#GoogleGate explained

Peter Paul Rubens (authorship contested), Battaglia delle Amazzoni (1615)

When I read software engineer's James Damore's "manifesto", aptly titled Google's Ideological Echo Chamber, I fail to see many things. I'm sincerely flabbergasted, given my worldview, at not being able to find a single instance of "sexism", "biological determinism", "misogyny" or any other colorful expletive used by progressive radical egalitarians as a smear word. That's how different conceptual schemes can be once we exclude those who are being intellectually dishonest and have either not read the document or are deliberately misrepresenting it.

What I do see are the reasoned, balanced words of an intelligent young man who desires to simultaneously achieve both goals of truth and social justice at his workplace, with the best interests of his company in mind. I see a truly morally courageous individual who stood off against injustice as he saw it against a very different moral community from his own, which apparently happens to be having enormous influence in one of the most powerful companies on the planet. I can almost feel at times that he seemed to be walking on eggshells and wasn't as vocal as he could be.

How is this possible? How come the same document activates so wildly different semantic frames in different people? And who's right? Have I become so blind by my own cognitive biases to the point I'm missing that much bigotry and hatred?

I have a cluster of hypotheses to explain this mess. They are not novel; they are the coalescence of several different theoretical and empirical results. I'll briefly summarize on this post some of the arguments brought forth in my recent paper on political correctness.

First, we must assume that there exists a plurality of mutually inconsistent accounts of practical reason that human beings may enact. There is no "true and only" rationality; there are rationalities that fit different forms of life, infusing them with different aims and standards of success. Even on the same form of life, such as philosophical activity, we find competing and conflicting accounts of rationality [1].

But let us consider what is generally understood prototypically as "rationality", the like we expect to be expressed by bona fide philosophical and scientific cognition; this is a rationality of objectivity, guided by epistemic values such as empirical adequacy, internal consistency, predictive accuracy and explanatory power. With some exceptions such as constructive empiricists (that have some really nice arguments) and postmodern sociologists (that have some really underwhelming arguments), this type of reasoning deals fundamentally with a discourse that is truth-apt and truth stands as the supreme epistemic goal of this kind of rational inquiry.

But this is not the sort of rationality that is responsible for the crucifixion of James Damore. This is not the rationality being enacted by the so-called "social justice warriors."

Which rationality is it then? It all starts with this hypothesis: human beings are suckers for tribes [2],[3]. It's part of who we are. We relish ourselves into organizing (and re-organizing, and merging, and dissolving...) gangs, crews, bands, factions, congregations and the like; these are fractally expressed as families, political affiliations, religions, football teams, nationalities, army units and so on. Belonging to a social group is a fundamental source of well being for humans. No wonder then, given the importance it has on our lives, that a huge part of practical reason will be devoted to this setting.

Here enters the theory of identity-protective cognition [4], a realization of the expressivist account of rationality by philosopher Elizabeth Anderson [5].

The goal of this type of reasoning is not truth. It is securing the integrity of the group one belongs by defending its core beliefs and values with one's cognitive, affective and behavioral resources. This is manifested in many ways. Confirmation bias will rule that which reinforces the group's beliefs and values, and contrarian opinions can be easily interpreted as insults to the group's intellectual tradition. Adherents can become gratuitously aggressive against someone who disagrees with them in order to suppress dissenting thoughts. These are some of the aspects that make echo chambers and ideological uniformity so dangerous.

Progressive radical egalitarians have their own species of identity-protective cognition; here we have a rationality that aims at social justice and whose standards of success are non-epistemic values of political correctness such as inclusiveness, diversity, empathy and political uniformity.

The worldview of progressive radical egalitarians, I claim, has certain core beliefs which must be defended at all costs. I also hold it has an implicit underlying ethical principle which I've named the Generalized Difference Principle (GDP). This principle is inspired by a usage by philosopher of biology Neven Sesardić ([6], p.224) of the famous heuristic devised by political philosopher John Rawls in his monumental defense of liberal democracy [7].

According to the GDP, if you utter the statement that a population x fares statistically better than a population y with respect to a given mental trait M where both x and y are of the same social genus \cal G, where this leverage of x in comparison to y is partly genetic in origin and finally, where x is taken to be the dominant or oppressive group and y the marginalized or oppressed group, then your assertion exemplifies a class of immoral acts associated with \cal G.

To speak it more plainly: if men are stated to be the oppressors of women, then if you claim, for instance, that men have on average a greater interest to pursue STEM careers than women due to natural inclinations, then you are sexist. In the semantics of progressive radical egalitarian worldview, there exists a strong conflation of facts and values. "Sexism" isn't just outright discrimination; factual statements can be sexist as well (and "racist", "ableist", "homophobic", etc).

Violations of the GDP are taken to be grievous because they necessarily violate one of the core beliefs of PC adherents; a thesis I call anthropological mental egalitarianism, the denial of between-group differences in cognition, affect and behavior that is traceable to genetic factors and socioeconomically significant.

Violations of the GDP are evil. And for that, James Domare needed to be punished by the moral community hegemonic to Google.

James Damore has been "Summered"; he dared to mention the contemporary behavioral genetics and differential psychology behind sex differences in cognition, affect and behavior which is established by existing empirical evidence to be partly genetic in origin (see, for instance, [8], [9], [10], [11])

Progressive radical egalitarians are mental environmentalists. They hold that the between-group variation of socioeconomically valuable psychological traits to be exclusively environmental in origin.

Even if the means and medians of arbitrary psychological traits in men and women were the same (and we have empirical evidence suggesting they are not), this would still not be enough. One of the most important facts about our species is how different the phenotypical distributions for arbitrary traits are among the sexes. For instance, as a group, women display significantly lesser intra-sexual variability for arbitrary mental traits [12]. There are more men in both tails of the cognitive-affective-behavioral spectrum; for example, concerning general intelligence, there are both more cognitively impaired and delayed men as well as more intellectually gifted men. Why is that? My favorite hypothesis is powerful but deeply counter-intuitive; overwhelmingly, your ancestors have been female.

For the contemporary defenders of social justice, sex differences in cognition, affect and behavior need to be a hundred percent environmental in origin due to core beliefs of their worldview. It would not fare well for with the theory of social oppression under which if groups are economically unequal, it is because some privileged group is oppressing another marginalized group. If mental environmentalism is false, however, in the complete absence of discrimination, there could still be economic inequality due to natural talent - inequality would not simply be an artifact of "social construction."

For those who are interested, I refer to Section 4 of my paper where I explain these concepts in detail.

Are we to infer the executioners of James Damore who are deeply offended and angered by his words merely stupid and irrational people? Not at all. They are enacting perfectly the rationality of identity-protective cognition. They have very successfully attempted to preserve the mandatory narrative script of social oppression theory by purging the one who dissented against anthropological mental egalitarianism into unemployment and social ostracism.

