Dialogue and the "Acids of Subjectivism"
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Michael Briand

Joined: 30 Jun 2004
Posts: 31
Location: Denver, Colorado

PostPosted: Fri Jul 16, 2004 4:41 pm    Post subject: Dialogue and the "Acids of Subjectivism" Reply with quote       

Questions this topic raises:

1. Does “value subjectivism” in American society pose a serious challenge to the aims and methods of dialogue?

2. If civic relationships (and hence community) can develop only in relatively small groups, where face-to-face encounters are feasible, can dialogue make any real difference in the public life of a society and of communities as large and impersonal as America’s?

3. Realistically, what role can dialogue play? Which concepts, principles, strategies, and techniques of dialogue would make this possible?



1. In After Virtue, the noted philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observes that

“there seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture. From our rival conclusions [as parties to a moral disagreement] we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. The rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another. For each premise employs some quite different normative or evaluative concept from the others, so that the claims made upon us are of quite different kinds… It is precisely because there is in [modern] society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable.”


2. Here is an example that illustrates MacIntyre’s contention:

(a) We should incarcerate persons who commit violent crimes in order to prevent them from committing similar crimes in the future.

(b) We should incarcerate persons who commit violent crimes in order to rehabilitate them and to prepare them to re-enter society as law-abiding citizens.

(c) We should incarcerate persons who commit violent crimes to long-term imprisonment in order to make them pay for the suffering they have inflicted on others.


3. Notice in this example the “different normative or evaluative concept[s]” each prescription embodies. In (a), it is the value of public safety and security. In (b), it is compassion for and belief in the intrinsic worth, potential, and redeemability of all human beings. In (c), it is deterrence, justice (in the “eye for an eye” sense), and the psychological compensation or consolation of victims.
The value or principle in each prescription is qualitatively distinct from those in the other two. It is because of this that, when people disagree deeply and strongly about the right thing to do, we often discover that “argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion.” In the end, asserting one’s views is all one can do. In our society there is no established, widely-accepted method for weighing ultimate values and principles and arriving at a resolution that elicits assent from everyone. That is why moral argument appears to be inherently and unavoidably interminable.


4. Though some contemporary philosophers believe that it remains possible to justify impartial, interpersonally valid standards or criteria for resolving moral disagreements, others embrace the irreducible plurality of moral systems. They argue that

“contemporary moral argument is rationally interminable because all moral, indeed all evaluative, argument is and always must be rationally interminable. Contemporary moral disagreements…cannot be resolved, because no moral disagreements…in any age, past, present or future, can be resolved. [This is]… a necessary feature of all cultures….”


5. Moral reasoning does occur, of course. On some occasions, some people do succeed in adopting an impartial standpoint and in exchanging reasons that lead to agreement, or at least to a substantial narrowing of differences. But such successes usually take place at the personal or small-group level, and even there they are elusive. Seldom do entire communities, or societies, or civilizations that are deeply divided over a moral issue enjoy such success. [1]


6. Even most theorists who remain committed to the possibility of rational resolution believe that, when we press our moral arguments to their limits, we reach a “not-further-to-be-justified” choice, a choice unguided by criteria. [2] Implicitly or explicitly, each person adopts his or her own first principles on the basis of such a criterionless choice. [3]


7. The unease that attends the intimation that our moral positions rest ultimately on criterionless choices does not keep us from behaving, inconsistently, as if they actually possess the characteristics of impersonality and rationality such arguments are supposed to have. When we subscribe to a particular value or principle, it seems self-evident, objectively correct. But when a value or principle to which we don’t subscribe is being pressed upon us, we often feel compelled to retort that “moral judgments are subjective” or “values are a matter of personal choice.”


8. Because we are forced to concede that “moral judgments are subjective” and “values are a matter of personal choice,” we are reduced to merely repeating what we believe. This leads us to turn up the volume. “Hence perhaps,” MacIntyre writes (with typical understatement), “the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate.” The shrillness of our assertions stems from the fact that, although we can never win an argument, we can never lose, either.
But the shrillness of people’s assertions,” MacIntyre says, derives not just from frustration with their inability to convince others of the correctness of their views. We speak loudly as much to convince ourselves as to convince others:

“It is not only in arguments with others that we are reduced so quickly to assertion and counter-assertion; it is also in the arguments that we have within ourselves… If I lack any good reasons to invoke against you,…I lack any good reasons [whatsoever]. Hence…underlying my own position there must be some non-rational decision to adopt that position. Corresponding to the interminability of public argument there is…a disquieting private arbitrariness. It is small wonder if we become defensive and therefore shrill.”


9. Pluralism—the view that the Good is constituted of a variety of distinct values—is, as Isaiah Berlin has matchlessly argued, highly desirable; indeed, it is essential. Individual and collective efforts to discriminate among putative values, to order and prioritize them, to reject some and embrace others, are indispensable to adaptation, growth, and progress. Every community and every individual needs to embrace this task.
But subjectivism is another matter altogether. Subjectivism is pluralism taken to its reduction ad absurdum. Though pluralism conduces to the ability of persons and communities to make genuine choices, subjectivism has the opposite effect: it turns all “choices” into arbitrary desires. (See note [3].)


10. If our values and principles turn out, at bottom, to be nothing more than feelings or desires, it is not possible for anyone to prove us wrong. Our moral views can never be demonstrated to be mistaken. And if we can’t be mistaken, then what others believe may be discounted or dismissed. Why should we listen to their views? Why should we try to understand why they hold their views? Why should we entertain the possibility that we might find something of value in their perspective?


