Book Club: The Edge of Reason 11, political reason

It has been a long way, but it is now time to wrap up my commentary of Julian Baggini’s book, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. We have looked together with Julian at the proper uses, as well as the abuses, of the concept of reason, in terms of science, philosophy, decision making, and impact on society. The last chapter is on reason in the political sphere.

Despite his criticism (in chapter 10) of Platonic and other utopias, Baggini begins his discussion by restating that, obviously, it would be foolish to somehow abandon reason in the context of political discourse, as much as it appears that’s exactly what we have been doing, especially of late. He begins with a discussion of the idea of a pluralist society:

“In its most general sense, pluralism is the belief that there is no one, single, complete and unified true perspective. There is more than one legitimate way of seeing and no one perspective can maximally accommodate all that is good or true. This is not to say that there are no wrong perspectives or that there are never good reasons for preferring one perspective over another.”

The problem is that while pluralism sounds good, some demands made by segments of our society are prima facie irreconcilable: certain people want to be able to openly criticize religions, others want to protect their faith from what they see as unacceptable offenses; some people want to eat meet and others to protect animal welfare; businesses typically want to cut cost, but there are issues of protection of workers’ rights, or of guaranteeing physical accessibility for everyone; and so forth.

Julian points out that political pluralism is not the same thing as democracy, since in a democracy a majority of people could pass laws that undermine the rights of minorities, even within a constitutional framework. Conversely, it is hard to imagine a functional non-democratic pluralist society, which would be a benign tyranny constantly in danger of slipping into a malign one.

What, then, justifies political pluralism? The standard answer, especially on the left of the political spectrum, is ethical pluralism: a major function of politics is to facilitate the flourishing of the citizens of a state, but since there is more than one conception of the good life, we invoke ethical pluralism, which entails political pluralism.

This is all fine and dandy until we realize that many people reject the very idea of ethical pluralism. As Baggini puts it: “although ethico-political pluralism is a liberal position, it is not even the case that all liberals are ethical pluralists.”

At this point Julian makes an interesting move: for him a good justification for political pluralism is not ethical, but epistemological, originating from the demands of reason, as he has outlined them in chapter nine. As you might recall, the principle he introduced there is that “we should believe what is most rational to believe,” a precept that gets its force from the simple fact that most people do, indeed, argue for their positions, i.e., implicitly accept the notion that we convince others on the basis of our reasons. If one rejects this principle, then dialogue becomes impossible by definition, and we are down to a might-makes-right type of society.

The principle, however, doesn’t simply say that we should believe what seems reasonable to us, but rather what is, in fact, reasonable. There is a difference, but how do we cash it out? After all, Baggini’s own discussion of religion and science early on in the book has established that reasonable people can, and indeed often do, hold different, yet incompatible, notions. Reason typically underdetermines scientific, religious and political positions.

Julian correctly warns against dismissing other people’s reasons on the basis of underlying biases, since we are all biased and fallible. He claims instead that what we should do is to accept a greater degree of defeasibility of our own positions, in essence agreeing to insist less forcefully on them on the grounds that they may, in fact, turn out to be wrong. He then introduces his principle of epistemological pluralism:

“In the absence of an overwhelmingly strong error theory [i.e., of an account of why others’ positions are incorrect], the impartiality of rationality entails that where competent rational judges disagree, we should accept that we have insufficient grounds to insist on the truth of one conclusion and so do what we can to accommodate reasonable different ones, even if we believe only one of them to be the sole truth.”

Yes, Baggini is well aware that some important ideas here are left underspecified, chiefly that of a competent judge. But one has to start somewhere, and I think we have a good intuitive notion of what he means by that label. Also, it is worth noting that at times we do have an “error theory” that allows us to dismiss a particular ideology, say Nazism, regardless of the fact that a segment of society thinks it reasonable (again, there is a difference between what seems reasonable to me and what actually is reasonable). The general idea, though, is that we can apply the principle of epistemological pluralism to the specific issue of how we should run our society. We have then arrived at political pluralism not via the ethical route, but taking the epistemological path:

“There can be no one way of ordering society so as to satisfy completely all aspirations for the good life because competent rational judges disagree about how society should be run, and the impartiality of rationality entails that in such cases we should accept that we have insufficient grounds to insist on the truth of one conclusion and accommodate different ones, even if we believe only one of them to be the sole truth. Therefore the role of politics is to balance and negotiate between competing claims and demands so as to enable as many compatible goods from different incompatible positions as is possible.”