[1] A. C. MacIntyre and A. C. Macintyre, Whose justice? which rationality?, Duckworth London, 1988.
author = {MacIntyre, Alasdair C. and Macintyre, Alasdair C.},
citeulike-article-id = {14412955},
posted-at = {2017-08-11 19:04:46},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Duckworth London},
title = {Whose justice? Which rationality?},
year = {1988}
[2] P. J. Richerson and R. Boyd, "The evolution of subjective commitment to groups: a tribal instincts hypothesis," Evolution and the capacity for commitment, vol. 3, pp. 186-220, 2001.
author = {Richerson, Peter J. and Boyd, Robert},
citeulike-article-id = {14412954},
journal = {Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment},
pages = {186--220},
posted-at = {2017-08-11 19:04:46},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Russell Sage Foundation New York},
title = {The evolution of subjective commitment to groups: A tribal instincts hypothesis},
volume = {3},
year = {2001}
[3] M. Van Vugt and J. H. Park, "The tribal instinct hypothesis," The psychology of prosocial behavior: group processes, intergroup relations, and helping, 2009.
author = {Van Vugt, Mark and Park, Justin H.},
citeulike-article-id = {14412953},
journal = {The psychology of prosocial behavior: Group processes, intergroup relations, and helping},
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priority = {2},
publisher = {Wiley-Blackwell Oxford, UK},
title = {The tribal instinct hypothesis},
year = {2009}
[4] D. M. Kahan, D. Braman, J. Gastil, P. Slovic, and C. K. Mertz, "Culture and identity-protective cognition: explaining the white-male effect in risk perception," Journal of empirical legal studies, vol. 4, iss. 3, pp. 465-505, 2007.
author = {Kahan, Dan M. and Braman, Donald and Gastil, John and Slovic, Paul and Mertz, C. K.},
citeulike-article-id = {14387375},
journal = {Journal of Empirical Legal Studies},
number = {3},
pages = {465--505},
posted-at = {2017-07-03 19:35:46},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Wiley Online Library},
title = {Culture and identity-protective cognition: Explaining the white-male effect in risk perception},
volume = {4},
year = {2007}
[5] E. Anderson, Value in ethics and economics, Harvard University Press, 1995.
author = {Anderson, Elizabeth},
citeulike-article-id = {14387372},
posted-at = {2017-07-03 19:35:46},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Harvard University Press},
title = {Value in ethics and economics},
year = {1995}
[6] N. Sesardic, Making sense of heritability, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
author = {Sesardic, Neven},
citeulike-article-id = {14387480},
posted-at = {2017-07-03 19:35:48},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Cambridge University Press},
title = {Making sense of heritability},
year = {2005}
[7] J. Rawls, Political liberalism, Columbia University Press, 1993.
author = {Rawls, John},
citeulike-article-id = {14387339},
posted-at = {2017-07-03 19:35:45},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Columbia University Press},
title = {Political Liberalism},
year = {1993}
[8] Sex differences in the brain: from genes to behavior, J. B. Becker, K. J. Berkley, N. Geary, E. Hampson, J. P. Herman, and E. Young, Eds., Oxford University Press, 2007.
citeulike-article-id = {14412956},
editor = {Becker, Jill B. and Berkley, Karen J. and Geary, Nori and Hampson, Elizabeth and Herman, James P. and Young, Elizabeth},
posted-at = {2017-08-11 19:04:46},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Oxford University Press},
title = {Sex Differences in the Brain: from Genes to Behavior},
year = {2007}
[9] D. P. Schmitt, A. Realo, M. Voracek, and J. Allik, "Why can't a man be more like a woman? sex differences in big five personality traits across 55 cultures.," Journal of personality and social psychology, vol. 94, iss. 1, p. 168, 2008.
author = {Schmitt, David P. and Realo, Anu and Voracek, Martin and Allik, J{\"{u}}ri},
citeulike-article-id = {14387350},
journal = {Journal of personality and social psychology},
number = {1},
pages = {168},
posted-at = {2017-07-03 19:35:45},
priority = {2},
publisher = {American Psychological Association},
title = {Why can't a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures.},
volume = {94},
year = {2008}
[10] T. C. Ngun, N. Ghahramani, F. J. Sánchez, S. Bocklandt, and E. Vilain, "The genetics of sex differences in brain and behavior," Frontiers in neuroendocrinology, vol. 32, iss. 2, pp. 227-246, 2011.
author = {Ngun, Tuck C. and Ghahramani, Negar and S{\'{a}}nchez, Francisco J. and Bocklandt, Sven and Vilain, Eric},
citeulike-article-id = {14387348},
journal = {Frontiers in neuroendocrinology},
number = {2},
pages = {227--246},
posted-at = {2017-07-03 19:35:45},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Elsevier},
title = {The genetics of sex differences in brain and behavior},
volume = {32},
year = {2011}
[11] A. N. V. Ruigrok, G. Salimi-Khorshidi, M. Lai, S. Baron-Cohen, M. V. Lombardo, R. J. Tait, and J. Suckling, "A meta-analysis of sex differences in human brain structure," Neuroscience & biobehavioral reviews, vol. 39, pp. 34-50, 2014.
author = {Ruigrok, Amber N. V. and Salimi-Khorshidi, Gholamreza and Lai, Meng-Chuan and Baron-Cohen, Simon and Lombardo, Michael V. and Tait, Roger J. and Suckling, John},
citeulike-article-id = {14387351},
journal = {Neuroscience \& Biobehavioral Reviews},
pages = {34--50},
posted-at = {2017-07-03 19:35:45},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Elsevier},
title = {A meta-analysis of sex differences in human brain structure},
volume = {39},
year = {2014}
[12] A. Lehre, K. P. Lehre, P. Laake, and N. C. Danbolt, "Greater intrasex phenotype variability in males than in females is a fundamental aspect of the gender differences in humans," Developmental psychobiology, vol. 51, iss. 2, pp. 198-206, 2009.
author = {Lehre, Anne-Catherine and Lehre, Knut P. and Laake, Petter and Danbolt, Niels C.},
citeulike-article-id = {14387354},
journal = {Developmental psychobiology},
number = {2},
pages = {198--206},
posted-at = {2017-07-03 19:35:45},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Wiley Online Library},
title = {Greater intrasex phenotype variability in males than in females is a fundamental aspect of the gender differences in humans},
volume = {51},
year = {2009}

Axiological Voluntarism

Whaling Grounds in the Arctic Ocean by Abraham Storck (1654-1708)

We can divide stances on the voluntarism of entities from a class K in two varieties; a "strong" variety stating that tokens of K are always chosen and a "weak" variety which is sufficed by the modal claim that any token of K is in principle choosable. To analyze stances of voluntarism, we need to have at hand a theory of action and freedom.

I characterize axiological voluntarism in analogy to doxastic voluntarism, the thesis that beliefs are under voluntary control. A proponent of doxastic involuntarism could state, for instance, that our beliefs are irresistible - among the cognitive-affective capabilities that are under our personal control, there is none that can be used for belief choice. You can't really choose whether to believe in the existence of God, that the Sun is hot or that the Earth is flat. I believe this to be correct (and I have not chosen to believe this!).

Axiological voluntarism is by analogy the thesis that we can choose our values.

Even without reflecting on what values are, the weak variety of voluntarism rings greater plausibility. That values can be chosen by a moral agent does not imply that all his values have been chosen. We get the suspicion that most values are acquired through a mixture of phylogenetic and ontogenetic inertia without much reflection. Instinct and custom, not autonomous will, are responsible for most of the axiological portfolio of the average moral agent.

In moral ontology, values, virtues, and goods are often conflated. Words such as 'justice' and 'courage' are routinely used to name both values and virtues. Although these terms are prima facie all semantically intertwined, I hold that their specification and differentiation is warranted for the foundations of any normative discipline. I take the following approach; the concept VIRTUE necessarily refers to an agent's psychology. The description of virtues necessarily involves psychological entities such as abilities, traits, skills, dispositions, capabilities or competencies. For instance, virtues can have a relational structure with one of these types of items as relata (Owen Flanagan's position, for instance, is such a theory [1]).

I take goods to be the kind of entities that can be achieved. They are the end result of processes. Goods range from the "tangible", "concrete" or "countable" to the "intangible", "abstract" or "uncountable". Depending on your implicit general ontology, this gives a plurality of types of goods. The good produced by the process of juicing orange is orange juice. 'Orange juice' is a mass term designating an orange substance that exists in the Umwelt of Homo sapiens. An important good produced by the valorous behavior of members from a military unit is honor [2]. 'Honor' in this sense designates a type of non-observable and uncountable state or property of men in particular historically situated social hierarchies.

