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May 27, 2006

The Philosophical Merry-Go-Round

"Merry-go-round" is an interesting term, almost like an advertising slogan: "This go-round will maketh you merry." In a more perfect world (e.g., one in which I could make my living thinking and writing), I'd chase the word's etymology around in its circle. A merry-go-round may also be called a "carousel" — once, a "playful tournament of knights in chariots or on horseback" — which is surely related (via French) to "carousal," or "carouse" — noun: "a drunken revel"; verb: "to drink liquor deeply or freely." It seems to me that much is presumed in calling such a ride a "merry-go-round"; some people might be more inclined to call them "sickening-go-rounds," a difference of opinion that can be carried through the language to the experience of carousing.

I began down this linguistic path because I don't know what Neil Sinhababu is talking about when he writes:

I throw out the beliefs formed by having some emotionally-driven attitude towards a state of affairs, and thus coming to believe that there's some objective goodness or badness out there in that state of affairs. All that's left is the goodness of pleasure and the badness of displeasure, which can be discovered without any emotions standing between us and our pleasure or displeasure. ... So the objective goodness of pleasure and the objective badness of displeasure are all we can know of objective goodness and badness.

How does one separate emotion from sensation in this way? If I find the sensation of a carousel pleasant, it will make me merry; if I find it unpleasant, it will make me unhappy. In the other direction, if I've some emotional reason to dislike carousels — say, for example, a resurgence of the fear that I felt as a child watching "Something Wicked This Way Comes" or of the alienation that comes to an emotional head at the end of "Catcher in the Rye — then I'll find the sensation, or the collection of sensations, to be unpleasant. If the absence of emotion is the determinant of objectivity, therefore, the impossibility of teasing apart one's experience of a merry-go-round into sensation and emotion would foil attempts to determine the objective goodness of the ride. Sinhababu claims that I can know that my "sensations of black are sensations of darkness," but what if black evokes comfort?

If you've similar online reading habits to mine, you'll know that Sinhababu makes these claims in the service of an argument against Matthew Yglesias's moral relativism (expressed here and here), so don't conclude that my disagreement with Sinhababu implies agreement with Yglesias. I agree with Sinhababu 's larger argument that we cannot "throw out the idea that there are objective facts somewhere, just because people keep forming their beliefs in wacky ways, or because there's a lot of disagreement, or because everyone is fighting over stuff." However, the seeds of his argument's defeat are sown into its assumptions, a fact that juts out particularly with his interjection of "sadly" here: "Emotional judgments from gut feelings, sadly, play an outsized role in determining many ordinary people's beliefs on issues where there are objective right and wrong answers."

Sinhababu would agree with me, I'm sure, that the reality of physical truths does not mean that there are no non-physical, or moral, truths. He might even agree with me that the existence of physical truth implies the existence of moral truths, inasmuch as both involve types of knowledge and proof of objectivity for one suggests the possibility of objectivity in the other. However, arguing on behalf of moral truths — "goodness and badness" — by teasing apart sensation and emotion and by invoking pleasure, places him in the position, if not of testifying for hedonism, of ceding the fundamental assumption of relativism: that emotions and preferences — the essentials of "self" — are fundamentally physical phenomena with no deeper significance than the physical circumstances that caused them.

The danger of this concession is evident in the very first comment to Sinhababu's post:

Some argue that a world without objective moral truths is unworkable. This is easy to sell because it conforms to common assumptions, but it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. As Matt argued, you wouldn't be able to tell a world with objective moral truths apart from a world without.

How does the commenter know that "you wouldn't be able to tell a world with objective moral truths apart from a world without"? Only by believing that moral truths don't act in — or constrain — the world in the same way that physical truths do. I might as well assert that you wouldn't be able to tell a world with the truth of gravity apart from a world without it.

And this brings the conversation back to Yglesias:

The interesting point came, I think, in Jonah's second post wondering, "How are you going to convince others, to pick a nice progressive example, that gay marriage is a moral imperative or that torture is wrong without an appeal to conscience?" To me, this is just the point. Jonah's witnessed me engage in arguments with moral aspects in the past, and, indeed, we've debated various issues from time to time. There's no point in an actual moral conversation where adding "and my views are objectively correct!" adds anything to what's happening. Obviously, appeals to conscience are a part of argument. Equally obviously, conscience exists -- people feel guilty sometimes and have the capacity to empathize and people take advantage of these traits when arguing. I might say to someone, "Well, look, how would you feel if you were being told you couldn't marry your lover, that your relationship was going to be permanently relegated to second-class status, all because, hypothetically, recognizing the legitimacy of your love might lead to a decline in heterosexual marriage rates at some time in the future?"

That sort of thing is a classic of moral discourse, but obviously it doesn't "prove" anything. And that's generally how these things go. When you argue with people, you try to appeal to shared sentiments, point out alleged inconsistencies in the other guy's position, and so on and so forth. What underlies the possibility of discussion isn't objective moral truth but the fact that, say, Jonah and I have a vast stockpile of things we agree about and one tries to resolve controversies with appeals to stuff in that store of previous agreement.

Yglesias skirts the question of what it means for moral principles to be objectively correct, which is that acting in contravention of them will have undesirable consequences. It only adds nothing to claim "objective correctness" if that is where the explanation ends. If we explain how our moral view will objectively lead to a state of affairs from which our shared conscience shrinks, then we can advance the conversation toward moral truth. Turn Yglesias's example back on itself: how would a homosexual feel if our entire society were to collapse because countless children had been deprived of the stable mother-father homes that traditional marriage had previously fortified, all because he or she wanted a government stamp on his or her relationship?

Ultimately, we agree on matters of goodness and badness, on morality. We mainly disagree on the terms through which it is all considered. Even head-sawing Islamists (to use another of Yglesias's examples) would likely claim to be appalled at killing for the sheer pleasure of it, or even killing for no reason whatsoever. What they disagree about are the terms in which their own killings are performed and the consequences that they have for themselves and, indeed, the entire world.

There's a point at which all of these arguments collapse into inexpressibles of faith, of course. One can create imaginary figures to carry the torch of believing in pure selfish evil (e.g., that a private whim is worth global destruction). One can reject without consideration the factual arguments of others or attempt to redefine "good" so as to deny progression toward the worldly decay that is evil's indication. But to push the argument too deeply into abstractions of what people or cultures could conceivably believe is, again, to imagine a world in which belief is purely an illusion.

It is also, as Jonah Goldberg suggests, to leave one's self open to just accusations of inconsistency, or worse. And one of its consequences is the undermining of the moral certainty that is ultimately crucial toward moral — and physical — survival.

Posted by Justin Katz at May 27, 2006 2:11 PM