Julian then moves to considering threats to political pluralism, focusing not on the obvious one (tyranny) but on internal ones, beginning with the danger posed by populism, which “in social science is almost always understood as entailing a malign kind of simplification in which the virtuous and the wicked are neatly divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

Populists undermine rational discourse in society because, even though they may agree that we should believe only what is reasonable to believe, they fail to distinguish between what seems reasonable to them and what actually is reasonable (according to the aforementioned competent judge). Specifically, populists want people to equate what is reasonable with what is self-evident, and when one takes that step then all need for defeasibility of one’s own positions disappear and one simply rejects out of hand the very idea that other positions may indeed be reasonable. The danger of populism in a multicultural society is then summarized in this fashion:

“In place of reason, [populism] puts conviction; in place of evidence, the seeming self-evidence of common sense.”

Baggini astutely observes that although populist parties have rarely gained power in Western countries in recent decades, the major threat they pose is indirect, since they cause a shift toward populism within so-called mainstream political debate. This is something I have directly observed in the Unites States since I moved here back in 1990. One political debate after another, over the years, seems to me to have shifted the parameters of discourse more and more toward simplified, populist analyses, until we finally got Trump, the logical endpoint (for now) of a process that has unfolded for decades:

“The root [of the problem] is a shift from real politics — which involves messy compromises between competing interests — to what I call political consumerism. … Today’s career politicians are like executive managers. In true consumerist style, the manager’s job is to deliver to the public what it wants.”

Or, more precisely, to pretend that he will deliver, and then use propaganda tools (don’t listen to the “fake news!”) to convince people that he has, actually, delivered. Julian brings up the example of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, who was elected and re-elected because if a sizable number of people believe that all politicians are crooks, it makes sense to vote for the most crook of them all. Mutatis mutandis, this surely applies to the election of Donald Trump.

The last part of the chapter then tackles a second major threat to political pluralism: the attack on secularism, which, properly understood, is also indispensable to a vibrant democracy.

“Secularism is not a doctrine of religious unbelief, but of state neutrality on matters of religious belief. … A secular state is therefore not necessarily a godless one.”

Secularism, for obvious reasons, appeals to atheists. A secular society, says Baggini, is superior (in terms of political pluralism) to a theocratic one, but it is also superior to one where the state imposes atheism. And indeed, secularism is often the result not of atheist politics, but of the need to balance different religious viewpoints. The famous “wall” of separation between Church and State associated with the work of Thomas Jefferson in the United States was originally proposed in order to reassure Baptists that the new republic would not impose a particular version of Christianity through the powers of the state. Secularism is a friend of religious believers and atheists alike.

Recently, however, secularism has been under attack, because it has allegedly excluded religious discourse:

“Bhikhu Parekh [for instance] advocates bringing religion back into the public square [on the basis that] excluding religion from it fails fully to respect religious beliefs and their importance in people’s lives. Furthermore, it privileges a certain atheistic, liberal world-view that is not widely shared. Secularism is not [according to Parekh], as it is claimed to be, neutral with regard to belief.”

Please notice that Parekh is a Labour member of the House of Lords in the UK, not a conservative, and he is arguing that a vibrant pluralist society emerges from open discussion of people’s ideas and values, including religious ones, which therefore we should not — as a society — simply pretend do not exist or play a fundamental role.

Julian acknowledges that the argument put forth by Parekh and others is appealing, but also says, correctly in my view, that we should resist it. It is true that zealous secularism (think France’s and other European countries bans on burqas) has led to the suppression of religious discourse. But there are other models of secularism that are viable and do not require Parekh’s step, which is itself fraught with dangers.

“Crucially for the current debate about religion, [secularism] does not require us just to leave behind our personal convictions: everyone brings their personal beliefs to the secular table. The trick is that we find a way of expressing them in universalist and not particularist terms.”

