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Self-knowledge and political justification 5

June 15, 2017

III: Can public philosophy do the heavy inferential lifting?

Leiter takes aim at philosophy which sees itself as “contribut[ing] philosophical insight or knowledge or skill to questions of moral and political urgency in the community in which it is located” (Leiter 2016, 51). As this prima facie concerns Stout’s appeal to public philosophy as an exercise in expressive rationality and inferential commitments, Stout must wrestle with the two paradoxes laid out by Leiter:

“[T]he first paradox of public philosophy is that philosophers enter into moral and political debate purporting to offer some kind of expertise, but the expertise they offer can not [sic]  consist in any credible claim to know what is good, right, valuable, or any other substantive normative proposition that might be decisive in practical affairs.” (ibid., 53)

“That brings us to the second paradox of public philosophy. If it is not substantive normative knowledge that philosophers bring to debate, then perhaps it is a method or way of thinking about contested normative questions that they offer […] Starting with certain normative intuitions, public philosophers work out their entailments, demonstrating claims of the form, “If you believe X, then you ought to believe Y,” and, “If you believe Y, you should not do Z.” What philosophers—at least those in the broadly Socratic traditions—are good at is parsing arguments, clarifying the concepts at play in a debate, teasing out the dialectical entailments of suppositions and claims, and so on: Socratic philosophers are, in short, purveyors of what I will call ‘discursive hygiene.’ […] Although philosophers can contribute no substantive knowledge about the good and the right, they can contribute discursive hygiene. But discursive hygiene plays almost no role in public life, and an only erratic, and highly contingent, role in how people form beliefs about matters of moral and political urgency. Both points deserve notice, but they are distinct.” (ibid., 53-55)

If we can associate Stout’s view of public philosophy as expressive rationality with the notion of “discursive hygiene” but find ourselves obliged to note the lack of “discursive hygiene” in political deliberation, under one form or another, we might nonetheless maintain that participants are amenable to the work of “discursive hygiene” either at their own or another’s behest. Yet Leiter finds that two broader positions give us reason to temper optimism about the latter, namely, emotivism and tribalism, which he finds at work in the present state of public discourse and political deliberation. While compatible with public philosophy as “discursive hygiene”, emotivism acts as a limiting case on the former. Leiter associates emotivism with Charles Stevenson’s seminal position, according to which:

Ethical disagreements are at bottom a function of disagreement in attitudes, rather than disagreements about beliefs […] the connection between particular facts and our attitudes is just a contingent psychological/causal fact: it is just a psychological fact about many creatures like us that if our beliefs change, our attitudes often change too […] (ibid., 53-4)

Political deliberation may take the form of conflict between either attitudes or beliefs. If between beliefs, then the conflict may be brought to an end by ensuring convergence between beliefs. If between attitudes, then the conflict may only be resolved with considerably more difficulty in that attitudes do not seem reason-responsive in the same way as beliefs. Certainly, we can allow that our beliefs influence our attitudes; we cannot, however, say with any certainty how or which beliefs influence attitudes. For we simply lack the means to plot the mechanisms by which such changes are effected. Moreover, attitudes may alter in light of beliefs which we ordinarily deem “ethically irrelevant” because “self-serving” (54-5).  All in all:

[…] changes in belief do influence changes in attitude, but only as a contingent, psychological fact; this includes changes in belief about the logical or inferential relations between beliefs or between beliefs and attitudes […] (ibid., 55)

As Leiter attempts to make clear, there are no rules, inferential or otherwise, governing the transformation and causal interaction between beliefs and attitudes. This would seem to throw doubt on whether thin knowledge of one’s beliefs induces changes in one’s attitudes and whether thick knowledge of how one came by those beliefs brings on change in one’s attitudes even if beliefs had causal traction over attitudes.

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