Just War and Polite Philosophy

A professor of philosophy from Brown University, one Nomy Arpaly, argues that philosophy justifies rudeness in much the same way that war justifies violence.
It is a big part of moral behavior in ordinary situations not to kill people. Yet the morally healthy inhibition against killing people has to be lost, of necessity, in war—even in a morally justified war. It is a big part of politeness—not in the sense of using the right fork, but in the sense of civility—in ordinary situations not to tell another person that she is wrong and misguided about something she cares a lot about, or that she cares about being right about. For brevity’s sake, let’s just say it’s a big part of politeness or civility not to correct people. Yet the civilized inhibition against correcting people has to be lost, of necessity, in a philosophical argument.
The way she frames this is in terms of 'inhibition loss,' whereby one 'loses' the usual inhibition against killing/rudeness, and thus is in danger of losing other inhibitions along the way. She thinks the position of women in philosophy can be substantially improved simply by limiting the amount of rudeness in the discussion to 'no more than what is necessary,' in much the same way that Just War prohibitions against indiscriminate killing are helpful in preventing wars from being worse than they must be.

My experience is that polite philosophical discussion is not only possible, it's the case -- unless by "rudeness" you mean the odd thing she is framing as rude, the questioning of people's beliefs. Philosophy conferences are sometimes heated, but usually are extraordinarily polite. Philosophy conferences are also a great place to see things questioned all the way down to the ground. You will see people's entire belief systems destroyed in front of an audience, at times, but almost never in a way we would ordinarily describe as rude. It's only rude if you think it's improper to destroy ideas people care about. Sometimes, though, they're bad ideas.

Indeed, Arpaly's own work questions two of philosophy's most basic assumptions, the centrality of reason to morality and of deliberation to reason. Her opening example makes more sense if you read it in the context of that questioning.
I’ll never forget the old guy who asked me, at an APA interview: “suppose I wanted to slap you, and suppose I wanted to slap you because I thought you were giving us really bad answers, and I mistakenly believed that by slapping you I’ll bring out the best in you. Am I blameworthy?”.

When he said “suppose I wanted to slap you”, his butt actually left his chair for a moment and his hand was mimicking a slap in the air.
This turns out to be a highly relevant question, if desire ought to override reason in the way she is arguing it sometimes should. The prohibitions against violence (including all the ones in Just War theory) are rational principles. They arise not in the heat of the moment, but from abstracting away from the real situations of war to try to find ways in which these situations are alike. Those ways in which many different situations are alike are called "universals" by most philosophers -- I often say they are, properly speaking, analogies -- and the universals are rational objects. The reason we can craft general rules governing very different wars in different times and places is because of rational deliberation of this kind.

The assumption that such rationally derived rules should govern these interactions is just what she is questioning: sometimes, instead of favoring rationally derived rules, we should listen to our desires. She is proposing a system for doing that and suggesting we would be better off, at least sometimes, if we followed our hearts. Thus the question: what if my heart leads me to violence? Doesn't allowing desires to override rationally-derived rules weaken protections against violence, especially in cases where her proposed system seems to justify substituting desires for the rules derived in rational deliberation?

It's a good question. The fact that she wants to analogize the situation to Just War only makes it a better question. It seems as if a model like hers is going to need very strong rules to prevent licensing violence -- and, by extension, many other kinds of passionate behavior. Otherwise she will have to accept being slapped by someone who really has a desire to do it that is grounded in the right way for her system. Presumably, she is not willing to be slapped. Indeed, she finds even the pantomime of a slapping so objectionable that she's remembered it for years as a clear example of something offensive in philosophy. She is writing a piece specifically to call us not to do such things. To say that another way, she is proposing rules governing desired behavior, to be applied to situations like 'philosophical discussion' in general.

If it does need such rules, though, doesn't that undermine her whole model? Such rules are rational, and are being derived at a deliberative distance. Moral behavior ends up primarily involving containing such desires according to rationally-derived rules that come from deliberation. She just wants different rules, presumably ones that allow for the indulging of desires she approves of more often than is permitted by the rules we have now.

The fact that we can see that comes from the question. It suggests that her basic model is flawed, all the way to the ground. It's an insightful point. I wonder if she has a response, beyond the objection that it was rude.


Tom said...