If values are neither things that can be achieved, produced or obtained and are not prototypical psychological entities, what are they? Conceptions of VALUE abound. I'll mention some.

The folk conception appears to have a Platonistic bent; at the level of surface grammar, values and ideals are usually referenced as abstract particulars y, such as "The True" or "The Socially Just".

Mario Bunge ([3], Chapter 1) analyzes values with n-adic evaluative predicates which include as relata at least one evaluator and one object of its evaluation. To abstract away particulars such as "The Beautiful" and "The Nutritious" is just a strategy to compress information about a property with a complex relational structure. The simplest case would be the relation xVy where x values y but one could add as many indexed terms as one likes. Bunge's ontology of objects is pluralistic in that things, states, events, and processes are all kinds of object. In Bunge's conception, depending on how you characterize the evaluative predicates, some values are not chosen. For instance, ceteris paribus, it is an objective fact of the matter that chicken liver is nutritiously valuable to an arbitrary human being.

Paul Katsafanas ([4], Chapter 5) brings forth a complex relational view of values in his exegesis of Nietzschean metaethics; a moral agent x values y if and only if x has an affective orientation of positive valence z induced by a drive w toward y and x does not disapprove of this affective orientation. To truly grasp this definition, is it mandatory to understand the sophisticated Nietzschean philosophical psychology of drives. This conception is axiologically voluntaristic due to the inclusion of the desiderata of personal approval - assuming that this attitude is under personal control.

For me, the most interesting characterization of value comes not from philosophy but from clinical psychology, in the radical behaviorist research program of ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy; [5], Chapter 11, [6], Chapter 11).

ACT is unique in clinical psychology by being vigorously explicit concerning its philosophical upbringings, sporting a philosophy of science, action, value, and mind solidly grounded in the tradition of American Pragmatism.

Under my sketchy (and decisively unorthodox) interpretation of ACT, for an agent x a value is a family of possible future life paths or histories h_i(x,\tau), where \tau is a time interval spanning from the present moment to the time of the agent's death. Over the course of these directions, we find the ongoing realization of a particular type of activity A. For instance, the value "Adventure" is constituted by the life directions where the agent would enact goals related to physical risk, the perception of danger, exploration of novel environments and excitement. Values are neither the goals nor the outcomes of completed goals - they are the journey.

In ACT, values inform the selection of decision variants in decision-making contexts and are freely chosen.

So, why should we care if we can choose our values? Since the practical reasons should be obvious, here are some academic reasons: axiological voluntarism is something that is mandated by many philosophical theories. For instance, the Nietzschean process of "transvaluation of all values" and the cornerstone of political liberalism under which an agent should be able to rule his life and pursue happiness as he sees fit all presuppose axiological voluntarism.

[1] O. Flanagan, "Moral science? still metaphysical after all these years," in Personality, identity, and character, D. Narvaez and D. Lapsley, Eds., Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 52.
author = {Flanagan, Owen},
booktitle = {Personality, Identity, and Character},
citeulike-article-id = {14408122},
editor = {Narvaez, Darcia and Lapsley, Daniel},
pages = {52},
posted-at = {2017-08-04 16:25:07},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Cambridge University Press},
title = {Moral Science? Still Metaphysical After All These Years},
year = {2009}
[2] P. Olsthoorn, Military ethics and virtues: an interdisciplinary approach for the 21st century, Routledge, 2010.
author = {Olsthoorn, Peter},
citeulike-article-id = {14387464},
posted-at = {2017-07-03 19:35:48},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Routledge},
title = {Military ethics and virtues: An interdisciplinary approach for the 21st Century},
year = {2010}
[3] M. Bunge, Treatise on basic philosophy volume 8: ethics: the good and the right, Reidel Pub. Co.: Boston, 1989.
author = {Bunge, Mario},
citeulike-article-id = {14408124},
posted-at = {2017-08-04 16:25:07},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Reidel Pub. Co.: Boston},
title = {Treatise on Basic Philosophy Volume 8: Ethics: The Good and the Right},
year = {1989}
[4] P. Katsafanas, The nietzschean self: moral psychology, agency, and the unconscious, Oxford University Press, 2016.
author = {Katsafanas, Paul},
citeulike-article-id = {14408121},
posted-at = {2017-08-04 16:25:07},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Oxford University Press},
title = {The Nietzschean Self: Moral Psychology, Agency, and the Unconscious},
year = {2016}
[5] S. C. Hayes, Get out of your mind and into your life: the new acceptance and commitment therapy, New Harbinger Publications, 2005.
author = {Hayes, Steven C.},
citeulike-article-id = {14408119},
posted-at = {2017-08-04 16:25:06},
priority = {2},
publisher = {New Harbinger Publications},
title = {Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy},
year = {2005}
[6] S. C. Hayes, K. D. Strosahl, and K. G. Wilson, Acceptance and commitment therapy: the process and practice of mindful change, Guilford Press, 2011.
author = {Hayes, Steven C. and Strosahl, Kirk D. and Wilson, Kelly G.},
citeulike-article-id = {14408120},
posted-at = {2017-08-04 16:25:07},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Guilford Press},
title = {Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change},
year = {2011}

Moral Carryover

Image taken from Syatt Fitness

The rational toolkit of the reflexive radical naturalist should be open, display content-wise heterogeneity (consisting of both prescriptions represented linguistically and nonverbal habits) and embrace a dose of pragmatism as a meta-epistemic value. It is unlikely that robust and psychologically realistic rationality can be characterized by an elegant set of principles - a neat list of behavioral or cognitive prescriptions, a naturalistic counterpart to the Ten Commandments. For reality is messy.

Several heuristics, rules of thumb and regulatory principles appear to have robust cross-domain applicability over different normative fields. One of my favorites is the Pareto Principle which thrives in areas as diverse as management science, economics, software engineering and personal development. The statistical distribution behind the Pareto Principle is so widespread that I believe this regularity hints at a thermodynamical foundation for these phenomena.

Another interesting concept found in sports science, particularly as it relates to strength training, is "carryover".

'Carryover' in this context is informally used to name a property of motor patterns to readily "transfer" increases in performance onto other distinct motor patterns (with some shared structure) when trained. 'Carryover' also names the very gains or increases of performance enabled in this process.

Very briefly, "carryover" is the n-ary property of a given motor pattern {x}_{1} to enhance the performance of one or more different motor patterns {x}_{2},...,{x}_{n} through the realization of x_{1}. For instance, heavy unilateral dumbbell rows by increasing grip strength are said to deliver carryover to deadlifts, i.e., to enhance your global performance in deadlifts. Thus carryover is a relation of causation found in a given network of motor patterns.

I believe this concept has a natural application in practical ethics. Assume an agent-based account; what behavioral patterns are most conducive to the global enhancement of moral character? To answer this, we will need some theoretical understanding of moral character and virtues.

A Network Of Virtues

One of the chief ideas discussed in virtue-based accounts which is of relevance here is the thesis of the unity of virtues. This has been framed in many ways with varying restraint by different authors since the revival of virtue ethics over the last decades.

One such way, which allegedly can be read quite directly from the dialogues of Socrates, is through logical entailment, by the thesis of the mutual entailment of virtues [1].

Take 'C' and 'J' as the Socratic virtues of courage and justice and 'x' as an arbitrary moral agent. Consider 'Cx' the proposition "x is courageous" and 'Jx' the proposition "x is just". The thesis of mutual entailment states that both \forall x (Jx \to Cx) and \forall x (Cx \to Jx) are theorems in our formal system. This viewpoint of the unity of virtues can be summed by the saying "if you have one, you have them all". This is a quite strong constraint that is nowadays rejected by most virtue ethicists.

For moral carryover, we need something weaker. We need to secure a relational causal structure. This can be represented as a connected graph, in a graph-theoretical sense. All but one of the vertices is a virtue to be exercised, each path is a causal relation. One central node will be the agent's character. We may call this bland virtue causal holism.

