Your Philosophy Might Be True — But Not for the Reasons You Think

A discussion of how arguments that work are really arguments that work for us.

We tend to think of philosophy as an ecosystem of competing arguments. You might be a moral consequentialist (i.e., someone who believes the morally right action is always the one that produces the best consequences, however we might measure those) because you view the arguments offered for consequentialism to be strong, and the arguments against consequentialism to be weak. Your friend might be a deontologist (i.e., someone who believes that the morally right action is whatever conforms to a particular rules, regardless of the consequences of the action) because, contrary to your assessment, your friend believes the arguments for deontology are stronger, and the arguments against consequentialism correct and dispositive.

Smart People Disagreeing

That picture’s not wrong. The history of philosophy just is thousands of years of very smart people arguing with each other, going back to the drawing board to refine their arguments, and then arguing with each other some more. And philosophical arguments—even whole systems—have been defeated through counterargumentative force. It’s also an appealing picture: We like to think our beliefs are true, and we like to think we know they’re true because they’re conclusions drawn from rational analysis and good evidence. Put another way, if you weren’t convinced your beliefs were true, you wouldn’t hold them. If you do hold them, it’s because you must have good reasons for believing they are true. Disagreement, then, results from one of the disagreeing parties either not seeing the errors in their own arguments or not having access to enough (or good enough) evidence. Thus, if we argue long enough, with the proper perspective of truth-seeking and intellectual humility, we’ll end up sharing a conclusion.

But that’s not what happens. Philosophy has made progress over its thousands of years, but it hasn’t reached consensus, and doesn’t even appear to be getting closer to reaching consensus. The PhilPapers Survey asks academic philosophers about their philosophical beliefs, and they disagree with each other a lot. Take moral philosophy. Within the contemporary, Western, non-continental tradition, there are currently three dominant schools: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. These are theories about what it means to act morally, to be a good person, and how we can know. In other words, this is important stuff, because it’s the foundation of our interactions with others. Yet the survey results show a close to even split.

Remember, the people responding to the survey are professional philosophers, and these are the three dominant theories in moral philosophy. The respondents are pretty familiar with the arguments for and against each. Nor are these new theories that haven’t settled in yet. Deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics have been formal schools for centuries each, and you can make the case all three have been around in some form for as long as moral philosophy itself.

The Origins of Philosophical Disagreement

If these are professionals, with access to the same arguments and evidence, all very smart people with deep understanding of the issues, and a shared goal of figuring out what it means to be more, why is every answer a minority one? Part of it might be that, while we like to think our reason is a perfect and unbounded tool for engaging with and understanding the world, it really isn’t. Reason is instead embodied and bounded.

But that’s not all of the story, or even a very big part of it. Instead, I’ve come to accept that which arguments—and so which philosophies—we find persuasive has at least as much to do with our individual psychology as it does with the objective quality of the arguments. Some arguments work for us, in a way they don’t for other people, because they tap into underlying preferences, tastes, or personality traits others don’t share. And those features lead us, even if subconsciously, the feel drawn to some philosophies over others, and then to view arguments for or against them differently than we otherwise would.

The Example of Meaning

I’ve been writing and podcasting lately about the question of how we find and form meaning as liberal citizens. If you want an overview of the topic, I encourage you to listen to this episode of my podcast with my friend Akiva Malamet. A month ago, I published an essay about a common, but unhelpful, way liberal identity and meaning formation gets discussed, and how LEGOs can help us to better understand and talk about the process of meaning.

Yesterday, writer Robert Tracinski took my analogy and ran with it in an essay about his approach to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. He argues that there’s a gap in my explanation of meaning being like LEGOs. I claim that meaning comes with a default (the instructions, or the culture and family we are born into), and that liberalism, instead of thrusting upon us a large and chaotic pile of bricks to assemble ourselves, gives us the option of sticking with that default, or revising it—or building something new entirely. Tracinski writes,

The limit of this analogy is that the real third alternative is not exactly an instruction book—not a set of narrowly concrete set of rules or instructions. What we need are broad principles. What we need is an intellectual perspective that will help us to understand the world, to understand human nature, and help us discover the basis for making our own decisions about what to make out of our lives.

