Some words might simply no longer be productive for precise conversations

Ronnie de Souza has an interesting article at Aeon on why he thinks the concept of morality isn’t helpful. His overall thesis is that the idea that there are things that are right or wrong without qualification, in and of itself, adds nothing useful to the conversation. We can find reasons why or why not to make a particular decision without reference to it. And when we do mix it in, it tends to lead to barren and often bitter arguments between parties being sanctimonious about their own preferences.

On the one hand, as someone who has expressed skepticism myself that there is any type of absolute moral realism, I can completely see where he’s coming from. In many ways, naive conceptions of morality, similar to other such conceptions of love, beauty, consciousness, life, and many other things, adds little of value to many conversations, certainly scientific ones. As concepts, they are so muddled that including them leads to the pointless and endless debates de Souza references. Productive discussions can take place without them, using more precise concepts instead. The temptation to simply dismiss them is understandable.

This view is in contrast to one offered by Eric Schwitzgebel a while back, that often people inflate and explode a concept (he was talking about phenomenal consciousness), that is, deal only with the naive version and then conclude the whole thing should be dismissed. My response was to contrast this with the deflate and preserve mentality, to reduce a concept to the extent that the objectionable aspects of the naive version are no longer relevant, allowing the concept to be retained. An example is deflating the concept of God to the point that the word “God” just refers to the laws of physics.

Inflaters have a tendency to accuse deflaters of engaging in word games just to preserve a cherished concept. And I think there is some validity to this. Often proponents shift between inflated, and easily defeatable versions of a concept when among sympathetic parties, and the more deflated, and harder to dismiss versions when confronted with skeptics.

My approach historically has been to recognize that there are indeed inflated and deflated versions of the concept, to delineate them, and then be precise about which ones I think are worth accepting and which aren’t productive.

In the case of morality, this has historically looked something like this.

  1. Personnel rules
  2. Cultural rules and mores
  3. Legal rules
  4. Objective rules that exist “out there”

It seems uncontroversial that the first three exist. They can be studied via psychology, sociology, history, and other fields. The controversy is for the fourth one. For that, I agree with de Souza that talking like it exists isn’t productive. But I also agree with him that people aren’t likely to give it up anytime soon. It’s just too easy to justify your version of 1-3 by pretending it reflects 4, rather than providing more grounded reasons why others might want to consider it, or considering the reasons others give for their own version of 1-3.

Which makes me wonder if de Souza might not be wrong in principle, but right pragmatically. Maybe in many cases, to have a productive conversation, we need to eschew these words and reserve them only for colloquial usage.

What do you think? Are terms like “morality”, “love”, “consciousness”, and others still useful for careful philosophical or scientific discussion? Or should we only retain them for casual conversation?

56 thoughts on “Some words might simply no longer be productive for precise conversations

  1. I agree with your view against moral realism. However, as you admit, people argue about moral issues. It seems to me that those arguments are important, even though they never settle anything. It is from participation in these arguments that we learn about moral issues and learn how others see moral issues. And this learning experience seems to be part of how it all works.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It does seem like moral arguments are impossible to resolve with any finality. I do agree the discussion is worth having. We actually have little choice. Although it seems like the same discussion can happen without reference to moral rules. For example, rather than debating whether corporal punishment is ethical, it seems more productive to explore the long term effects on a child’s psychology according to standard measures of wellbeing.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree. Except it’s more accurate to say we have discussion, then more discussion, then yet more discussion… Although sometimes there are shifts in public sentiment unrelated to measurable outcomes. It’s just that they might shift again later.

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  2. I don’t think we should do away with assigning labels to a class of subjective experience simply because many people tend to get confused about the referent and scope of those experiences. It is exactly because those experiences aren’t shared that we need language to help us coordinate how to integrate those experiences into our social context.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You might be right. We do have another word for that: “awareness”. It doesn’t seem to have accrued all the bloated ambiguity and metaphysical hand wringing of the c-word. Not that philosophers won’t start working on it if it gets used more.