Feedback is typically modeled in terms of systems of differential equations. But the procedures of calculus assume that we are dealing with quantitative data, and I find it highly doubtful that the psychological traits that embody traits like honesty or courage have this structure.

For now, I will simply have to assume that there exists an appropriate conception of ordinal feedback to model how a network of virtues may evolve through habitual repetition - I can think of some simple qualitative methods from the time I used to work with Soft OR, many years ago. Given this sketchy graph-theoretical framework, the question thus is this; which individual node would contribute the greatest feedback, i.e., deliver the greatest moral carryover, to global character?

A potential interesting proposal comes from the work of moral and political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Under a conventional reading of MacIntyre, there is something special about honesty, courage and justice, three of the four Socratic virtues. It is as if the very grammar, in a Wittgensteinian sense, of many human social activities presuppose something like honesty, courage and justice for its proper functioning.

These virtues are thus prime candidates for moral carryover. I will develop this argument in greater detail in the next section.

Practices In the Philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre

In order to advance, I will have to say something about what constitutes a practice, a central term of art from the philosophy of MacIntyre. For this task, I have learned quite a bit from the scholarship of Christopher Stephen Lutz [2].

Practices are a class of human behaviors. Practices are goal-oriented social activities with standards of performance and execution that are external from the agent enacting the practice. One could even risk a comparison with John Searle's theory of social institutions. It would seem that that under the terms of the former, practices just are human social institutions; they are intentional, collective, functional, agentive and status-conferring. Searlean social facts would the truthmakers of statements about practices. MacIntyre, however, explicitly distinguishes practices from institutions [3]; practices require institutions. Institutions are the social enforcers of the rules of the practice - one of the reasons they exist is to police practitioners, to make sure they are playing by the rules. Institutions set up the events where the abilities of the practitioners are put to test. Institutions are also the gatherers and backers of the external goods of the practices (as I will elaborate more later). While consortiums, federations and companies are paramount examples of institutions, these need to be seen as sophisticated developments of what institutions may become - an institution can exist more loosely as an embodied network of agreements, without formal treasury, committees or special buildings. What practices demand is at least a tacit endorsement of this social structure that is implied by them.

Now for an example; take the behaviors involved in barbell strength training. The behavior you may enact by casually and aimlessly lifting heavy stuff from the floor (or from the rack, etc) is not a practice in MacIntyre's sense, for it is lacking the appropriate teleology that frames some behavior into standards of excellence. But the sport of powerlifting is a practice, or better, a family of closely related practices which are organized and promoted in our world by different organizations at the regional, national and international levels.

Professional sports are prototypical examples of human activities with strict standards of performance and benchmarks of excellence, both of which are carefully regulated and recorded by organized international federations. For instance, a valid bench press movement for the International Powerlifting Federation requires the athlete to have his feet flat on the floor. In the International Powerlifting League, the athlete may bench from his heels up. These different constraints promote different standards of what counts as a good bench press movement.

For an example of a benchmark of excellence, as of the day I'm writing, the male open bench press record in the 93kg category for the bench press (in a single lift competition) in the IPF is 318,5kg. This sets the current maximal standard for all equipped male benchers in this weight category for this federation.

Practices and their standards are dynamic and evolve through history inside traditions. Records get broken, more impressive masterpieces get crafted, other neighboring practices indirectly enhance the performance of the practitioners (such as the relationship between sports nutrition and professional sports) and the rules may change. Some practices, like the game of chess, one of MacIntyre's favorite examples, are very robust and have been largely invariant rule-wise across time (chess has remained largely changeless since the first half of the XIX century). It is usual for current practitioners that are conscious of its history of their practice to emulate the feats of the best experts while pursuing excellence of achievement.

Practices, being behaviors, are processes - and processes produce something [4]. Practices reliably produce certain goods. In MacIntyre's framework, there are goods which are external to the practices and goods which are internal to the practices. These categories are quite intuitive and I am fond of them because they can't be neatly fitted into traditional distinctions between the "subjective" and the "objective".

For instance, the external goods of powerlifting involve the pleasures coming from the victories of competitive athletic achievements, the wealth in prizes and sponsorships and the increases in social status due to public recognition.

The internal goods of a practice consist of getting good at the practice, i.e., the development of the abilities and skills that are conducive to good practice.

There exists an important dissonance between a practice and the internal and external goods of the practice; and that is the fact that it is possible to acquire the external goods of the practice irrespective of the acquisition of the internal goods of the practice - for instance, by deception, theft and fraud.

As an example, getting good at powerlifting in an avowed drug-free federation presupposes not using anabolic steroids to aid athletic performance. But powerlifter from a tested federation may nonetheless reach a victory in an official meet and reap the external goods of this practice due to the the leverage received by the use of an illegal substance. In that, he has not acquired the internal goods of the practice, for getting good at powerlifting naturally is distinct from getting good at powerlifting geared, that is, both practices impose different standards of excellence (and that is the point behind the existence of tested and untested powerlifting federations).

One may object that the geared professional athlete has become skillful at something through diligent training. That is true. In fact, a geared athlete, being able to train on average with higher intensity and frequency due to the anti-inflammatory and injury-recovering properties of some substances, has the opportunity to train more often than a natural athlete. But that is not the point. The point is that getting good at a certain practice, acquiring its internal goods, involves practicing in a certain way, playing by the rules of the practice, diligently following the standards that have been set.

For many, prohibitions sanctioned by the rules degenerates into simply "not getting caught". Institutions whose organizers consciously deliver external goods - the triad of wealth, power and fame - to practitioners that knowingly do not play by the enforced rules become corrupt. This is rampant in professional sports.

It should now be clear that in this framework, the link between a practice and its internal goods is ethical. And the traits that enable us to acquire the internal goods of a practice are goods themselves with a very special standing - they are the virtues. Without virtue, a practice may degenerate into a mere means to acquire external goods.

The Three Cardinal Virtues in MacIntyre's Philosophy

In After Virtue [5], MacIntyre writes:

It belongs to the concept of a practice as I have outlined it - and as we are all familiar with it already in our actual lives, whether we are painters or physicists or quarterbacks or indeed just lovers of good painting or first-rate experiments or a well-thrown pass, that its goods can only be achieved by subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners. We have to learn to recognize what is due to whom; we have to be prepared to take whatever self-endangering risks are demanded along the way; and we have to listen carefully to what we are told about our own inadequacies and to reply with the same carefulness for the facts. In other words we have to accept as necessary components of any practice with internal goods and standards of excellence the virtues of justice, courage and honesty.

Under my reading, the case for these three virtues to be preconditions of well-functioning practices seems to be almost analytical.

Getting good at a practice requires you to be honest concerning the current level of your ability and skill and the level demanded by the entrenched standards of excellence of the practice, i.e., how you may truly reach somewhere closer to "there" coming from "here".

Justice is important in assessing the different levels of ability of the practitioners according to the standards of the practice and nothing else - other idiosyncratic criteria not contingent to these standards are irrelevante. For instance, while sharing external goods a measure of fairness is explicit, i.e. one must ideally get the wealth, power and fame one truly deserves.

For MacIntyre, the inherent connection of a practice with courage in the text that follows the above quotation is a bit more abstract; it is related with maintaining the existence of a practice in a given community. For a practice cannot survive without people doing the practice - and doing it the right way. In order to make the practice survive and thrive, one must care about the people doing the activity and the shared goals which are collectively honored. Taking this seriously means that one is expected to risk himself against threats that may appear for the community, both from the inside and the outside. In that, courage also appears to assume compassion and love for the members of a community.

