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Tolerance, Experience and Morality

Por: | 10 de abril de 2014


By Dennis Badenhop, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Do you believe that one should work hard or enjoy life? How important is it to keep promises? Is progressive taxation — higher taxes for the affluent — justified? Whatever your answer may be, it is likely that some others will see those answers as a mere expression of your taste or attitude and not something to be taken seriously. Such moral sceptics tend to view political and ethical debates about what’s good or bad, right or wrong, as an exchange of mere opinion. This philosophy of taste, they believe, engenders tolerance. However, this notion of tolerance can prove fatal for our democratic commitment to rational public debates on matters of society. For starters, moral sceptics tend to forget that if everything in the realm of values is a matter of taste, so is tolerance. In the face of ethical dissensus, tolerance is only the second-best option. We tolerate only what we cannot accept, possibly because of its deviation from our own perspective. Interestingly, when it comes to non-moral subjects, we are open to entertaining the option of empirical enquiry to achieve a common understanding of the world; we do not find the need to resort to tolerance. However, such an approach is not considered feasible within the realm of ethics. In fact, according to the “taste theory”, there is no single moral world that we could share a common understanding about.

Thinking about ethical thinking — an enterprise that philosophers call metaethics nowadays — it has become pretty clear that one major ingredient in the taste theory just outlined is the idea that there is a broken link between ethics and empirical experience. Put simply, to know whether there are roses in the garden or whether matter is composed of subatomic particles, it seems that all we have to do is to go out into the garden and look or conduct a little experiment. However it equally appears, as if nothing that simple could work, if we want to know whether lying is really wrong. Since I don’t wish to lead you too far into the abyss of philosophical argument, I would like to familiarize you with just three considerations of why this assumption of a broken link between ethical thinking and experience, despite appearances, is probably false.

The first has to do with the theory-dependence of experience. Philosophers argue that in most respects we cannot learn anything new about the world through experience if we don’t know many things already. For example, you will not know that a Mercedes just went past you on the road if you do not know what a Mercedes is (i.e., if you had not been exposed to a little “Mercedes-theory”), although you may have seen a car. But if we assume that people need to rely on theories to experience things, we must also grant that different individuals might rely on different theories for this purpose and eventually perceive different things in the same situation. To illustrate this, we can borrow an interesting example from the field of chemistry. In the 18th century, some chemists believed that in the course of combustion, a substance called “phlogiston” is released from the burning material, while contemporary science shows that it is not phlogiston that is released but oxygen that is “added” to carbon to form carbon dioxide. Thus, we can imagine a phlogiston theorist and an oxygen theorist observing the same combustion process but delivering contradictory “protocols”. While we should not hesitate to conclude that our oxygen theory is indeed true, we should at least admit that the decision about which theory is the correct one must often involve greater intellectual effort than just simple observation.

Second, from an early modern philosopher, René Descartes, we have inherited the view of experience as a process through which the mind “in our heads” learns something about the world “out there”, a view that seems to imply that the mind is not part of the world and vice versa. Values and norms are so deeply ingrained in us and our minds that it appears as if they must be “in the head”, too. If this was so, nothing could be learned about values and norms through experience, which is only about the world “out there”. The problem with this view is, of course, that there are other people or minds around us. Where else would these minds be, if not in the world? In case you now think that this picture is too strange to be adopted by anyone, consider how often people are inclined to hold that something cannot be fully reasonable or “objective” if it is just a subjective opinion. Technically, “subjective” in itself doesn’t mean much more than that something is related to subjects (who usually have minds) and this can be objectively so.

Third, not only philosophers but also common sense create a sharp divide between perception and emotional experience. While perception is seen as the cornerstone of knowledge and serious scientific enquiry, emotions are considered arational forces that cloud clear thinking instead of informing it. A growing number of philosophers, however, believe that this contrast is seriously misleading. They argue that emotions have representational content or something to “tell”. For example, the emotion of fear can tell you of potential dangers that lie ahead; if you wanted to jump off the roof to learn to fly, it would be prudent and very rational of you to heed your fear and refrain from doing so. This view certainly does not suggest that emotions are devoid of any elements of disturbance or irrationality. Instead, it only proposes emotions are not significantly different from “normal” perceptions, where we also encounter illusions or hallucinations, which can be equally misleading for our reasoning.

Finally, let’s recollect the old Indian tale of the elephant and the blind men where each blind man comes to a different theory (“Hey, it’s a rope, “Hey, it’s tree branch” or “Hey, it’s a pillar”) depending on which part of the elephant (the tail, leg or trunk) they happen to touch first. While the men through their limited experience derive different conclusions about the exact form of the animal, it is likely that they would improve their theories in the long term. This represents a more robust approach to ethics than the view of taste theorists according to which there is no moral elephant at all or that there are several elephants — one for each blind man who tolerates physical boundaries but due to the finite available space sometimes steps on others’ feet.

Dennis Badenhop
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Hay 1 Comentarios

El planteamiento está bien, pero a este ejercicio de epistemología de la moral parece faltarle una conclusión clara.

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