Consider, says Baggini, the example of debates about abortion. A given politician may oppose abortion because of his religious, let’s say for instance Catholic, convictions. But he is not going to make much of a headway in terms of rational discourse if he gives a speech on the floor of the Senate arguing that abortion should be illegal because the Pope (or Jesus) says so. That way lies the path to sectarian struggle, and ultimately violence.

Rather, the politician in question will attempt to “translate” his religious motivations into neutral secular discourse, just like political philosopher John Rawls (mentioned by Baggini) suggested we should do. The politician may, for instance, cast his objections in terms of the inherent worth of human life, and argue that a fetus, at any age, is a (potential) human being. His opponents (many of whom, incidentally, will not be atheists, but rather religious people who interpret the tenets of their own religion differently) will then engage the discourse at that level, not by simply rejecting the Pope (or Jesus) as moral authorities.

“The intention to respect fully the diversity of beliefs and not to impose a homogeneous, blurred-out secularism is a noble one. But the way to do this is not to scrap secularism and let a cacophony of different belief systems fight it out instead. The way forward is to reform existing secularism much more modestly and to rid it of its theophobia.”

I will leave it at that, though there are several other interesting points made by Julian in this last chapter. It has been, I hope, an interesting journey, made possible by a book that I do not hesitate to recommend to anyone seriously interested in the nature of reason and its practical roles in society.

_____

The next book club will be a two-part affair, on Harry Frankfurt’s (he of “On Bullshit”) On Inequality. Stay tuned…

156 thoughts on “Book Club: The Edge of Reason 11, political reason

  1. Daniel Kaufman

    Coel: Once again, you have returned to Humpty-Dumpty semantics. You cannot simply define things however you want; especially, when engaged in an existing discourse, with its own long and well-established vocabulary. ‘Objective’, ‘Subjective’, ‘Realist’, ‘Anti-Realist’ have established meanings in ethics. Of course, you have the right to say whatever you like, but they are of no interest or relevance to the conversation going on in ethics.

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  2. synred

    Countries are ‘socially constructed’, but go against ’em and you’ll find ’em real enough.

    Is a slim mold ‘socially constructed’? How about an ant colony? Or mammals?

    Just because something is made of something via however a complex interaction, doesn’t mean it is unreal.

    A nation is a ‘soliton’…a very complicated one…

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  3. synred

    but it is subjective in that it is there because it is a reflection on what most people want.

    What ‘most people want’ is objective. What you want (or others) want is subjective.

    That you want something is objective (though difficult to ascertain).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Coel

    Socratic,

    Coel, public schools are a public space inhabited by millions of French schoolchildren. If it walks, talks and quacks like a general ban, it’s a general ban. Fail.

    No, a ban in schools is not the same as a general ban. How pupils and staff can behave in school is nearly always more controlled than how they can behave generally.

    And you’d better not suggest to the NRA that a ban on guns in school is the same thing as a general ban on guns, otherwise your gun laws will quickly become even more loopy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Coel

    ej,

    … the obligations and rights established by them are presumed – and in the US objectively argued and held by courts and politicians – to be held above the will of the majority …

    Only because Americans in general accept and agree that that is the case. If all Americans woke up tomorrow morning having decided to completely ignore the constitution from then on, the constitution would then have no force or normative power.

    Obviously that’s a rather implausible thought experiment, but it illustrates that the normative authority comes from “we the people”.

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  6. Massimo Post author

    Coel,

    “What do you mean by “objectively true” rules? It’s indeed true that the rules exist, and that one can make factually true descriptive statements about them.”

    It is objectively true that if you don’t follow them you are unlikely to be re-invited in polite society. So they are objectively prescriptive.

    “The only prescriptiveness, the only normative force such rules have, is through the agreement and advocacy of humans.”

    No shit. Where else? Do you think anyone else has been arguing otherwise throughout this discussion?

    Liked by 5 people

  7. wtc48

    ej: “yes, and why politics must also engage rhetoric – the art of persuasion – and rhetorical criticism, as well as simple presentation of a seemingly rational case.”