I see courage as being crucially important in a more directly way; getting good at a practice is inherently risky - it's a continuous exercise in overcoming adversity. Conquering imminent fears of failure and vanquishing probable demotivation require courage.

When I reflect more deeply more about this, it becomes clear that all these virtues are actually intimately intertwined; for instance, a fair assessment of ability or skill, a prototypical just judgement, requires truthfulness about the information assessed and courage to face truths that can be personally undesirable.

Examining Moral Carryover

Given bland virtue causal holism and the MacIntyrean framework I've introduced, what may we tentatively conclude?

First, if these sketchy considerations are correct, behavior directed to the internal goods of a practice is intrinsically ethical. Second, ethical behavior assumes honesty, courage and justice. Third, these traits subsist in a synergistic relational causal structure.

How may we connect this to moral character in general? For that, I will have to hastily add additional considerations on what constitutes being a good man under this framework. Being a good man is formally no different than being a good athlete or a good artist for the moral life is itself a practice - albeit the most important of practices. Living well has its own standards of excellence informed according to a tradition. That said, one can only acquire the goods internal to the practice of good life by being honest, courageous and just plus any additional virtues prescribed by a given conception of a good life.

If this is all there is, then it would appear to be the case that performing any practice yearning for excellence, aiming for its internal goods, would deliver moral carryover to being good.

Unfortunately, things are not so simple. For instance, one must face the challenges of situationist moral psychology and its skepticism on the existence of robust moral character. For something relevant, a crude version of a thesis originated out of this research program can be described like this; by default, what we call a 'virtue' has an indexical character, is contextually contingent to different practices or domains of social experience and its exercise can go on without much carryover to other practices in other contexts. One can be truthful to his friends at work but a deceiver to his children at home., one can be brave at the gym and a coward at the living room, etc. It is psychologically plausible to have moral excellences which are unequally distributed across the different roles one may have life.

Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector's lifeless body in front of the Gates of Troy, from a panorama by Franz von Matsch.

The primary answer to this situationist attack on virtue ethics, which acquired quite some steam at the turn of the last century [6], has been anticipated by MacIntyre nearly 35 years ago; these simply are not examples of virtues. To possess a virtue mandates that one exercises it cross-situationally in a robust fashion. MacIntyre writes, with his customary reverence for the Greek Heroic Age, that "Hector exhibited one and the same courage in his parting from Andromache and on the battlefield with Achilles". In my reading, I find that this contention is compelled by a theoretical presupposition of an account of the self and agency where unification, regularity and behavioral homogeneity are normative, but I shall not develop this for now.

To finish off, again without decisive results, if I had to bet, I'd say there may be something special about the virtue of honesty. Honesty is both a prototypical moral and an epistemic virtue; honesty connects human action with truth and grounds language in reality. It is the ultimate arbiter behind all the tales we willfully tell others - and ourselves.

Edit: logical mistakes have been corrected by my brilliant friend Dante Cardoso de Almeida.

[1] R. M. Adams, A theory of virtue: excellence in being for the good, Clarendon Press, 2006.
author = {Adams, Robert M.},
citeulike-article-id = {14034276},
posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:53:24},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Clarendon Press},
title = {A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good},
year = {2006}
[2] C. S. Lutz, Tradition in the ethics of alasdair macintyre: relativism, thomism, and philosophy, Lexington Books, 2004.
author = {Lutz, Christopher S.},
citeulike-article-id = {14034275},
posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:53:24},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Lexington Books},
title = {Tradition in the Ethics of Alasdair Macintyre: Relativism, Thomism, and Philosophy},
year = {2004}
[3] K. Knight, "Practices: the aristotelian concept," Analyse & kritik, vol. 30, iss. 2, pp. 317-329, 2008.
author = {Knight, Kelvin},
citeulike-article-id = {14034326},
journal = {Analyse \& Kritik},
number = {2},
pages = {317--329},
posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:58:28},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Lucius \& Lucius Verlagsgesellschaft Mbh},
title = {Practices: The Aristotelian Concept},
volume = {30},
year = {2008}
[4] F. Dretske, Explaining behavior: reasons in a world of causes, The MIT Press, 1988.
author = {Dretske, Fred},
citeulike-article-id = {12534922},
month = apr,
posted-at = {2013-07-30 07:13:13},
priority = {2},
publisher = {The MIT Press},
title = {Explaining Behavior: Reasons in a World of Causes},
year = {1988}
[5] A. MacIntyre, After virtue: a study in moral theory, Duckworth, 1981.
author = {MacIntyre, Alasdair},
citeulike-article-id = {12534836},
posted-at = {2013-07-30 07:13:11},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Duckworth},
title = {After virtue: a study in moral theory},
year = {1981}
[6] N. E. Snow, Virtue as social intelligence: an empirically grounded theory, Routledge, 2010.
author = {Snow, Nancy E.},
citeulike-article-id = {14034274},
posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:53:23},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Routledge},
title = {Virtue as Social Intelligence: An Empirically Grounded Theory},
year = {2010}

Metaethics Confronts the World Knot (Part I)


Violent imagery from fantasy fiction included in order to turn this barren subject into something more compelling

The World Knot and its Place in Philosophy

The World Knot. A cursory Google search reveals that this imposing phrase was designed and marshaled by Arthur Schopenhauer to refer to the mind-body problem. Except that it wasn't. It's another minor contemporary philosophical myth, one of those false etymological origin stories we unconsciously reproduce again and again by inertia as if they were acknowledged truth. Notwithstanding, as my witty and sharp-minded professor Mário Guerreiro used to paraphrase, se non è vero, è ben trovato (from Italian; something like "even if it is not true, it is a good story"). The phrase 'World Knot' does a fairly good job at suggesting imagery of the muddled state of affairs that is the relationship between the mental and the non-mental.

The World Knot needs to be unsnarled if we are to make progress in many perennial questions. In this mysterious juncture we strive to find explananda, relata and other significative connections required to bring light to central problems in philosophy.

This World Knot is something we are constantly revisiting. And this is absolutely true concerning moral agents such as ourselves conducting foundational work on ethics. This is where Metaethics meets Philosophy of Mind.

In my previous entry on the subject, I've made a number of bold claims. I will reiterate a couple of them:

  • Contemporary analytic metaethics is ontologically committed to two types of existents - subjective and objective existents
  • Subjective existents are in some sense metaphysically "inferior", they exist only in virtue of there being prior objective existents
  • Subjective existents do a poor job at grounding normativity. If any ethical subjectivism is true, this is supposed to be very bad news
  • But what in the Seven Hells objectivity and subjectivity really are? What do they consist in, how do they differ?

    I will not present an exhaustive exposition of this severely tangled issue. I will, however, expose a number of auxiliary these of varying degrees of conceptual depth which, conjointly, I'll use in the attempt to grasp this distinction more clearly.

    Representation, Mind and Ontological Dependence

    Empiricist metaethicist Jesse Prinz has, in my view, presented the most painstakingly clear and detailed discussion [1] of the meaning of 'objectivity' in the field of metaethics and how it relates to minds in the Chapter 4 of his The Emotional Construction of Morals.

    At the risk of being unfair and too coarse-grained, I'll single out and discuss the two relevant ontic senses of 'objectivity' mentioned by Prinz; objectivity as mind-independence and objectivity as unrepresentedness, i.e., the property of not being represented.

    Tradition from Franz Brentano tells us that the 'mental' is the intentional. The intentional is the representational, that which is about something. But is the converse true, i.e., is the intentional the mental as well, is this a case of co-extension? That doesn't seem plausible at all. As an example, if any realist theory of computational implementation holds true (as I also claim), the domain of the 'intentional' is going to be very wide. It can get much worse; if certain varieties of pancomputationalism were to be true (I hold that this is extremely unlikely but this has been seriously considered by top-notch researchers such as the late theoretical physicist John Wheeler and the theoretical computer scientist Gregory Chaitin) then the entirety of empirical reality would consist of representation and that would mean automatic panpsychism.