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      1. I wasn’t trying to focus on consciousness. Perhaps I should have said “internal states” instead of “subjective experience”. The point is that the words you mentioned relate to internal states that aren’t accessible to others, but that everybody still has in their own way, and are very important to our social interactions. Those words are useful for helping us coordinate between our internal states.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sorry, didn’t mean to try to pigeonhole you. Psychologists often use the term “declarative” for states that are colloquially labeled “conscious”, such as “declarative memory”. It might seem like a persnickety distinction, but from a scientific perspective, it more closely describes the empirical differences. From that standpoint, we can talk about reportable and non-reportable states.

          Of course, in typical social interactions we can be much looser without loss of meaning. I wouldn’t advocate dismissing any of the terms from casual conversation.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Free will, morale, consciousness, reality, illusion, and thousands of other terms are subjective ones. Outputs of most philosophical, scientific, or even judicial discussions, which involve those terms, are expressed in one or several these or other subjective terms. Even experiments, which researchers set up to study “free will,” end up with results tied up to other subjective terms, like consciousness (See, for example, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4647831/).
    The ambiguity of terms in our language is the problem, which was not solved during the five thousand years of the written language. I think we would not solve it in the next five thousand years either. It is better to acknowledge that the ambiguity of terms in our language is its feature, reflecting the necessity for us to make choices, consciousness or unconsciousness, every second in this world without guaranteed result, short-term or long-term.

    However, terms definitions in science are very important, maybe more important than we are accustomed to thinking.

    According to a new theory, even our perception of our Universe may depend on how we define terms. Below is a quote from Stephen Wolfram’s article “Why Does the Universe Exist? Some Perspectives from Our Physics Project” (https://writings.stephenwolfram.com/2021/04/why-does-the-universe-exist-some-perspectives-from-our-physics-project/).
    “But what we’re discovering is that our universe is in some sense like a tautology; it’s something that has to be the way it is just because of the definition of terms.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree that the ambiguity of language is a major issue. It’s exacerbated by the fact that language is a constantly evolving thing. So a word used in one century might have a subtly (or not so subtly) different meaning in another century. It means we always have to be alert to the possibility we might be talking past each other with different definitions.

      The only way I know to deal with it is to try to be as explicit as possible with our definitions. And to ask people what they mean when a term is ambiguous. Often their meaning is more reasonable than our first impressions of it. Of course, there are people who either haven’t thought through what they mean, or are depending on that ambiguity.

      I haven’t read Wolfram’s thoughts on definitions, but I do think that our perspective, personal, cultural, and even evolutionary, heavily affects our definitions and how we interpret the world.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi, I agree that people will embellish, dilute, expand definitions/meanings to support their agenda. Sometimes called “concept creep”. However, I think this can be contained by using & agreeing on “operational definitions”. I.e. what does it look like? Say Love. I have, what I think is a universal definition of love. Which has eight elements / behaviors that can be observed, boxes to be checked off. Then you can agree that they can be weighted/ranked and a score recorded. Then a threshold established. You can also have negative behaviors that subtract from the score.
    Of course no one does this; but it is scientific. Yes?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Mark,
      I agree on operational definitions. Although I think we have to be careful with them. If we’re using a common term, like “love”, in a very specific manner, then I think we have a responsibility to periodically remind our audience and collaborators (not to mention ourselves) of that definition. Personally, if I do that, I tend to (or at least aspire to) prefix or suffix the common term so neither I nor them forget exactly what we’re talking about.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes do that Mike. If there does happen to be a new normal however, well it is what it is. We must take the downs with the ups. I’ll just say that we’re happy that you’re back as such for now, come what may.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I think it was AC Grayling who wrote the common person knows what they mean when they say so and so or such and such is good but it is the philosophers who muddy the water. But I could be misrepresenting his work. I did read it a while back.