    True, and the most effective persuasion stems from a personal connection with controversial issues, e.g. having a friend or family member who is gay or Muslim. The people you know well are never “the other”, which can often overturn deeply-held convictions.

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  8. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    No shit. Where else? Do you think anyone else has been arguing otherwise throughout this discussion?

    Well I really don’t know because I’ve never understood the position you’re arguing for (despite genuine best attempts).

    How would you outline the difference between an objective moral system and a subjective one? Which would “Fred’s Feelings” (as I just defined it) count as? Can you give me an example of a subjective moral system? (Asking since, if I’m interpreting you right, all moral systems count as objective in your eyes.)

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  9. Massimo Post author

    Coel,

    After all these discussions you don’t understand my position? Gould have said so earlier! The subjective / objective distinction doesn’t help, unless you are a moral relativist, which nobody here has claimed to be, and certainly not I.

    The distinction is between moral realism and anti-realism, both of which come in a variety of flavored. And I’ve professed for some time now to be an anti-realist.

    Any better now?

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  10. synred

    The distinction is between moral realism and anti-realism, both of which come in a variety of flavored. And I’ve professed for some time now to be an anti-realist.

    http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_moral_anti-realism.html
    Moral Anti-Realism (or Moral Irrealism) is the meta-ethical doctrine that there are no objective moral values.
    It is usually defined in opposition to Moral Realism, which holds that there are indeed objective moral values, that evaluative statements are factual claims which are either true or false, and that their truth or falsity is independent of our perception of them or our beliefs, feelings or other attitudes towards them. Thus, Moral Anti-Realism can involve either a denial that moral properties exist at all, or the acceptance that they do exist, but that their existence is mind-dependent and not objective or independent.

    Huh? Sounds ‘relativist’ to me.

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  11. synred

    No more relativist than doing mathematics without thinking that numbers “really” exist.

    Well I never got that whole mathematical Platonism thing anyway, i.e., relationships exist, but they are neither stuff nor spirit, but just … ah … relationships — bigger, smaller, over, around, under and through.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Daniel Kaufman

    Synred: Subjectivism is one form of moral anti-realism and perhaps the most well-known. But it is not the only one. Contractarianism is another.

    So, moral anti-realism can come in subjectivist and objectivist varieties.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Robin Herbert

    If I adopted a moral system where I do whatever I believe at the time will bring me the greatest pleasure then you could still call it an objective morality because there will be objective facts about what I believe will bring me the greatest pleasure at any given time.

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  14. Robin Herbert

    Hi Massimo

    After all these discussions you don’t understand my position? Gould have said so earlier!

    I don’t understand it either and I think we do say so quite a lot.

    The distinction is between moral realism and anti-realism, both of which come in a variety of flavored. And I’ve professed for some time now to be an anti-realist.

    Any better now?

    But Coel was explicit that the thing he didn’t understand was the distinction you are making between a subjective and objective moral system. That is the part I don’t understand either. I have been saying so since the discussion on whether or not Utilitarianism was an objective moral system.

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  15. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    Sorry to hear that. See Dan’s comment just above on the existence of objective and subjective anti-realist moral systems. Obviously, if one is a moral realist than one cannot be a subjectivist.

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  16. Robin Herbert

    Say Jack is a Utilitarian and Jill is a Hedonist.

    Jack adopts the rule that he will do that which maximises utility in the world generally.

    Jill adopts the rule that she will do that which she thinks will bring her the most pleasure.

    So on taking a decision Jack applies his rule and there are objective facts about which decisions will maximise utility in the world.

    On taking a decision Jill applies her rule and there are objective facts about which decisions will bring her the most pleasure.

    Jack can use the objective facts that pertain to his rule in a logical argument in order to reach the decision which will best implement his rule.

    Jill can use the objective facts that pertain to her rule in a logical argument in order to reach the decision which will best implement her rule.

    So what is the criteria upon which one is an objective system of morality and the other is subjective?

    Is there any objective system of morality in which this distinction can be made?