I agree. The principles and perspective we bring to meaning’s (re)construction matter quite a lot to how fulfilling and healthy the resulting meaning turns out to be. But here’s where things get interesting in light of the discussion about philosophical disagreement above. Tracinski’s essay is an explanation of a book he’s writing on “Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism from the perspective of one central idea—the law of cause and effect—and how it underlies and explains every aspect of the philosophy,” and he concludes with this: “The ancients viewed philosophy, not just as a set of abstract theories, but as a way of life. Ayn Rand talks about the rational man as a ‘disciple of causation,’ someone who has internalized and incorporated the law of cause and effect into his life and thinking and action.”

Now, I am not an Objectivist. I know enough about Rand’s ideas to recognize that many of the most common criticisms leveled against her are mischaracterizations of her arguments and conclusions, but I also know enough to not be persuaded by those arguments. In short, I don’t think the case she and other Objectivists make for Objectivism works.

At the same time, Tracinski and I agree in many ways about how meaning works. We agree about its role in, and the necessity of, a liberal society. We agree that good principles are crucial to getting meaning right. And we even agree that those principles should be grounded in an understanding of cause and effect. That’s quite a lot of agreement.

Except, the “law of cause and effect” he has in mind is Ayn Rand’s philosophy, while the law of cause and effect that underlies my principles is the Buddhist idea of karma. (Karma isn’t a mystical scale of cosmic justice, but instead just the Sanskrit term for natural laws of cause and effect.) Tracinski is persuaded by Rand’s arguments, while I am persuaded by the secular arguments of early Buddhist philosophy. I am aware of the arguments for Rand’s version, and Tracinski is aware of my own ancient philosophy’s take. What’s more, he has quite a lot of arguments to support his position, and I have quite a lot of arguments to support mine.

Arguments that Work Are Those that Work for Us

I am a Buddhist not just because I find the case for Buddhism stronger than the alternatives. I’m a Buddhist not just because the case for Buddhism works. Rather, if I’m honest, a big part of why I’m a Buddhist is because the philosophy of Buddhism works for me. It feels right, in addition to being argumentatively persuasive. I come from a perspective primed to see the value in Buddhism, while taking issue with aspects of Objectivism. To give just one reason, the ethical egoism central to Objectivism strikes me as an example of what Bernard Williams called the “one thought too many problem.” As philosopher Jay Garfield summarizes it,

Suppose that you are in the hospital, and I, as your close friend, come to visit you. We have a pleasant conversation, and your spirits are lifting. Then you thank me for coming to visit you. I reply, “no need to thank me. Although I didn’t really want to come to see you, I realized that it (now pick your completion): (a) was my moral duty to do so; (b) would maximize the amount of happiness in the world were I to do so; (c) was what a friendly person would do.” Whether you answer from the standpoint of deontology, consequentialism, or virtue theory, adding the moral motivation is one thought too many. What appeared to be a friendly act now merely amounts to a discharge of an abstract responsibility.

Egoism would answer, “Although I didn’t really want to come to see you, I realized that it was in my own interest to do so.” And that seems wrong. But the fact that it seems wrong to me isn’t the same thing as it being a dispositive argument against egoism or Objectivism, and Objectivists will have responses to it. Instead, what I’m getting at is there’s something about me—my psychology, interests, tastes, etc.—that makes Buddhism appealing in a way Objectivism is not, even if Objectivists have responses to my objection, and I have responses to those, and they have further responses back.

I’ve argued elsewhere that conservative philosophy is largely an attitude in search of arguments. And while I think that’s particularly a problem for conservatism, because of the nature of conservatism itself, it’s also an inevitable feature, if to a lesser degree, of the broader project of philosophy. We don’t reason from some unembodied and unencumbered objective vantage point. We reason as human beings, with attitudes and values and tastes. While our intellect might not be entirely the slave of the passions, to use David Hume’s evocative phrase, neither are the passions the slave of intellect, and they strongly influence, even if they don’t entirely determine, how we perceive and delineate the reasonable.

Any robust and enduring philosophical system will have comprehensive arguments in its favor and well-thought-out responses to counterarguments. Whether we find a robust system persuasive largely depends on whether we find it appealing, and our preferences are influenced by psychology, taste, and cultural factors. The task of ethical philosophy, then, is to recognize some roughly shared baseline of good, and then offer not one argument for it, but many, tuned to appeal to our vast diversity of psychologies and cultures.

Thus I wish Tracinski my very best in his book project, not because I expect to be persuaded by it, but because I expect some people to be.

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