    Liked by 3 people

        1. 😀 😀 One of those times when I really wish WP let us edit our comments. Spelling was never a strong point, and I still get caught by that darn schwa all the time.

          (To answer the literal question, no, not really a fan of history or warfare. I do love being on and in the water, but still prefer navel operations to naval ones.)

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I interpret Grayling as saying the common person usually has a more down to earth meaning than the ones the philosophers have tortured from the terms. I agree. Although to be fair to philosophers, the devil does tend to hide in the details.

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  6. “What do you think? Are terms like ‘morality’, ‘love’, ‘consciousness’, and others still useful for careful philosophical or scientific discussion?”

    They are human and thus subject to study by both the sciences and humanities. And, of course, endless casual discussions. 🙂

    FWIW, there’s rather a bit of differentiation between those three. Love is a highly subjective, very personal, experience, and probably has the most variance in definition. Morality may, or may not, have objective aspects, but certainly seems more concrete (that is, specific) in culture and society. Consciousness is the Hard Problem and may turn out to be something science can ultimately understand completely.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I actually think, used without qualification, they’re all highly subjective. As I noted in the post, they can refer to something concrete and down to earth, a non-controversial definition. Or they can be used to refer to something more extravagant whose existence seems dubious. Attempts at clarification are usually resisted or ignored. And I’m increasingly wondering if the effort is worth it.

      Maybe all they’re useful for at this point is colloquial conversation.

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      1. Of course they’re subjective (I just said they were different), but it’s what we try to say about them objectively — our search for what truths might lie behind — that makes them interesting and worth of philosophical and scientific investigation.

        Love we know to be linked with oxytocin, and how often have you insisted the brain is just a functional mechanism? Morality is a much deeper topic, but some feel game theory might apply. The point is these things aren’t entirely subjective, and can be studied objectively.

        Perhaps it boils down to there being three basic levels: [1] casual, [2] amateur, [3] expert. Casual discussion is freestyle, and experts know things need to be defined and bracketed. It’s the amateurs who give it all a bad name. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I wonder if we’re using “casual” in the same manner here. What I mean by it is I might say, “I love X”, with the nature of X (a woman, a parent, an animal, a type of food, a car, etc) making it obvious what type of love I’m talking about. Or I might talk about being conscious at 5am this morning, or becoming conscious of the bug in the house. In those cases, I’m using “conscious” as a synonym for being awake or being aware. These types of usage are what I mean by “casual”.

          Then we have someone like Thomas Metzinger, who recently published something talking about “pure consciousness”. Metzinger is a professional philosopher and so ostensibly an expert, and I take his use of the phrase to be decidedly non-casual. But I still have no idea what “pure consciousness” is supposed to mean, even after reading an article or two about his study. To me, it sounds about as meaningful as “pure love” or “pure evil”.

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          1. We mean “casual” the same way.

            I would imagine that Metzinger would be fully capable of giving you his definition of “pure consciousness” — probably at great length. OTOH, if you ask someone why they love something or someone, they might just answer, “I dunno; I just do.”

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          2. On Metzinger giving me his definition, you have more faith than I do. I’m certain he would reply, but I strongly suspect it would be in the typical philosophical language filled with the usual ambiguities.

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  7. Are not all discussions predicated on context? Given a narrow enough context, one might gladly partake in a chat about the moral quandary of say, execution. Or the practice of awarding individuals for acts of courage. Or the new fun one in China: “Lying Flat”.

    Embarking on an argument without context, your #4, Universally Applicable, assumes we have somehow gained awareness of our context (everything, everywhere for everyone), which is folly.

    I like your distinctions. They made perfect sense to me.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks!

      Definitely context always matters. One of the things the Aeon piece discusses is the different meanings of the word “ought”. One thing they didn’t cover is the missing context of the ought. In other words, whether I ought to help others is a meaningless question, but whether I ought to help others so they’ll help me, or those I care for, is a much more meaningful question.

