

Doing ethics will be uncomfortable for anyone who brings the emotional baggage of identifying with his beliefs to the conversation. So, lose that baggage if you have it. The only other choice is to just avoid doing ethics. Lots of people do make that choice. But this way of buying the comfort and security of not having to examine your own beliefs comes at the price of perpetuating ignorance (in yourself and others that might learn from you). This practice combines the intellectual vices of closed mindedness and incuriosity and it contributes to a great many of the worlds injustices.

As an Expression of Ethical Subjectivism

Sometimes the saying “what’s true for you isn’t true for me” is intended to stop conversation by implying that there is no fact of the matter to discover. If there is no fact of the matter, then clearly we are just wasting time debating the issue. The view that there are no ethical facts is not a relativistic view. The view that there are no ethical truths is variously called ethical subjectivism, nihilism or ethical skepticism. Now here is something peculiar: when folks try to cut off debate by saying something like “that may be true for some but it isn’t true for others,” they often intend this to be a way of saying “look you are both right”. But the subjectivist view that there are no ethical truths doesn’t make both parties in an ethical debate always right, it makes both parties always wrong. In a debate about an ethical issue, one party is arguing that some claim P is an ethical fact while another is arguing that not P is an ethical truth. Subjectivism does not dissolve the debate, it just interjects a third position saying that neither P nor not P is an ethical truth. This, ironically, is a way of entering the debate, not a way to shut it down. And once the debate is entered, we need to see some reasons for thinking subjectivism is right.

As the View that Ethical Truths are Relational

Some sentences just don’t make sense by themselves because they are incomplete. Consider “John us taller.” Perhaps in the right context, the missing details will be understood and the intended complete thought will be successfully conveyed. In a context where two people are standing back to back to compare their heights, “John is taller” can successfully convey the complete thought that John is taller than Joe. Perhaps ethical truths are like this. Perhaps “abortion is wrong” by itself just doesn’t express a complete thought that can be understood as true or false. But we can express a complete thought that can be true or false by adding some details as in “Abortion is wrong relative to evangelical Christians.” This view is ethical relativism. Relativism in ethics is just the view that ethical expressions like “is wrong” don’t express ethical properties had by actions, but rather express relations between actions and individuals or groups. This view is intelligible. And it does allow for the various parties to a dispute about an ethical matter to each be right. So this view works as a means of shutting down debate. To the minds of many, allowing for all parties to be right is adequate reason for adopting ethical relativism. But this strikes me as clearly disastrous. Ethical relativism makes the Nazi sympathizer just as right in holding that the holocaust was a good thing as the holocaust survivor is in holding that the holocaust was a bad thing.

As a Fractured World Metaphysic

It clear that people had better not understand truth in the ordinary way with no qualifications when they say that ethical claims are true for some by not for others for the simple reason that the world can’t both be some way and not be that very way. Perhaps we could maintain that things can be true for one person but not for another by taking the individuals in questions to live in their own distinct worlds. If I live in my world and you live in your distinct world, then it can be true for me that abortion is wrong and not true for you that abortion is wrong. My world could have the property of abortion being wrong while yours lacks it. But to go for this view is to abandon our ordinary commonsense metaphysical view and deny that there is a world that is the shared object of our experience. If there is no shared object of experience, then there is nothing for me to learn from your experience or you to learn from mine. Worse yet, if we live in distinct worlds, then the very possibility of communication is jeopardized. What could I possibly hope to understand about your experience if our experiences have no common ground what-so-ever. Maintaining relativism about truth by adopting a fractured metaphysics of many worlds is, intellectually, a bottomless pit. There is just nowhere to go from there.