Being compelled to break the rule of thumb against telling people that they are mistaken in the understanding of an important thing is no excuse for also yelling at them, repeatedly interrupting them and talking over them, responding to their painstakingly prepared talks with a sneering “why should I be interested in any of this”? (as opposed to a “does this have any implications for my field” or “how does it fit in the literature”), and worse things that we philosophers do, such as asking a job candidate about the counterfactual merits of hypothetically slapping her.

I agreed with this paragraph all the way until she gets to the hypothetical slap. I just don't see that as rude in the same way as yelling, repeated interrupting, or a sneering attitude. It's aggressive, and I would prefer hypotheticals also involve hypothetical people, but as long as it's asked in a polite tone and she is given ample opportunity to respond, I don't see it as necessarily rude.

Going to her argument about reason in morality, I think this part of the description of "In Praise of Desire" (your first link to her work) is interesting:

Reason, understood as the power to deliberate about what to think and do, is shown not to be the basis for our ability to act for reasons. Reason is rather the ability to perform certain mental actions which help us to become settled about what to think or do, and these actions are in turn motivated by desire. Thus reason is, if not a slave of the passions, then at least a useful tool deployed by desiring agents.

I take this to mean that, before you reason about what the right thing to do is, you must first desire to do the right thing. Your use of reason is motivated by a desire. So far, it makes sense.

If desire were merely an impulse to act, then a moral psychology built on intrinsic desires might be unpromising. But intrinsic desire is much more than an impulse to act. Intrinsic desires are a natural kind, states of the brain which contingently but commonly cause impulses to act, as well as causing a rich array of feelings and cognitive effects (on attention, learning, and more). Understood in this way, intrinsic desires are more central to agency, good will, and virtue than any mere impulse could be.

This part is intriguing. I wonder what she does with it. I don't see how we can take reason out of it, though. If the desire to do the right thing is deeper than an impulse to perform a particular action, then it seems you would have to think to make sure any particular action fulfills the desire to do good.

Grim said...

I take this to mean that, before you reason about what the right thing to do is, you must first desire to do the right thing.

Well, it's stronger than that. The claim is that what you desire is ultimately going to set all your ends. So, what 'the right thing' is will depend on the nexus of all the things you desire, and the work of reason is just to determine the best means to those ends that desire has set.

Thus, it's not that you must desire to do the right thing before you're going to worry enough about doing the right thing to sit down and reason about it. It's that the content of "the right thing" -- of ethics itself -- is going to be rooted ultimately in desire and not reason.

Grim said...

Here's an unpublished footnote I once wrote on the question, in case you're interested in reading further.

-- It is not controversial that nature or non-rational parts of the soul can set ends. What is controversial is whether reason can do so alone, or whether it necessarily relies upon nature or non-rational parts of the soul. Terence Irwin holds that Aristotle’s position is that desire can be broken into three kinds, in accord with Plato’s tripartite division of the soul, and that there is therefore a kind of ‘rational desire’ (boulēsis) that can explain a wish for something good, i.e., the act of taking the thing thought to be good as an end in itself. Terence Irwin, “Annotated Glossary” in Nicomachean Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co. 1985), 392, 394.

Jessica Moss holds that all ends seem to be associated with desire, but that it is not desire itself that sets the ends, but rather a process of evaluating the phantasia within the mind; this makes any animal, no matter how simple, sentient. (Cf. Hans Jonas, who considers that sentience is necessary only to maintain an appetitive movement over time and space, such that only animals that need to maintain pursuit over distances require desire to motivate the continuation of the motion to completion). Irwin, on her account, makes an error of confusing means with ends, because the ends set by reason (phronesis, not logos) are already pointed toward a good determined by desire or nature. Moss believes this “allows [phronesis] the ethical significance which Aristotle clearly grants it while denying it the end-setting role which he (almost clearly) denies it.” Jessica Moss, Aristotle on the Apparent Good (Oxford, 2012), 9, 19, 198, 227; Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1966), 101.