      Have to say I hadn’t heard of the Lying Flat movement either. Interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Lying down? The Empire has yet to unleash the true force of its greatest tool. Its Social Credit System should take these protesters down with the effectiveness of a Tiananmen square tank. Though right now they may simply be using their press monopoly and standard moralism, the Empire did not build its SCS to sit in its shop forever.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I think all concepts, represented by terms, are necessarily fuzzy. So in philosophical and scientific discussions, nuances need to be explicitly identified as early as possible.

    As for morality, a scientific discussion would benefit from a 5th category: objective facts (not rules) exist out there. While I think there are objective scientific facts that explain morality, I also think there are no “rules” that can establish a correct answer to the morality of any given action beforehand, because of complexity/chaos. In which case the best we can do is have rules of thumb (genetic, personal, cultural) and Darwin gets the last word.

    *

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Totally agree. Clarification is always preferable to ambiguity. As Dawkins recently said, obscurity shouldn’t be mistaken for profundity.

      There are definitely objective facts. But in and of themselves, they appear to be valueless. Unless we just redefine our values to match them, but that itself is a value that doesn’t seem objectively grounded, and most of us wouldn’t like the results anyway.

      Definitely there are pragmatic rules which can maintain order. The Egyptian concept of Ma’at, which today tends to get translated into morality, was much more about order. But it seems like there are plenty of ways to maintain order most of us would view as immoral.

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  9. “I was intrigued by your summary of De Sousa’s thesis as “…the idea that there are things that are right or wrong without qualification,..” so, I read the essay.

    De Sousa begins with an admission that he “…is not a moral philosopher.” He then goes on to prove his point. His actual quote regarding moral rules is: “Such rules are generally regarded as obliging us without qualification.”

    I tend to become skeptical when a discussion begins with a fallacious (straw man) argument. And except for some extreme versions of Kantian deontology which no contemporary ethicist supports, I can conceive of no moral system that actually functions this way. So, I stopped reading.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. His unsupported attacks on morality as “fraudulent” and a “ghost of religion” strikes me as a screed. It certainly would not pass peer review. As an emeritus professor in his 80’s I’m willing to cut him some slack though.

        I would, however, agree that the words we use in ethical debate have become “muddled.” But not because they had no meaning to begin with; but rather because traditional meaning and value has been pruned away. That is, our modern mindset has, over the past few centuries, trained us to use a language that now has inadequate resources for a discussion of ethics. So, it’s not that some words are no longer useful and should be jettisoned. It’s that some words have been stripped of useful and traditional meaning. In short, our language has been simplified and when the only tool you have is a hammer you tend to see all problems as nails.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Hmmm. That’s different from my impression. I tend to think the issue is that the traditional meanings, basically the pre-scientific ones, haven’t held up well, and when we use the traditional words, it’s not clear whether the traditional conception is being referred to, or some cleaned up modern version.

          But our views on morality seem pretty different. 🙂

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          1. Well, the “modern” way of looking at the world and using language has been cooking along since Francis Bacon and René Descartes—so about 400-450 years! The empiricists, for example, created new meanings for “idea,” “impressions,” and even “facts.” As the ethicist, Alasdair MacIntyre likes to say: “Facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a seventeenth century invention.” So, I don’t think we can easily switch several centuries in our application of concepts for words that easily. In short, it’s difficult to explain the concept of breathing air to a fish—one of the underrated difficulties of translating pre-modern thought into a modern vocabulary. Yes, siree, our views on morality are different, that’s what I like about you and your blog!

