We are now at the last few chapters of my ongoing discussion of Julian Baggini’s excellent book, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Chapter 9 begins with a nice little summary of the two recurring themes of the book: “The first is that reason requires judgement, that it is not a pure algorithm that can be set up and left to run by itself to produce true conclusions. The second is that reason, by itself or in the service of science, can neither provide us with all we need for ethics nor debunk it.”
Julian then says that reason is less powerful than some may like, and yet not just a veneer for our irrational beliefs and prejudices. Reason has normative force. But in what sense?
The “ought” that is associated by Baggini with reason is not a moral ought, but rather something along the lines of “given the evidence, you ought to agree that smoking likely causes cancer.” Reason, however, only “demands” that we accept the evidence, not that we actually cease smoking, since the latter is a decision that is affected by factors other than the straightforward available scientific evidence.
Julian thinks that his conception of reason helps to explain why it finds itself in an intermediate position, so to speak, with respect to ethics: reason per se cannot ground ethics (per Hume), but it isn’t irrelevant to it either.
One of his examples has to do with racism. The overwhelming available evidence (as disputed as sometimes it is) is that there are no systematic differences in cognitive abilities among “races,” race being itself a very ill-defined concept, to say the least, from a biological perspective. Accordingly, one “ought” to believe that no racial group is inherently superior or inferior to any other, across the board. (Baggini, wisely, does allow for the fact that some local populations may have a limited number of special characteristics that are significantly different from the rest of the human population, as in the case of runners who originate from the mountainous regions of the Rift Valley in East Africa.)
The acceptance of the evidence that no racial group is superior, however, does not automatically lead to the rejection of racism: “One might, for instance, cite the evidence that almost everyone has some kind of implicit prejudice against people they perceive to be different, and that this suggests discrimination is natural. Combine that with an idea that we have the right to follow our natural instincts and you get an attempted justification of racism that does not deny that we ought to accept that all races are equal.” It’s a pretty bad justification, but a justification it is.
For Julian “the fact that we ought to believe all races are equal adds weight to the judgement that we ought to treat them equally, even if it does not strictly demand that conclusion.” Reason does not determine ethical positions, but it is relevant to them.
Interestingly, Baggini thinks that a bridge between ought and is comes out of the fact that certain objective facts about the world, when considered by human beings, come with a degree of contextual normativity embedded into them. He calls these instances examples of “praxic” statements: “‘Superior’ is always praxic, since things are never better or worse in an absolute sense but always and only with regard to certain [human] purposes. To say a person is a better musician than another is a reason to choose her performance over another but not a reason to give her greater rights in a court of law. … This idea that many terms have a praxic element fills out the notion of ‘normative facts’ that I introduced in chapter seven. Facts are normative when they contain within them some idea of what is good or right, of what we ought to do.”
And in order for his position (which happens to be mine as well) not to be confused with that of the Sam Harrises and Michael Shermers of the world, Julian adds: “I am not saying that what we ought to do automatically follows from simple facts. Rather, it is that simple facts often have an important effect on what we judge we ought to do. ‘Is’ does not imply ‘ought’, but within many an ‘is’ an ‘ought’ is already lurking.”
The chapter concludes with an interesting explanation for why philosophers tend to be such a contentious bunch, the profession being characterized by heated disagreements among its practitioners, which one might think ill suited to the life of reason: “Public outbursts [in philosophy] are unusual but the desire at least to thump the table is much more common than academic decorum suggests. There may be many reasons for this, but, I want to suggest, one is that when we think we have a rational argument we inescapably think that others should accept it. … Believing that in principle we might be wrong [as any good philosopher ought] does little to temper our conviction when we cannot see how on earth we could be. … This helps explain why philosophy matters. We are not just disputing what is true or false, we are arguing about what we ought to think.”