February 17, 2014

Juicy Quote VII

Filed under: Juicy Quotes — camcintosh @ 12:20 pm

“Philosophy is hard. Thinking clearly for an extended period is hard. It is easier to pour scorn on those who disagree with you than actually to address their arguments. […] And of all the kinds of scorn that can be poured on someone’s views, moral scorn is the safest and most pleasant (most pleasant to the one doing the pouring). It is the safest kind because, if you want to pour moral scorn on someone’s views, you can be sure that everyone who is predisposed to agree with you will believe that you have made an unanswerable point. And you can be sure that any attempt your opponent in debate makes at an answer will be dismissed by a significant proportion of your audience as a ‘‘rationalization’’ — that great contribution of modern depth psychology to intellectual complacency and laziness. Moral scorn is the most pleasant kind of scorn to deploy against those who disagree with you because a display of self-righteousness—moral posturing—is a pleasant action whatever the circumstances, and it’s nice to have an excuse for it.”

—Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil (Oxford, 2006), pp. 61-62.



  1. This is an interesting quote, but I wonder if it couldn’t be resisted. Philosophers are human beings whose sayings have larger effects in their community. Thus, for example, those who argue that homosexuality is wrong aren’t just inquiring dispassionately into the truth of the matter, they are often (I believe) attempting to rationalize their own disgust. It is perfectly legitimate to criticize this motivation for inquiry: it isn’t the right *kind* of impetus for constructing arguments and refutations. Such discourse is not just abstract theorizing, it has real effects on a community, and as a kind of speech-act, it is as morally assessable as any other sort of act. In short, I think that van Inwagen is under the sway of a popular but misguided view of philosophy as a purely abstract activity that simply involves transitioning from premises to conclusions, and that has as its sole aim the discovery of abstract ‘truths’. But to think this way is to turn a blind eye to reality, and to assume, in advance, that intellectual activity is not ethically significant.

    Comment by Vanitas — February 17, 2014 @ 3:05 pm | Reply

    • I think what PvI has in mind are cases where one’s only response to an argument is moral scorn. He cites as an example Voltaire’s Candide in response to Leibniz. I think the example you suggest is apropos: the majority of people for same-sex marriage respond to opposition only with moral scorn, neglecting to deal with their arguments. It is effective. But again, even if their opponents’ arguments were inspired by a feeling of disgust, that’s just irrelevant to the soundness of the argument by itself. To think otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy.

      What’s true, I think, is that arguments often occur in dialectically hot contexts. So, one argument might be more persuasive in one context than it would be in another. If someone is interested in persuading people in a given dialectically hot context, one will certainly not deal solely in abstract truths like you say. But to do so is not to have a misguided view of philosophy. That’s just to confuse philosophy with sophistry (in the non-pejorative sense).

      Earlier in the book, PvI makes clear that he is trying to avoid dialectically hot contexts. He crafts his arguments with an ideally objective agnostic audience in mind.

      Comment by camcintosh — February 17, 2014 @ 4:50 pm | Reply

      • Perhaps you’re right. However, perhaps another line of response would question the dichotomy between moral scorn and responding to an argument. The worry, I think, is that opponents of same-sex marriage are moralizing in a fashion. That someone can cloak disgust beneath premises and conclusions does not make it any less a form of moralizing. We may thus understand the moral response as acceptable in virtue of the fact that one is responding to an evaluative premise that is suppressed or not made explicit by the opponent’s argument. This is a way of engaging with the soundness of the argument, by registering disagreement with a suppressed evaluative premise via moral scorn.

        Also: a fallacy is a violation of one of the rules of inference as given to us by first-order logic. Therefore, the so-called ‘genetic fallacy’ is not actually a fallacy: some people think that the origins of ideas have no bearing on their epistemic justification, others disagree, and labeling this a “fallacy” is just rhetoric that has the effect of portraying one side of a contentious argument as having logic on its side when, strictly speaking, no such thing is true (the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’ suffers from this same defect). I’m not sure where I stand on this, but I am not convinced that we are not entitled to place less credence in an argument if we discover that it was formulated for bad reasons. What, exactly, is the argument that shows that we are not?

        Anyway, I’m playing Devil’s Advocate a bit, here, but I hope the position doesn’t seem ludicrous. :)

        Comment by Vanitas — February 17, 2014 @ 5:17 pm

      • Thanks for the response, Vanitas.

        Re: the genetic fallacy point. It is standard to distinguish formal and informal fallacies. The genetic fallacy belongs in the latter category (many classify the genetic fallacy as a variant of red herring or ad homenim). You might not be happy with that distinction, but it can be found in most intro to logic textbooks. But granted: questions of how to classify informal fallacies, and just when they are or are not committed, are interesting ones.

        I certainly think that the origins of beliefs have a bearing on their epistemic justification. But the genetic fallacy (as it is typically characterized) occurs when your opponent concludes p is false on the basis of how you came to believe p, not when he concludes your justification for p is undermined on the basis of how you came to believe p. I was careful to word it properly. It would be improper to judge an argument unsound (i.e., that one of the premises is false–I’m taking for granted the argument is formally valid) on the basis of how one came to believe its premises.

        Like you, I’m also not convinced that “we are not entitled to place less credence in an argument if we discover that it was formulated for bad reasons.” But credence is a matter of epistemic justification, not truth or falsity as such. I’m inclined to think discovering bad origins can present undercutting defeaters but not rebutting ones. E.g., If I discover sufficiently bad origins for your belief that p, but can’t otherwise engage your argument for p, I might at most be agnostic about p. So bad origins will never justify belief that an argument is unsound, but it might justify being agnostic about its soundness. Does that seem right to you?

        Re: the moralizing point. You suggest that (mere) moralizing may be appropriate if understood as a response to “an evaluative premise that is suppressed or not made explicit by the opponent’s argument” and suggest that “this is a way of engaging with the soundness of the argument, by registering disagreement with a suppressed evaluative premise via moral scorn.” But really this amounts to saying the argument isn’t formally valid; i.e., it’s problematically enthymematic. Once the relevant suppressed premise is brought to light, the argument will be valid but unsound because the unearthed premise is false. But then you’d need a reason for thinking that unearthed premise is false, not just scorn. So, again, I don’t see how moral scorn engages the soundness of an argument. To question the soundness of an argument as such is to either question its formal validity or the truthfulness of its premises. Moral scorn does neither.

        Comment by camcintosh — February 17, 2014 @ 11:18 pm

    • I should also say that I do think there are contexts in which it’s appropriate, perhaps even best, to respond to someone by questioning their motives or with moral scorn. Those will be contexts where the proposed arguments are shown to be so bad that the only thing left to consider regarding why someone would defend them is questionable motives.

      Comment by camcintosh — February 17, 2014 @ 5:00 pm | Reply

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