            Liked by 3 people

    1. ….say for example “morality” had no point to its use. Why would we be discussing it then? Obviously and beyond debate, the word is occupying a vital part of the economy of meaning. I think you are discussing more what or where that part appears, and the contexts it may be applied as though, again, morality means one thing. It absolutely must occupy one particular space of meaning that is exactly “morality” by virtue of the simple fact that I don’t wake up in the morning and have my cup of morality along with my eggs and potatoes. Sure, I could say that and we could go on all sorts of philosophical discussions about the relativity of meaning, but ultimately the meaning of morality in the sense that we were talking about it in this particular blog is not the morality that I meaning when I say that I go and get my cup of morality in the morning. I would never say that unless I was making a joke or unless I was talking about some other context which really doesn’t mean morality all . Again, obviously, the only reason the only way that he could possibly be discussing this to you in this particular reply would be if you already understood between us before we even talk about the definitions, just what morality means. Obviously, again, we know what the word means and so it is useful.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Useful for precise conversations. On another note, I’m not sure the word morality ever was useful for precise conversations. I doubt oneplusone is useful for a precise conversation unless we already understand implicitly what we mean by it. Similarly, morality, the only way we could ever have a precise conversation about morality is if we both already understood what morality was before we started discussing it.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Certainly the words remain useful for casual conversation. The question is whether they’re the best words to use for a precise conversation. You said if I hadn’t used them, you would have no clue what I was talking about. In this case that’s true, since I’m talking about the specific words. But in many other cases, I could have used alternate language, and you’d still have a good chance of catching my meaning, but the alternate terms wouldn’t necessarily come with the historical baggage of these terms.

          So if I were talking about the social customs of a native tribe in Papua New Guinea, I could do so without once mentioning the word “morality”, and my meaning would be clear. However, if I do drag in that word, it might invite a judgment about whether the tribe’s social customs are good or bad in some objective sense.

          I can see an argument that we shouldn’t cede those words to those using them in their most naive or extravagant manner. But I can also see in particular discussions where it’s easier to just use alternate language.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. There’s something in between your 2: Cultural rules and mores, and 4:Objective rules that exist “out there”. There’s also the attempt to reason together to push 2 into a shape that everyone who’s interested in the moral project of a society can accept. (By “interested in the moral project” I mean interested in being able to justify actions to others in their society, so, for example, psychopaths are excluded.) I don’t think the attempt is doomed to fail, even if it *is* doomed to continue without any final resolution. But that doesn’t mean the rules exist out there, apart from the people who are debating and living by them. Even if agreement were reached, that would not mean the rules exist “out there”.

    As long as the debate continues, people engaged in it are preferring reason over force. That in itself is a kind of success, even without full and final agreement.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It seems to me that you’re describing the interaction between 1 and 2, an ongoing dynamic of feedback between them. (A dynamic which also includes 3, albeit usually in a delayed fashion.)

      I do agree that people discussing the reasons for their positions is far better than simply yelling that it’s RIGHT and trying to intimidate everyone into their view.

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      1. That’s one way to look at it, but another way is to recognize that 2 typically includes a commitment to the idea that individuals are able to recognize moral requirements. In which case, discussing it is a test of one’s own claims about morality.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. The conventional morality of a society, your item 2, often holds that a moral norm must be recognizable by a competent adult who is *honestly trying to reason together with others about how to treat each other*. The emphasized part identifies “moral”. If not, the norm is not valid – not a requirement. It’s a self-referential recursive loop. It’s grounded, however, by the fact that each individual has extra-moral interests (I like entomology, you like dancing, etc.). An agreeable solution has to allow each to pursue those interests with minimal interference from the others.

            Liked by 2 people

  11. For casual conversation, I think those words are fine, but if the conversation strays into more scientific/philosophical territory, I do start asking people to define their terms for me, just to check and make sure that we are talking about the same thing.

    “God” seems to be the most problematic word for me, in the conversations I get into personally. I feel like there’s this bait and switch thing that happens, where someone will make an unmoved mover argument (for example) and then suddenly switch over to talking about the biblical God.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sounds like we’re on the same page on asking for definitions. Part of my frustration with a lot of philosophical discussions is the definitions are often vague and there is frequently resistance to clarification.

      “God” is definitely the big one. I used to participate in those debates years ago. But at a certain point, the question basically became settled for me, and I realized for people hoping for a different answer, the debate was painful. So I moved on. (I might be reaching a similar stage on some of the other topics.)

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