11. Dialogue concerning issues in which values or principles conflict is unlikely to make much of a positive difference in our personal and public lives unless participants at some point become willing (consciously or not) to accept that subjectivism has to be rejected. The sort of dialogue that enables people to build relationships and to live and work together depends on their ability and readiness to understand and appreciate what is valuable in the perspectives of others, and to accept that they may have misjudged the importance of their own values. Dialogue must therefore enable people to set aside their conviction that their “choice”—the feeling or desire they happen to have—is the unchallengeable last word on the question of what is good or right. They must open their minds. They must become ready to learn.


12. Even if it is true that people’s views (if not of an issue, then at least of those who disagree with them about the issue) can be “transformed” in settings in which certain concepts, principles, strategies, and techniques of dialogue are employed, two problems present themselves.
— First, people often revert to previous beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors upon leaving the artificial situation in which dialogue has been achieved.
— Second, even when participants emerge profoundly and permanently changed, there remains the problem of “re-entry”—the difficulty of extending the effect that the experience has had on participants to people who did not participate.


13. The question thus arises whether relationships and community can develop in groups too large to involve a substantial portion of their members in dialogue. It seems that the larger (hence more impersonal) and less homogeneous the group, the less likely it is that efforts to build and sustain mutual confidence, trust, respect, and the willingness to learn will overcome the corrosive effects of the “acids of subjectivism.”


Notes

[1] Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson contend that “it is logically possible that [conflict ultimately might be unresolvable because] ‘there may be reasonable disagreement all the way down.’ But until someone actually demonstrates that no justifiable deliberative resolution can ever be achieved, there is no reason to believe the disagreement is unresolvable. This is because the practical activity of democratic decision-making involves actual political arguments, not just hypothetical or logically possible arguments.” (emphasis added) See Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, “Democratic Disagreement,” in Stephen Macedo (ed.), Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999: 268.

[2] In contrast to criterionless choice, genuine choice must be accompanied by criteria for assessing what to choose. In choosing, one must refer to something else besides the act of choosing itself. Criterionless choice—choice without reference to other goods, ends, purposes, etc.—is not really choice at all, but arbitrary selection, like closing one’s eyes and pointing randomly.

[3] Choice (of the criterionless variety), however, is a foundation of sand. If the fact of a person’s choosing it is what gives a thing its value, then anything a person chooses has value. Likewise, a thing has no value unless the person chooses it.
More significant, if the fact of a person’s choosing something is what gives it its value, what a person chose yesterday she can reject tomorrow. And what she rejects today she can choose tomorrow. But if yesterday X was valuable and tomorrow it won’t be, then either her assessment yesterday was wrong or her assessment tomorrow will be wrong. She can’t be right both yesterday and tomorrow. Hence for her it is impossible to say that something is valuable or is not valuable; there is no fact of the matter. There is no way to distinguish between what is valuable for her and what she happens, at any given time, to desire or feel. Saying “X is valuable” is just another way of saying she desires or likes it. The result is to obliterate the idea of value altogether. All one can say is that she desires the thing (or doesn’t), that she feels positively disposed toward it (or doesn’t). All that is left is desire or feeling.
But this conflicts with our sense that, when we say something is valuable, we are stating a fact. Statements to the effect that something is valuable (or has value or is good) involve truth-claims about the thing in question. In contrast, a statement to the effect that “Person A desires (or feels positively disposed to) X” does not involve a truth-claim about the thing desired, but only about the person who desires it. It may be a fact that “A desires X.” But this says nothing about “X” except that it is desired, which is not the same thing as saying it is desirable. (“X is desirable” is just another way of saying “X is valuable,” “X has value,” or “X is good.”)
A reason can be either a justification or an explanation. If the former, a reason is a consideration that weighs in favor of doing P rather than Q. Saying “X is valuable” (“X has value,” “X is desirable,” “X is good,” etc.) can be offered as a reason for doing P (for choosing P, for choosing to do P, etc.). The fact that A believes X is valuable (good, desirable, etc.) may be the reason she chooses it, in the sense that it explains the action of her choosing. Here, a reason is an explanation. One can run out of a burning building because one believes it is on fire. But running out of the building because “it is on fire” is not a justification if in fact the building is not on fire. (That it is prudent to assume the building is on fire can, of course, constitute a reason for running out.)
In itself, desiring X is not a reason—a justification—for choosing X. Hence Person A’s “choice” cannot be justified by invoking the fact that she desires X. Person A cannot justify an action she takes in pursuit of X by saying “I choose X.” (At most, this is a possible explanation for her choice.) And if she cannot cite the fact that she chose X as the justification for her action, she cannot offer it to B as a reason for him to pursue X. This means there are, and can be, no reasons for saying that one person’s moral choice is better than or superior to anyone else’s. In the end, any principle purporting to have validity for all persons turns out to be merely the expression of a particular person’s desire or feeling disguised in the language of impartiality and universality.
 
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Kevin Gaudette

Joined: 19 Aug 2004
Posts: 4
Location: Chengdu, Sichuan CHINA

PostPosted: Fri Aug 20, 2004 12:08 am    Post subject: Incarceration Dynamics Involve both Value Positions as well Reply with quote       

Regarding the incarceration issue, we cannot neglect the fact that ROI privatization creates a powerful incentive for increased incarceration, with a “bottom-line” cost-effective approach in terms of staff pay/food/retraining program…and even pursuing escapees.
See http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=851
<<Private prisons would be great if the primary purpose of the criminal justice system was to warehouse inmates without providing them with meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation. Private prison companies have no incentive to invest in such opportunities, especially when they profit from more crime, more punishment and more prisons.>
This issue is of course relevant to the dialogue on positions/actions regarding Campain Finance Reform.
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Kevin Gaudette
Sichuan U.
Chengdu, China
www.iltcscu.org
 
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