There’s a way of thinking that I’ve encountered a number of times recently. One struck me quite dramatically at the Hume Society meeting; it was in an otherwise excellect paper. I’m inclined to think the way of thinking is fallacious, but I’m willing to believe I’m wrong.
The pattern of thought goes like this:
philosophical reflection reveals that a desireable trait has [or is constituted by the possession of] features X, Y and Z. So if we practice X, Y, Z we’ll become better people and have a better chance to succeed at goal G
[see comments one and two for the amendment.]I hope this can be discussed without discussing any particular instance. And anyone who feel indirectly targeting here, shouldn’t!
So let me try to give a silly example: We might say that Descartes shows us how to detach the mind from the senses and get clear and distinct ideas. This is a foundational move for those who want to be good mathematicians. So if we follow Descartes, we can become better mathematicians.
The problem that I want to focus on with this line of thought is the idea that philosophers are privy to the psychological conditions for the successful pursuit of human excellence. Maybe sometimes we get that right, but over the last 20-30 years the evidence has been mounting that uncovering the right psychological conditions that do lead to excellence is really not a matter simply of traditional philosophical expertise. We could use, for example, some studies of the effects of scepticism about the senses on budding mathematicians.
At the Hume conference, Sean Nichols gave a great paper about how Humean human moral reasoning is. I think it illustrates the role empirical work can have in some areas of enquiry, maybe particularly those attempting to understand how to achieve excellence.
But in any case, I’d love to know what others think.
What follows is a small section from a brief response I gave to a paper at the Hume Society Conference in Sydney, 2016. I was responding to a paper by Karen Green, and in effect I was trying to start on an answer to a question she raised. Even getting the question right is a bit vexed, but it was about how a man, such as Hume, could be a woman’s moral theorist. Annette Baier was an important part of the background of the discussion.
I wanted to avoid saying that all women thnk about morality in a certain way. I’m putting this piece out here because it contains an interesting thought that avoids saying that. The interesting thought isn’t mine.
Whether there could be a gendered difference in moral thought seems to raise the question of whether there’s a foundational difference between some parts of women’s thinking and some of men’s. To say that the question of gendered differences in thought has attracted some attention recently is a staggering understatement. And one problem is that just a few days after one partisan side has declared that they have the new and decisive theory answering the question, the other side charges them with fallacies in probabilistic reasoning or in interpretations of brain scans or in the interpretation of pre-natal hormone releases, etc. And as a philosopher, unfortunately, one has to wait to see how experts are going to respond to the question of the possible scientific errors.
Nonetheless, Rebecca Jordan Young has argued strongly for the plausible view that there is something called 3-G sex which is quite wide spread, but does not produce a clear division in personality traits and behaviors. 3-G sex refers to the fact that gender, genitals and gonads go together to a high extent. But this doesn’t mean that the traits we think of as female and those as male follow along in any neat way. There are assertive, combative women, and gentle, deferential men, for example. She argues we should think in terms of a mosaic of traits, some associated with women, some with men, that can be mixed in all sorts of different ways in individuals (Jordan-Young, 2011).
So if thinking of morality as having to do with traits useful and agreeable to others is somehow more congenial to many women, it really needn’t be surprising to see that it is espoused by a male of the species.
Jordan-Young’s view sees the mind as a mosaic.