Tuesday, June 22, 2004

People do not understand what they say. Someone may say he or she believes in a supreme being, but when questioned will be forced to admit that they take comfort in the idea and do not care whether their beliefs are based on truth or fallacy because they serve a purpose. Ronald Dworkin made such an argument about opposition to abortion. Most people who are opposed to abortion, even those who say abortion is murder, are willing to accept it in cases of rape or incest. But if abortion is murder, it should make no difference how a fetus was conceived. Dworkin argues that many of the people who oppose abortion do so because they believe that their opponents don't take abortion seriously enough, that they don't give the moral questions involved enough weight, and that that more than anything is the reason for their oppostion. They don't believe, however, that abortion is murder; they use the word as code for something else.

I've been thinking about this in the context of my response to Brian Leiter's posts on Clarence Thomas. He has a new one here.
This is something I added to my pervious post a day or so ago:

"It is a lovely thing about scholarly life that all kinds of positions can be explored and defended, no matter how contrary to received wisdom, no matter how dangerous in their consequences... Justice X is not, to put the matter gently, a scholar. He is not engaged in scholarly debate or inquiry; he is advocating for a political revolution. On the basis of some scholarly arguments by others (not all of whom even endorse X's preferred result), he would push aside countervailing scholarly and legal considerations (including decades of precedent) ...What would that mean?"

The above is an edited version of one of Leiter's paragraphs, stripped of any reference to the specific case or recent history. It could be a quote from an argument against the Brown decision. Not having followed the case much, and focusing on the decision as a whole rather than Thomas' opinion, I responded to Leiter's text as a text, taken out of context, and it stuck me as odd. it still does. In today's post, quoting others, the tone changes a little. But still, why can't leiter just come out and say that Thomas' opinions go against our notions of fairness? Why can't he just say the country has changed?

"The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called Thomas' view 'breathtakingly radical.'
'Mississippi could be officially Baptist, and Utah could be officially Mormon. If his viewpoint ever became the majority on the high court, it would tear our country apart along religious lines,' he said.

There's something wishy-washy about discussions of historical change. Philosophy is logical, not narrative, right? it's not just that Thomas is a radical, it's that he's a radical with no social or popular support, no social reality surrounding and reinforcing his arguments. There is now such a reality surrounding the idea of gay marriage. As I said a few months ago: "The dam broke. It's over." What was once less than normal, has become normal. And this change as regards homosexuality has become more and more clear over the past few months. Leiter's is not a philosophy of historical change, however, which is why he refers to changes in our subjective experience only after the fact, and does so by quoting others. I think there is no way to really understand how out of step, how absurd, Thomas' arguments are without understanding how we have changed and that this change is not only logical but moral and subjective.

Two other qiick points. Leiter links to this blog: Experimental Philosophy, where I've posted a few comments, as I noted below. The authors fall into the same trap he does. Reading the posts is like reading the observations of a sociopath, unable to fathom human emotion. Frankly it's weird.
If you go by the assumption that people do not believe what they say they believe, and that they do not do things for the reasons they claim, then you can begin to examine why they might behave as they do. For there is a logic to it, even if it's not the one they claim. Experimental Philosophy skims the surface.

Read this post, "Puzzling experiment", and see if the outcome of the experiment puzzles you. And remember, don't think about logic, think about how people behave, and why.

For another example, is there perhaps a conflict between Leiter's politics and his obsessive documentation of academic social climbing? See his recent critical comments about the legal star system. I suppose one could argue there is or should be a difference between money and prestige, and that he's only interested in the latter, but that doesn't resolve the conflict.
(More fixes later)

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