    Given this cautionary tale, let's ditch objectivity as the "unrepresented" and venture further on what it means for something to be "mind-independent".

    'Mind-dependence' (and independence) is an asymmetrical relation of ontological dependence. But what counts as a mind and what does it mean to say that something is ontologically dependent to a mind?

    Letting go the Brentanian saying, attempts to individuate the "mental" are still very hard. Are image schemata 'mental' enough? What about implicit memory? Or, for Seven Heaven's sake, the control system for blood glucose? Also, perhaps it is the case that not the entire scope of mentality is apt for metaethics so we may only need to be concerned with a narrow portion of "the mental".

    Let's tentatively single out only psychological states that may have at least a proxy influence by the role they may play in moral judgement. That sounds fair enough. Resorting to intentional systems theory [2], a fauna comprised by beliefs, desires, intentions, urges, feelings and similar patterns specified by folk psychology emerges and seem apt enough. Enough for what counts as a mental state and a mind; a mind, an intentional system, a real pattern tractable exclusively through the adoption of the intentional stance. We will deem whatever entity whose epistemic access requires the intentional stance a "mental" thing.

    So, we now have our catalogue of mental things. How do subjective things relate to mental things? What is the relation involved?

    There are many possibilities. Prinz goes for a weaker kind of ontological dependence, supervenience over human psychology. One can also lean forward something stronger, like Michael Huemer [3] and go for an ontological relation of constitution. In this sense, moral posits (moral actions, facts, etc) in some way include intentional states, then they are subjective.

    I think the situation is not clear enough for us to devise a more fine-grained depiction of which is the relevant sense of ontological dependence so we'll have to go along with a sketchy coalition comprised by both our reflected and unexamined intuitions and traditions and steadily revise the details as we march forward.

    I'm interested at how this sketchy exposition matches some existing conceptions of the objectivity-subjectivity distinction. To start this series, I'll resort to a famous framework devised by philosopher John Searle.

    Brute and Institutional Facts

    This section is comprised by my personal exegesis of Searle's opus The Construction Of Social Reality [4]. I shall not go into exhaustive depth but hopefully I've gotten all the relevant details right.

    The kind of existents (posits) Searle is mostly interested in are facts. Facts for Searle are understood in a very customary way; facts are the truthmakers of true statements.

    Brute facts are a type of objective existent and institutional facts are a type of subjective existent. Brute facts are facts that do not depend on human institutions for their existence and institutional facts are those that do.

    Lets get more specific on what this means.

    Searle's taxonomy is actually much more intricate and multi-layered. At the base level, there are mental and non-mental (what he dubiously calls "brute physical") facts. The priority of brute facts over institutional facts is not only ontological but logical.

    Searle is famous for rejecting the Bentramian maxim as a criteria of individuation for "the mental". But since the mental phenomena he deploys for the grounding of institutional facts are generally beliefs and certain kinds of utterances this won't be a problem for our discussion for they fit our established repertoire of what counts as a mental entity.

    From the primacy of the ontological ladder upward, institutional facts are first mental and then intentional, collective, functional, agentive and status-conferring.

    Institutional facts are "collective" in their dependence of collective intentionality, that is, a special kind of co-occurrence of the intentional states of at least two intentional agents generally coordinated by particular speech acts. They require agreements or endorsements, be they tacit or straightforward, between at least two intentional agents. In Searle's terminology, the collective is also the social.

    Institutional facts are also "functional" in that they involve the collective assignment of a function to a certain entity.

    And they are "agentive" because the functions attributed are intended, that is, they require a willful deliberation by intentional agents. Agentive functions are therefore contrasted with what many philosophers call "natural" functions - such as the the job carried out by the blood glucose control system which, if working properly, will chemically "warn" the central nervous system once blood glucose levels are about to compromise the organism's homeostasis. In this, Searle draws a crisp line between the "natural" and the "artificial" or "man-made". I find this contention to be extremely problematic but shall not utter here my reasons of why I believe this is false.

    The last property that defines institutional facts, that of being "status-conferring", requires a bit more explanation. Head with me with the following example:


    It is a fact that Ice, the Valyrian steel greatsword of Lord Eddard Stark, has the function to behead deserters from the Night's Watch (or any other human being, for the matter).

    For Searle, it is clear that this fact is an agentive fact for Ice is an artifact, a sword that was forged, that was deliberately created by blacksmiths in Ancient Valyria. But this fact is not a brute fact - although it is related to brute facts in special ways.

    The function that confers the ability to decapitate is contingent upon a relation between the properties of the blade (such as the microscopic molecular regularity of the edge) with the properties of the necks of human renegades from Castle Black (such as the hardness of the spinous process of human skeletons). In that, Searle claims that the assignment of this function is ultimately due to brute facts, which in his framework is another way of saying the that the function itself is extrinsic to any mental state.

    Contrast this with the related fact that Ice, a heirloom of House Stark, is a cerimonial tool employed by the Warden Of The North in particular classes of capital punishment. This attribution for Searle is a status-conferring function for there is, allegedly, no intrinsic connection between this particular object and the particular capital punishment rites of the North. For what we know, the traditions could have been very different and other weapons (or no weapon at all) could have been fixed by agreement and used for that judicial purpose. To sum it, status-conferring functions are said to be arbitrary in a way causal-conferring functions are not.

    Searle explicitly acknowledges that the relation of ontological dependence involved is one of constitution.

    Institutional facts, being a subclass of intentional facts, are constituted by intentional states. And being collective, i.e., social facts, they are constituted by agreements among rational beings.

    A common way by which institutional facts may come into being is through utterances such as declarations.

    Let's try some more examples to see how this works. According to this framework, it is a brute fact that the atomic number of the main element of the alloy out of which Vallyrian steel is made of is 26. This means that, if it were the case that all Westerosi, Essossi, Giants, the Others or any other sentient being of the Known World in the A Song Of Ice And Fire saga had vanished, the atomic number of the main element of the alloy out of which Vallyrian steel of would still be 26. Or so the story goes (the story of John Searle, not necessarily of George R. R. Martin's).

    Brute facts are therefore facts that can be obtained irrespective of the existence of any intentional systems - minds.

    It is, however, an institutional fact that Maiden's Day is a holiday in the calendar of the Faith of the Seven. If it were the case that all those that implicitly or explicitly uphold this tradition had vanished - be them hardcore followers of the Seven or simply mere observers of this chronological custom - then it would not be true that Maiden's Day is a holiday in the calendar of the Faith of the Seven. For the truthmaker of the sentence 'Maiden's Day is a holiday in the calendar of the Faith of the Seven' is itself constituted by the recognition and endorsement of Maiden's Day. And that's what makes it subjectively real.

    If all traces of the agreements that make the fact of Maiden's Day obtainable had vanished from all minds, Maiden's Day would cease to exist. If future Westerosi archaeologists, historians or cultural anthropologists were to discover an inscription documenting this custom, Maiden's Day could have its metaphysical status reverted back from non-existence into existence. Or so the framework predicts.

    Claims on entities with the standing of Searlean brute facts would be denied by many gangs of philosophers that are willful enemies of objectivity stronger ontic senses; American Pragmatists, Post Modernists and Social Constructionists for example could claim that this alleged "brute fact" that Iron has an atomic number of 26 is not really non-institutional - for surely the mathematical and chemical framework that allows us to make such statement has a traceable recorded origin in the history of science, from the Western adoption of hindu-arabic numeral systems we use to represent natural numbers to the Mendeleevian grid that replaced previously endorsed taxonomies of the elements.