Iakovos Vasiliou states that “orthodoxy” holds that the difference between Aristotle’s rational and non-rational desire is the difference between desiring the good and desiring the pleasant, which means that rationality is associated with determining goodness as such. He explains the relationship between logos and phronesis using Aristotle’s definition of the latter as “right reason,” i.e., reason habituated to point to natural goods. This is why the virtuous man’s deliberation about the good can serve as the standard as to whether ‘apparent goods’ are also real goods, solving the problem Aristotle raises about whether things decided upon are truly good or only apparently good. But then reason is not determining the goods; rather, the goods are in nature, and reason is only finding the right way to align itself with reality. Moss argues that this commits Aristotle to seeing virtue “wholly” a state of the non-rational soul, unless clear textual evidence can be found to support another view. Vasiliou argues that Moss and others who defend this view have the ‘face value’ textual reading on their side, but that there are philosophical reasons to resist such a contracted role for phronesis. He defends an account on which having the right goal is phronesis, which means that reason determines the ends because having the right ends is identical with having a properly habituated reason. Iakovos Vasiliou, “Apparent Goods,” forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 358, 371-81; Iakovos Vasiliou, “The Role of Good Upbringing in Aristotle’s Ethics,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 56 no. 4 (1996): 776-7, 779.

Tom said...

The claim is that what you desire is ultimately going to set all your ends.

I'm not sure I have a problem with that, as long as "desire" is the sophisticated state she seems to be describing and not simply impulse.


So, what 'the right thing' is will depend on the nexus of all the things you desire, and the work of reason is just to determine the best means to those ends that desire has set.

This doesn't seem to follow from the first proposition. Even if all of my ends are set by desire, that doesn't mean that what I desire is good. Is that what she's claiming?

(I'll have to come back to that footnote.)

Grim said...

Even if all of my ends are set by desire, that doesn't mean that what I desire is good.

The question is more basic: what is it for something to be 'good'? The answer that desire determines the question is a plausible reading even of Aristotle and Aquinas: see ST I 5.1 cor.

"The essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. i): "Goodness is what all desire." Now it is clear that a thing is desirable only in so far as it is perfect; for all desire their own perfection. But everything is perfect so far as it is actual. Therefore it is clear that a thing is perfect so far as it exists; for it is existence that makes all things actual, as is clear from the foregoing (3, 4; 4, 1). Hence it is clear that goodness and being are the same really."

Thus, the things that all desire are good. What kinds of things are those? Perfections of our nature. Aquinas reads this as actualizing ourselves to the fullest degree.

But wait -- we don't all have the same nature. Squirrels thus desire acorns in a way that I don't. So are acorns "good"? Yes, from the perspective of the squirrel. From our perspective, not as much.

Here's where Aquinas and Aristotle come apart (I believe). For Aristotle, the answer "is something good?" can only be answered unequivocally if the thing really is desired by all. Health might be a good like this; happiness might be, if things like squirrels are happy. The only way we can rank goods across species is going to be by whether the species is more or less perfect itself. Aristotle believes that humans are the most perfect, so we 'set the standard' for goodness with our desires.

For Aquinas, there's going to be an ultimate answer (God). Thus, the question of whether something is good in itself is not ours to determine.

jabrwok said...

I wonder how this philosopher would respond to being told that the correct third-person pronoun to use in English when referring to someone of unknown or unspecified sex is the masculine.

Or perhaps she was simply discussing how to interact with women.

Grim said...

She would probably tell you that the standard is considered outdated, and that the new academic standard is to alternate gender pronouns in that case. That's what she did, but it does have the following effect:

A soldier who is fighting, even for a just cause, is in a precarious situation, with regard to morality, because he has lost, of necessity, the basic moral inhibition against killing people.

A philosopher who is arguing with another, even in pursuit of truth, is in a precarious situation with regard to politeness, because she has lost, of necessity, the basic civil inhibition against correcting people.

She's positing this as a "surprisingly precise analogy," but she really thinks violence is way worse than correcting someone. Is it a coincidence that the essentially violent character is the one she assigned to the male pronoun, and the essentially civilized and educated character the one that got the feminine?

That's why I don't care for the new standard. If she'd done it the other way, there'd be a question about the sexual politics of having done it that way. It opens up endless rabbit holes.

Tom said...

The question is more basic: what is it for something to be 'good'? The answer that desire determines the question is a plausible reading even of Aristotle and Aquinas...

So, if desire is the basis of what we decide is good, but it is common desire rather than individual desire, then where does reason enter in for Aristotle &/or Aquinas?

It doesn't seem necessary to use it to decide what we all desire: We can just ask people or, as everyone does who answers that question, assume that we know the answers. (Or, I suppose, play with tautologies until we come up with a definition that suits us.)

Is it then just in the application? We all desire health. Now we use reason to understand how to be healthy and therefore how to act. Is that it? That seems to be what Arpaly is saying.

Grim said...

