Saturday, August 11, 2007

Short, Sharp and Shallow

The main lesson of working life is that there is no room for polish. There is never time to make a masterpiece instead of a sketch, and no-one would notice the difference anyway.

Conclusions need only be as fine-grained as the choices that depend on them: if the choice is between walking and running, let’s not labour the difference between strolling and ambling. And because certainty will elude even the most prolonged and earnest study, let’s not quibble about justification: a few short reasons will do. The most profound investigation will only ever be useful in summary form. Profound investigations never get finished anyway: better a complete draft than a disjointed final.

It is interesting to apply the same lessons to philosophy. At the very least, it frees up more time to write about stupidity and cows. More, it is good training in brevity. So here is a short Q&A on some philosophical topics that have been on my mind recently.

What distinguishes excellence from mere prowess? A person who can tie their shoelaces very fast does, in one sense, excel at a task. But we would not say they have achieved the kind of excellence that a brilliant physicist achieves, or even a brilliant athlete. What’s the difference?

Not very interesting, this one. Excellence requires prowess in a valued practice. The general question of where values come from is more interesting, but it is much too deep for this post.

To what extent must the pursuit of excellence compromise a person’s relationships with other people? There is something selfish about pursuing excellence for its own sake. How bad is this form of selfishness?

In general, the answer to the first question is “a moderate amount.” Excellence takes a lot of time, leaving less time to get involved with other people. Excellence leads to strong relationships with the few people who share our chosen excellence. But it weakens relationships with the large number of people who don’t. Particular forms of excellence may, however, make us more skilled at caring for other people (eg. excellence in social work).

“Not too bad” is the answer to the other question. Reclusiveness does not harm other people, except those who long to know one better (this harm is heavily case-dependent). Excellence in a field creates problems for everyone else who wants to be the best in the field. But arguably people should not measure their success in relative terms. And excellence helps a person’s colleagues insofar as it inspires and instructs them to do better.

Given that rationality causes everyone to think the same thing, how can rationality make us more autonomous?

Rationality on its own gives us one kind of autonomy, the kind that comes from the deliberate pursuit of an excellence. Philosophers have this kind of autonomy, but so do mathematicians and bakers. Moral autonomy is a different thing. Rationality only gives us moral autonomy insofar as we apply general principles to the facts of our individual lives. Sometimes the facts are obvious, and the principles are the hard thing to know. Other times it is the other way round. In the latter cases, philosophy is not much use.

There is value in living an examined life, and it has something to do with autonomy. But how much of this value can be gotten through philosophy?

Not all of it. If autonomy is to mean anything at all, it must require autonomy of action as well as thought. And thought does not become action without strength of will. Autonomy also means acting in according with the facts of one’s own situation (see previous Q). Which requires knowledge one’s own desires, interests and abilities. This knowledge usually comes about through cognitive work, but sometimes it is more like the work of the historian, the journalist or the poet than that of the philosopher.

Not all of it, you say. But how much? And isn’t that an empirical question, and one that philosophers qua philosophers are not equipped to answer?

I don’t know how much. Perhaps it depends on the individual. Don’t ask awkward questions.

Clearly it is best for people to be sensitive to the “facts of their own situation”, as you put it. Best to satisfy one’s own values, rather than someone else’s. But is self-expression valuable for its own sake?

For some people more than others. A good painter will have a style different from other good painters. This is not just because the painter is particularly good at that style, or because he valued that style before he began painting, and has finally achieved it. He will value that style simply because it is his own. It is him. Self-expression looks bad because it is used as a cheap marketing ploy by hundreds of clothes shops. And it seems to be more highly valued in the arts than the sciences. And it is suspect because it looks so easy: what could be more uninspired than merely being oneself? But talk to the painter who has “found his style” and you will see that self-expression is both difficult and highly prized.

What can we really learn from art?

Art teaches by presenting dry topics in an entertaining form (eg. the dialogues of Plato). It also teaches by acting powerfully on our psychology (the baddies have ugly skin so we try to be good). But art only teaches in these ways because people are epistemically flawed. This makes art useful, but not very impressive. Art also works on the emotions, uplifting and depressing and making us content or restless or happy. In this way art changes our moods, but not our beliefs.

Well…? Consider the ideal philosopher (who loves even the driest wisdom and cares not for moods). Would that person have any use for art?

Art excels in particulars. And particulars lead us, in various ways, to a better grasp of general principles. Most simply, particulars suggest problems. They can also help to solve problems. But this is not terribly helpful. The question you should ask next is how the particulars in art (which are often quite different from experiments in science and thought experiments in philosophy) can help to solve scientific and philosophical problems.

How can the particulars in art (which are often quite different from experiments in science and thought experiments in philosophy) help to solve scientific and philosophical problems?

Good question. Part of the answer is that art deals in particulars relating to ordinary human experience (love, ageing, death, etc.). Another part is that art embeds those particulars in a rich context. For the rest of the answer, you’ll have to go somewhere else. Thanks for asking.

A large part of our moral reasoning consists in “weighing up” different considerations, and this is a form of quantitative reasoning. What does this tell us about the scope of moral philosophy, given that philosophy is usually regarded as a form of qualitative reasoning?

It is true that philosophy does not usually use numbers in its reasoning (except in an elementary form). But we do not usually use numbers in the “weighing-up” process you just described. And insofar as we do use numbers, it’s a matter of basic arithmetic. The real work comes in when we a) work out which considerations are just red herrings, having no weight at all b) work out which considerations we have missed out so far c) work out how to interpret those considerations so as to form an easy numerical problem and/or d) use qualitative techniques (eg. analogy) to solve the problem, when it resists an easy numerical interpretation. The ethicist is well-equipped for all these tasks.