    Surprisingly, I staunchly side with Searle when it comes to these kinds of arguments. I hold that they are a product of a confusion between the representational systems which are employed to stand in or represent the information expressed by a given entity or system in the world with the information itself. Searle is absolutely right on this; we cannot mistake the institutions and conventions (such as the english language, the hindu-arabic numeral system, the edifice of atomic theory, etc) required to state a given fact with the fact itself. The fact that we call iron 'iron' and we use '26' to represent the quantity 26 is irrelevant.

    Final Transitory Observations

    I have attempted to be as charitable as possible in my expositions. Now I shall finish this entry not with clamorous resolution but, again, with enigmatic conundrum; I personally believe very little of what has been stated.

    More centrally, the seemingly common-sensical Searlean framework is explicitly guilty at a viewpoint I hold to be seriously mistaken; that we may devise an empirically responsible theory of ontology under which different existing entities receive "higher" or "lower" ontological statuses. I hold that it is false to assert that reality comes in degrees or hierarchical ranks.

    Why should we care? Well, tradition says that, if we are to care about anything, we should care about our moral values. Moral values are said to be inescapable, to unavoidably bind our predicament, to frame our human condition as deeply as anything could. Infuse this sermon with as many dramatic additions as you'd like. The main problem is that there exists a very strong case in moral philosophy which states that in order for all of this to work, our values need to be grounded in a foundation of extraordinary character, something at least as metaphysically safe and fancy as Searle's arid and impersonal "brute facts" but most probably something even more demanding. But, at glance, it seems wildly absurd to suggest that human morality can receive any such treatment.

    Many of these turmoils are a consequence of our conceptions of the ontic senses of objectivity and subjectivity and, again, on the classical subject/object distinction itself.

    Something has to be made concerning this deep-seated contention that objective entities are in some relevant sense extramental entities. Stay tuned.

    [1] J. J. Prinz, The emotional construction of morals, Oxford University Press, 2007.
    abstract = {Jesse Prinz argues that recent work in philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology supports two radical hypotheses about the nature of morality: moral values are based on emotional responses, and these emotional responses are inculcated by culture, not hard-wired through natural selection. In the first half of the book, Jesse Prinz defends the hypothesis that morality has an emotional foundation. Evidence from brain imaging, social psychology, and psychopathology suggest that, when we judge something to be right or wrong, we are merely expressing our emotions. Prinz argues that these emotions do not track objective features of reality; rather, the rightness and wrongness of an act consists in the fact that people are disposed to have certain emotions towards it. In the second half of the book, he turns to a defense of moral relativism. Moral facts depend on emotional responses, and emotional responses vary from culture to culture. Prinz surveys the anthropological record to establish moral variation, and he draws on cultural history to show how attitudes toward practices such as cannibalism and marriage change over time. He also criticizes evidence from animal behavior and child development that has been taken to support the claim that moral attitudes are hard-wired by natural selection. Prinz concludes that there is no single true morality, but he also argues that some moral values are better than others; moral progress is possible. Throughout the book, Prinz relates his views to contemporary and historical work in philosophical ethics. His views echo themes in the writings of David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Prinz supports, extends, and revises these classic theories using the resources of cutting-edge cognitive science. The Emotional Construction of Morals will stimulate and challenge anyone who is curious about the nature and origin of moral values},
    author = {Prinz, Jesse J.},
    citeulike-article-id = {13591439},
    posted-at = {2015-04-24 19:10:16},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {Oxford University Press},
    title = {The Emotional Construction of Morals},
    year = {2007}
    [2] D. Dennett, "Intentional Systems Theory," in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind, {. {M}c{L}aughlin, {. {B}eckermann, and {. {W}alter, Eds., {OUP} {O}xford, 2011.
    author = {Dennett, Daniel},
    booktitle = {{T}he {O}xford {H}andbook of {P}hilosophy of {M}ind},
    citeulike-article-id = {14034324},
    editor = {{M}c{L}aughlin, {B}rian and {B}eckermann, {A}nsgar and {W}alter, {S}ven},
    posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:53:25},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {{OUP} {O}xford},
    title = {{I}ntentional {S}ystems {T}heory},
    year = {2011}
    [3] Unknown bibtex entry with key [Huemer2005a]
    [4] J. R. Searle, The construction of social reality, Simon and Schuster, 1995.
    author = {Searle, John R.},
    citeulike-article-id = {14034285},
    posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:53:24},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {Simon and Schuster},
    title = {The construction of social reality},
    year = {1995}

    The Logic of Existence and the Objective-Subjective Distinction in Metaethics


    Contemporary metaethics is a very technical zoo of categories and terminology that is used inconsistently from author to author. Here I'll digress on some aspects of the use of the interrelated terms 'existence', 'reality' and 'objectivity' for some posterior discussions I intend to make.

    Nihilism and Existence

    'Nihilism' names a family of loosely-related theses from XIX century european moral philosophy. Still, as it is commonly used in contemporary anglophone philosophy, the term 'nihilism' carries much less conceptual baggage. I shall address this "thicker" sense of 'nihilism' in the future but here I'll be solely preoccupied with the "thinner" sense.

    Nihilism simpliciter is an ontological stance forming a schema that demands a class of variables out of a given domain of discourse. It is the denial of the objective existence of a certain class of entities from a certain domain of discourse. A nihilist on x is someone that stands by the claim that x does not objectively exist.

    For instance, in analytic metaphysics, a mereological nihilist is someone that contends that there are no aggregates of proper parts in a particular sense - only proper parts have objective existence.

    A causation nihilist would be someone that claims that causes and effects lack objective grounding. We can imagine in political philosophy a defender of individual nihilism, one that claims that objectively-existing individual agents have no place in political theory and that we presumably may only populate our political ontology with groups or classes of political agents.

    In this very philosophical tradition, a rough rule of thumb would be that outside of axiological fields, 'nihilism' is a descriptor term can be used interchangeably with 'eliminativism' and 'anti-realism'. But definitely not so in metaethics; as I'll claim, contemporary metaethical discussion is committed to not just the existence of two kinds of things but to two kinds of existents, two ways under which universals and particulars can be real. Confusingly enough, a moral nihilist is not necessarily a moral anti-realist - hopefully I'll be able to eradicate this terminological confusion.

    Existence and the Objective-Subjective Distinction

    The previous use of 'objectivity' here demands extensive clarification. This term comprises a mess of cluster concepts that conflate epistemological and ontological claims but I'll accept the burden of presenting an informative exposition while at the same time attempting being charitable to this complicated field.

    Let's talk a bit about existence itself, what may strike us as the most fundamental notion in metaphysics. What seems to be the default thesis in Western philosophy concerning the formal nature of existence is that existence is of a different logical type than a property (and presumably, this is also reflected ontologically). This was famously championed, for instance, by Immanuel Kant in his critique of the ontological arguments for the existence of God. Standing by of our contemporary conceptual apparatuses, we could say that our sense of 'existence' in natural language is exhaustively picked up by the concept of existential quantification in mathematical logic. I.e., it would be a mistake to represent existence by a predicate.

    If we are to say that an aurochs exist, this is formally captured by the sentence:

    \exists x, Ax

    I'll stand by something bold; I think current metaethical discussion is implicitly committed to the alternative, more controversial view of existence as a property. I am very sympathetic towards this viewpoint of existence but I'll not utter my reasons for that here.

    Metaethics constantly divides reality in two different kinds of stuff; there is an objective and a subjective realm. It is my impression that the in this field, the most natural way to understand the nihilist schema I've exposed is considering 'objectivity' to be a certain higher-order property of an entity.

    If an aurochs exists, an aurochs instantiates the property 'existence', as in the sentence:

    \exists x, Ex \& Ax

    Formally, 'existence' itself is represented as a predicate that ranges over a given variable and 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity' are higher-order predicates that range over the predicate 'existence'.