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  17. ejwinner

    synred,
    your comment with its “philosophybasics” quote does point the way to clearing up some of the confusion here. The philosophybasics article is a snapshot of a particular meta-ethical position. But that surely doesn’t limit the way we can use “objective” in discussions of practical ethics. Consider this from the IEP article on Objectivity:

    “Other objectivist theories of morality try to explain the widespread feeling that there is an important difference between moral assertions and descriptive, factual assertions while maintaining that both types of assertion are about something other than mere subjective states. Such theories compare moral assertions to assertions about secondary qualities. The declaration that a certain object is green is not merely a statement about a person’s subjective state. It makes an assertion about how the object is, but it’s an assertion that can be formulated only in relation to the states of perceiving subjects under the right conditions. Thus, determining whether an object is green depends essentially on consulting the considered judgments of appropriately placed perceivers. Being green, by definition, implies the capacity to affect perceiving humans under the right conditions in certain ways. By analogy, moral assertions can be assertions about how things objectively are while depending essentially on consulting the considered judgments of appropriately placed perceivers. Being morally wrong implies, on this view, the capacity to affect perceiving humans under the right conditions in certain ways.” http://www.iep.utm.edu/objectiv/

    It is clearly the case that once we bring ethical issues to the practical level – which is all about how we deal with others in a shared community of ethical choices – we will need to accept or establish ground-rules of behavior. While these ground-rules are not set in stone, they need to be respected by all or there will be consequences, either to the transgressing individual or, the worst case scenario, to the whole of the community.

    That is why, as Dan remarks, Contractarian social and political theories necessarily assume some objective social reality with which we must deal, but this is not a metaphysical reality in some Platonic sense (which would make negotiating change within it rather difficult), and hence Contractarian theories are usually anti-moral-realist in meta-ethical terms..

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  18. Robin Herbert

    And the key question I asked at the time was: Each time Jack applies that Utilitarian rule in a decision, why does he apply that rule, rather than another? After all the fact that he is a Utilitarian does not imply that he must remain so.

    The only reason I can see is, that each time he applies that rule, he does so because he wants to apply that rule.

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  19. brodix

    There does seem to be an issue of clarity here. In most subjects this might not be an problem of great importance, but given it involves how society functions, there should be some interest in developing a broad outlook, even if just alongside professional focus on the details.

    The problem I see is this contrast between both realism and anti-realism, or objective versus subjective, doesn’t incorporate the political dynamic, which gives rise to significant social conflict.

    Conservatism would tend toward a realist, if not absolutist, view of morality, while liberalism would tend toward a more subjective, or anti-realist view, if not relativistic. The reality is that a functioning social structure needs some formal laws.

    Part of the problem is the unspoken Platonism. The ideal as absolute. From the monotheistic point of view, an absolute deity would necessarily promulgate absolute laws. Hence moral realism.

    Eventually philosophy is going to have to deal with the issue of Platonism. Which might open up a broader debate over its many manifestations, from monotheism, to mathematics.

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  20. synred

    https://skepticalsciencereviews.wordpress.com/reviews/

    See ‘Grass is Green’ at the bottom of above list.

    Color is not so simple. It is not a direct property of objects. With only three color receptors, the properties (reflectivity vs. wave length) of an object that make it appear, say, ‘green’ can be quite different, e.g., reflecting only green light or reflecting blue and red). A lot of processing goes into seeing color.

    It also depends on illumination and what you’ve been looking at shortly before.

    The essay ‘Grass is green’ is not actually about grass being green so much as my thoughts, such as they are, about foundations of science.

    See ‘color illusion’ from TV show ‘Brain Games’ here https://goo.gl/vUsm7S

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  21. synred

    Being green, by definition, implies the capacity to affect perceiving humans under the right conditions in certain ways.

    That is broad enough to cover the situation, though philosophers of often seem to talk about color as a property when it is more of a perception.

    There are interesting illusions with heat to. A set of metal bars the alternate moderately hot with moderately hot, feels like it scorchingly hot!

    And the there’s the rubber hand illusion in which many people will identify a rubber hand as being part of their body.