Well, the question of where reason enters the role in Aristotle is the subject of the footnote I cited above. It's a contentious question even today. On one interpreatation, if the soul is divided as Aristotle divides it, there is a "kind" of desire appropriate to each part of the soul. The rational soul has a rational desire -- that's boulēsis. But it's provoked by reason, gets its content from reason, and what it desires is 'the good' because it is rational. Engaging rationally with life is the purpose of life, which is why human life is the best kind. We are better than other animals because we have long intestines, for example: that allows us not to have to pursue food constantly, which gives us time to reason. We walk upright so we can see the stars, as other animals don't, and reasoning about the geometry of the stars helps us see to ultimate truths.

(So, for Aquinas, we approach the truth about what is; and what is, is good. The truer it is, the better it is. And the best thing is God, who grounds all truth because He brought it into being and holds it in existence. For Aquinas, this model is rational at its root.)

On another interpretation, Vasiliou's, reason doesn't have that relationship at all. The "good" is taught to us by our upbringing, and so we desire what is conventional among our culture or social group, or what our animal nature has to seek (e.g., squirrels and acorns). Reason's only role is helping us get these things, but many of them are irrational desires. Even the animal desires are contingent on us being animals of a certain kind.

There's also an early Modern / Enlightenment tradition of what are sometimes called "active emotions." These are similar to boulēsis in that they are a kind of emotion, but they aren't affective. They're produced by reason. Kant talks about these things some times: my favorite example is what he describes as the virtue of "love of honor." It's a kind of love, but it's produced by reason. It's reason's recognition of its own value in creating human freedom that makes this love of honor, which won't allow us to descend into servility or deception.

Tom said...

Thanks for explaining it even though you already had with the footnote. The footnote would have taken me some time to unpack. That's a very interesting summary, too.

To go back to your original post, I think you are right that her position has a serious flaw, which the hypothetical slap reveals.

Another flaw is that it's not necessarily clear what constitutes rude behavior. Just from her description, the hypothetical slap seems like a legitimate question, not rude behavior. If the fellow then sat back down and politely listened to her response, I don't see a problem with it. But for her, it was more rude than yelling at someone. So how can we know what's really rude? I think we have to reason to it.

Tom said...

Going back to Aristotle, as I recall, he defines us as the rational animals. As you said, "Engaging rationally with life is the purpose of life, which is why human life is the best kind."

But what if our sophisticated emotional range is also a significant part of what sets us apart from the animals? What if engaging emotionally with life, e.g., through art, is also an essential part of what makes us human?

Grim said...

It isn't clear to me that Aristotle is right that animals are irrational, although it is fair to say that most of them seem to have less access to the order of reason as it applies to abstract questions.

But there's a huge problem with your second proposition: " what if our sophisticated emotional range is also a significant part of what sets us apart from the animals?"

How would you know anything about the sophistication of the emotional life of, say, a crow? Testing their access to abstract reasoning is relatively simple by comparison. How do they feel about things? I can't think of a good test for that even in principle.

Tom said...

I don't know. I think I assume that because we create art in its many forms that we have a more sophisticated emotional capacity, but you are right. That's not necessarily true. And offhand I can't think of a way to test it, either.

Grim said...

So, the creation of sophisticated art does seem like something that's uniquely human. But then again, it may not be. It may be the degree of sophistication that proves to be unique. For one thing, we'd have to know something about what a crow perceives as "art." They definitely steal shiny objects to use as decoration, so perhaps they make art of a kind as well.

We know they can use tools, and solve abstract problems. We don't really know how they can, though: their brains are not even slightly structurally similar to ours. It's really a problem even for our belief that we know more and more about how our brains work. If they can do the same things without the structures we think are responsible for given functions, how sure can we be that our brains are really doing it the way we think they are?

Tom said...

It may be the degree of sophistication that proves to be unique.

The same is true of reason, as you've pointed out. We humans are still animals, so a complete disjuncture between us and other species doesn't seem likely.

Like language. We know other species have their own languages, but often the number of "words" (calls, etc.) is comparatively quite small. Even when we try to teach chimpanzees sign language, their vocabulary is only in the low hundreds. An American high school graduate is estimated to know 40,000 to 50,000 words.

So, crows decorate with shiny objects they gather, and we paint, build cathedrals, write symphonies and novels, plays and poems, sing the blues, sculpt and produce pottery. It doesn't prove we have a greater emotional sophistication, but I do think it points that way.

You bring up a good point in your second paragraph. We are still incredibly ignorant about this stuff.