    In this view, there are two different modes under which something that is real may be realized. For the sake of clarity in this already complicated discussion, let us use 'reality' or 'realness' to name this property and use 'existence' in a more abstract sense that is supposed to be captured by the use of existential quantification in predicate logic.

    Objective reality (or existence, if you will) is a type of reality that is contrasted with subjective reality. To put it simply, it is the thesis that are two distinct ways in which some thing can be real, either objectively or subjectively.

    'Objectivity' and 'subjectivity' are n-order predicates for the (n-1)-order predicate 'reality', that I am representing by the predicate 'E'.

    It looks like this; take 'objectivity' to be a property represented by the 2nd-order predicate '\mathcal{O}'. To say that aurochs are an objective item of reality in second order logic is to write:

    \exists \mathcal{O}[\exists x, \mathcal{O}Ex \& Ax]

    In a Fregean view of existence, for instance, that would make 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity' third-order predicates - more than enough to certainly make many logicians twist their stomachs, I'm sure. An for good reason; the implicit higher-order model theory to deal with the higher-order structures of higher-order logic can be theoretically are very tricky.

    Entities that have objective reality are often assumed to have a more special ontological status in comparison to that which only exists subjectively. Something that is subjectively real is often assumed to do a poor job at existing, as a second-class metaphysical citizen.

    A common claim that we see reiterated in various ways is that it is indispensable in ethics for at least certain forms of normativity to have objective grounding. Normative force that does not have objective standing is either not good enough (it is suboptimal) or not good at all (it adds nothing).

    The crown of objective reality is endorsed as an ideal and if it is the case that our most cherished values are plebeians incapable of being crowned, there is a line of thought that argues that this would be the worst kind of tragedy, to the point of despair. This is a theme present in both modern and contemporary continental european and contemporary anglophone philosophy which will be the subject of another entry that is still work in progress.

    Moral Nihilism, Moral Subjectivism and Moral Anti-Realism

    It's time to make things transparently clear for the uses of 'nihilism', 'subjectivism' and 'anti-realism' in moral philosophy and why it is wrong to conflate them.

    Let us expand a bit the definition for moral nihilism; a moral nihilist is someone that holds that there are no objectively real moral posits. No objective moral properties such as 'cruelty', no objective moral particulars such as The Form of the Good. According to a traditional framework, if there are no objectively moral properties to be exemplified, there are no objective moral facts and no objective moral truths either.

    Take x to be the relevant posit or posits of the domain of discourse in question. 'Anti-realism' is the stance with the greatest scope. It claims that it is not the case that x have any kind of reality whatsoever.

    'Subjectivism' on x is therefore inconsistent with 'anti-realism' on x for subjectivists on x hold that x are subjectively real. When the late moral nihilist J.L. Mackie [1] writes:

    ...no doubt if moral values are not objective they are in some very broad sense subjective...

    ...he is endorsing the subjective reality of moral values.

    Philosopher Jesse Prinz [2] has the same position; he denies objectivity to moral values without being a moral anti-realist.

    Inconclusive Thoughts And Some Personal Remarks

    I have said very little about the alleged metaphysical difference between that which is objectively real from that which is subjectively real. That is an extensive topic that will be the subject of my next entry.

    I must add that I am extremely unsatisfied with this traditional framework, which reeks of bad neo-scholasticism. And the centerpiece is the perennial distinction between subject and object itself. I believe that not only this distinction is deeply misleading and unnecessarily ensnarls important philosophical problems but that it is incompatible with a scientifically responsible view of the world. I have no fully-fledged alternative framework to replace it but I believe many hints on how it could be done have been advanced by contemporary researchers.

    A framework with some of the viewpoints expressed here is found for instance in the third version of the Real Pattern Theory of Ontology [3]. There, we have no second-class (or third-class, etc) metaphysical citizens. There are no degrees of reality; either something exists or it doesn't. Finer distinctions relating the 'ontological dependence' of certain Real Patterns towards certain intentional systems are always local in character, relating to etiology, history or pragmatical considerations. A band of ruminating aurochs in the cold plains of The North are just as real as the market value of Valyrian Steel in Westerosi society.

    The objective-subjective distinction is not going away in philosophy anytime soon. But I long for a future in an academic setting were the distinction and all the misleading baggage it carries will be seen, as Bertrand Russell once put it, as a 'relic of a bygone age'.

    Personal Acknowledgement

    I am grateful for my friend and brilliant logician Dante Cardoso Pinto de Almeida for personal discussions I've had in the process of writing this entry.


    [1] J. L. Mackie, Ethics: inventing right and wrong, Penguin, 1977.
    abstract = {John Mackie's stimulating book is a complete and clear treatise on moral theory. His writings on normative ethics-the moral principles he recommends-offer a fresh approach on a much neglected subject, and the work as a whole is undoubtedly a major contribution to modern {philosophy.The} author deals first with the status of ethics, arguing that there are not objective values, that morality cannot be discovered but must be made. He examines next the content of ethics, seeing morality as a functional device, basically the same at all times but changing significantly in response to changes in the human condition. He sketches a practical moral system, criticizing but also borrowing from both utilitarian and absolutist views. Thirdly, the frontiers of ethics, areas of contact with psychology, metaphysics, theology, law and politcs, are {explored.Throughout}, his aim is to discuss a wide range of questions that are both philosophical and practical, working within a distinctive version of subjectivism-an "error" theory of the apparent objectivity of values. John Mackie has drawn on the contributions of such classic thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume, Kant and Sidgwick, and on more recent discussions, to produce a thought-provoking account that will inspire both the general reader and the student of philosophy.},
    author = {Mackie, J. L.},
    citeulike-article-id = {13591438},
    number = {1},
    pages = {134--137},
    posted-at = {2015-04-24 19:10:16},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {Penguin},
    title = {Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong},
    year = {1977}
    [2] J. J. Prinz, The emotional construction of morals, Oxford University Press, 2007.
    abstract = {Jesse Prinz argues that recent work in philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology supports two radical hypotheses about the nature of morality: moral values are based on emotional responses, and these emotional responses are inculcated by culture, not hard-wired through natural selection. In the first half of the book, Jesse Prinz defends the hypothesis that morality has an emotional foundation. Evidence from brain imaging, social psychology, and psychopathology suggest that, when we judge something to be right or wrong, we are merely expressing our emotions. Prinz argues that these emotions do not track objective features of reality; rather, the rightness and wrongness of an act consists in the fact that people are disposed to have certain emotions towards it. In the second half of the book, he turns to a defense of moral relativism. Moral facts depend on emotional responses, and emotional responses vary from culture to culture. Prinz surveys the anthropological record to establish moral variation, and he draws on cultural history to show how attitudes toward practices such as cannibalism and marriage change over time. He also criticizes evidence from animal behavior and child development that has been taken to support the claim that moral attitudes are hard-wired by natural selection. Prinz concludes that there is no single true morality, but he also argues that some moral values are better than others; moral progress is possible. Throughout the book, Prinz relates his views to contemporary and historical work in philosophical ethics. His views echo themes in the writings of David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Prinz supports, extends, and revises these classic theories using the resources of cutting-edge cognitive science. The Emotional Construction of Morals will stimulate and challenge anyone who is curious about the nature and origin of moral values},
    author = {Prinz, Jesse J.},
    citeulike-article-id = {13591439},
    posted-at = {2015-04-24 19:10:16},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {Oxford University Press},
    title = {The Emotional Construction of Morals},
    year = {2007}
    [3] J. Ladyman and D. Ross, Every thing must go: metaphysics naturalized, Oxford University Press, 2007.
    author = {Ladyman, James and Ross, Don},
    citeulike-article-id = {12534918},
    posted-at = {2013-07-30 07:13:13},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {Oxford University Press},
    title = {Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized},
    year = {2007}