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  22. synred

    It is clearly the case that once we bring ethical issues to the practical level – which is all about how we deal with others in a shared community of ethical choices – we will need to accept or establish ground-rules of behavior. While these ground-rules are not set in stone, they need to be respected by all or there will be consequences,

    This does not really solve the cross cultural problem in which members of one group, think the practices of another are really evil (e.g., FGM).

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  23. ejwinner

    One of my take-aways from this discussion is that it led me to investigate the “Error Theory” of J.L. Mackie – and ultimately reject it. Mackie’s ship crashes on the nature of social institutions: he misunderstands where they come from, how they generate language in a given community, and how this language then refers to, and defers to, those institutions. To say there is no “logical commitment” to an institution is to misconceive of how we negotiate the reality of an institution, even one we may oppose. Logic does not bring communities together, but the language we actually speak depends on the community itself and thus has its own logic, and hence is non-reducible to the kind of purified logic of detached, hyper-rationalist philosophy as some would prefer inherited from the logical positivists. Mackie’s Error Theory is completely inapplicable to politics, except to suggest a profound cynicism.

    Our discussion here has been about politics – and to approach politics reasonably – or for that matter in any meaningful way whatsoever – we must assume a social reality or at least act as if the social were real. Otherwise we end up spinning webs of fantasy ‘isms,’ utopias, hypotheticals masquerading as projects. Our institutions may not be ‘logical’ in the Positivist sense, may not hold up to ‘analysis’ in some ‘linguistic’ or scientistic sense; but they have all the reality they need to keep our communities together and functioning as a cooperation between peoples – and this is no less so in a highly complex, diversified modern culture as it is among tribes of the pre-ancient world.

    And once we are in that reality – the social reality – what constitutes objective or subjective, true or false, real or illusory, changes nature radically from the esoterica of detached rationalism. Otherwise, one goes off and becomes a hermit, or learns to live a double life. In the complex world of Modernity with its unleashed self-interest and heightened subjectivity, the latter choice may be the best that some can hope for – but it comes with costs.

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  24. Daniel Kaufman

    I must admit to finding all this puzzlement rather puzzling.

    That you must pay a fine if your car’s tags are expired is objective, insofar as it applies whether or not you subjectively feel the force of that obligation. (Try not paying it and see what happens.) But that something is beautiful is subjective, insofar as it depends entirely on whether the person himself sees it as beautiful or not.

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  25. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    Like Dan, I find all this puzzlement rather puzzling, and quite a bit disheartening. It’s one thing to disagree on issues, but to not understand one’s positions after literally years of discussions? I wrote a whole damn book on the nature of philosophical inquiry, a whole chapter of which was dedicated to ethics.

    I said several times that ethical frameworks — like utilitarianism — are ways to look at the problem of social living, which is what ethics is about. Different framework scan be more or less useful, and their axioms can be more or less reasonably defended. So the scenario you are presenting is one of debates in emtaethics, and no, it most certainly it doesn’t come down to “because I want it.”

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  26. synred

    But that something is beautiful is subjective, insofar as it depends entirely on whether the person himself sees it as beautiful or not.

    “I don’t knows what’s art, but I knows what I likes.”

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  27. wtc48

    Brodix:
    “Part of the problem is the unspoken Platonism. The ideal as absolute. From the monotheistic point of view, an absolute deity would necessarily promulgate absolute laws. Hence moral realism.”

    Some people (quite a few, actually) are still looking to that absolute standard, but science has found little use for it, and has moved us in a more materialistic direction without providing the sense of moral gravity offered by idealism. We’ve been in the process of filling that (and a million other needs) by collective improvisation for several hundred thousand years, and the result is our reality, which is a work in progress. Why is it that we have so much trouble seeing evolution as an ongoing operation?

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  28. ejwinner

    synred,
    I would suggest researching Sellars’ discussion of the difference between the Manifest Image and the Scientific Image Both Images are useful, even necessary, in their own spheres. In many ways each depends on the other.

    In politics and practical ethics, the Manifest Image is what matters. It is not a “folk knowledge,” it is a real knowledge of what I have called the social reality with which we live, in community with others, and which we disregard – especially in politics – at our loss.

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