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Article Summary: “Personal and Sub-personal Levels of Explanation” by Daniel Dennett

From Content and Consciousness. London: Routledge, 1969.


Dennett argues that mental phenomena cannot be explained in ’sub-personal’
(i.e., neurophysiological) terms, because the mental is an autonomous domain
with its own type of explanation. Because of this, questions about mental
phenomena should not be answered in sub-personal terms, despite the obvious
fact that mental phenomena depend upon sup-personal phenomena in some
important sense. Dennett thinks this because he cannot see how a sub-personal,
mechanical explanation can apply to sensations such as pain. For a mechanical
explanation to apply, mental sensations would have to be analyzable qualities.
But Dennett believes that they are unanalyzable, and thus that mechanical
explanations are irrelevant.

Dennett considers three questions about pain that a mechanical explanation
might attempt to answer: How does a person distinguish pains from other
sensations? How does a person locate pain? Why do we abhor pain? In each
case, Dennett attempts to show that the mechanical explanation fails.

In the first place, a mechanical explanation of our ability to distinguish
sensations from one another presupposes that the distinguishing is a personal
activity. But Dennett does not think this is right: if distinguishing were an
activity, then we could appeal to the qualities of the sensations in question in
order to differentiate them. But to appeal to qualities is to identity the quality
in question. Identifying a quality, in turn, requires that we either describe the
quality, or otherwise that we ostend it. Since we can do neither of these things
, it follows that we cannot identify the qualities of sensations and thus cannot
appeal to them in distinguishing sensations. But if we are not doing this, then
we are not engaging in an activity at all, and no mechanical explanation is
relevant to what is happening. Our ability to distinguish sensations is thus a
brute fact not in any further need of explanation.

Dennett thinks the same conclusion must be reached when we come to the
question of our ability to locate pains. A person is not doing anything when she
locates a pain, since doing something would require an appeal to describable
qualities of the pain. Whatever her brain is doing when she is locating the pain,
she is not doing anything, for if she were it would be a process, and such a
process is impossible.

And thus the question of why we abhor pain has the same answer: we simply
do abhor pain, and to explain this brute fact in mechanical terms is to provide
a non-explanation: a mechanical explanation will cite unanalyzable qualities
of the pain which we abhor, but of course this says merely that there is some
contingent quality about pain that we do not like, for some reason. The reason
cannot be explicated because pain is unanalyzable; therefore, the mechanical
explanation is really no explanation at all.

Dennett concludes with an example meant to differentiate the personal and
sub-personal levels of explanation in action. When a person touches a hot
stove, the personal explanation is merely that she had a sensation of pain in a
specific place, and that sensation caused her to withdraw her hand. No further
explanation is possible, and these facets of the explanation are mere brute facts.
If someone wishes that the situation should be explained further, then one must
leave the personal level of explanation and thus leave talk of ’pain’ behind in
order to enter the domain of sub-personal explanation, where a full account
of the person’s brain, nervous system, and movements can be given. Such an
explanation will be highly technical and will involve talk of afferent-efferent
connections and ’pain behavior.’ But these terms cannot be identified with the
feeling of pain. ’Pain’ is non-referential; it is thus the philosopher’s job to figure
out how ’pain talk’ relates to neural events or talk about neural events.

Logical Outline

Primary Argument: Mechanical explanations are not appropriate for mental phenomenona.

1. A mechanical explanation of sensations ought to explain either how we distinguish sensations, how we locate them, or why we have certain reactions to certain sensations.
2. Mechanical explanations cannot account for our ability to distinguish sensations from one another.

S1. Mechanical explanations require that distinguishing be an activ-
S2. If distinguishing were an activity, then we would be able to appeal
to qualities of the sensations in question.
S3. Therefore, if a mechanical explanation of distinguishing is to be
viable, we must be able to appeal to qualities of sensations. [S1,S2]
S4. To be able to appeal to the qualities of a sensation, we must be
able to identify such qualites.
S5. To identify such qualities, we must be able either to describe
them or to ostend them.
S6. Therefore, if a mechanical explanation of distinguishing is to be
viable, we must be able to identify qualities of sensations. [S3,S4]
S7. Therefore, if a mechanical explanation of distinguishing is to be
viable, we must be able to either describe or ostend such qualities. [S6,S5]
S8. We can neither describe nor ostend the qualities of sensations.
S9. Therefore, mechanical explanations of distinguishing are not vi-
able. [S8,S7]

3. Mechanical explanations cannot account for our ability to locate sensa-

S1. Whatever the brain is doing, we locate sensations without engag-
ing in a personal activity.
S2. Mechanical explanations presuppose a personal activity is taking
S3. Therefore, a mechanical explanation is not appropriate for our
ability to locate sensations.

4. Mechanical explanations cannot account for why we abhor pain.

S1. A mechanical explanation of our avoidance of pain would require
pain to be an analyzable sensation.
S2. Pain is unanalyzable.
S3. Therefore, mechanical explanations are not appropriate with re-
gard to our abhorence of pain. [S2,S1]

5. Therefore, mechanical explanations cannot account for our ability to dis-
tinguish sensations, nor for our ability to locate them, nor our reactions
to them. [2-4]
6. Therefore, mechanical explanations are not appropriate for explaining sen-
sations, and thus mental phenomena in general. [5,1]


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Article Summary: “The Subjectivity of Values” by JL Mackie

From Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, London: Penguin Books, 1991. (originally published 1977)


Mackie argues for an ’error theory’ regarding objective morality: he believes moral judgments presuppose moral objectivity, which is itself false. Mackie believes moral objectivity requires two things: intrinsic reason-giving power (e.g., an action’s being objectively right is itself a reason to carry out the action), and the ability to categorically (unconditionally) motivate us to act. Mackie thinks that moral values have neither of these features, and thus are not objective.

Before arguing that moral values have neither intrinsic reason-giving power nor categorical motivating power, however, Mackie delimits his theory (what he calls ’moral skepticism’) from other popular theories in metaethics. In the first place, his theory is not subjectivist: it is not claiming that we ought to do whatever we feel is right. Further, it is not emotivist: while the emotivist says a moral judgment is merely an expression of the utterer’s feelings, Mackie thinks that moral judgments legitimately attempt to, and fail to, explain reality. In other words, while an emotivist says moral terms are neither true nor false, Mackie says that they are all false. Finally, Mackie makes clear that he is not dealing with moral values derived from hypothetical imperatives. The target of his opprobrium are values which claim to be objectively categorical in nature.

With his theory clarified, Mackie attacks the notion that moral values are intrinsically reason-giving. Mackie thinks this is false because he thinks moral values are best understood as subjective. In particular, he cites the widespread disagreement among cultures regarding moral norms and says that this disagreement is best explained as being caused by competing ways of life, rather than competing perceptions of objective morals. Since such ways
of life would be subjective, and since something which is subjective cannot be intrinsically reason-giving, it follows that moral values are not intrinsically
reason-giving. Mackie concludes this specific argument by responding to a criticism: perhaps it is not specific values but rather general principles of morality which all cultures agree upon, the critic might say. Mackie believes this is an inadequate response because it characterizes specific moral values as contingently and derivatively true: on this scheme, rape would only be
wrong because it violates some more general principle; if it had not violated the principle, then it would not be wrong (my example).

Next, Mackie presents what he calls the ’argument from queerness’ against the idea that moral values are categorically motivating. Since natural features of the world are not categorically motivating, moral values must be a strange, alternative sort of feature, unlike anything else we are aware of. Further, it must be the case that there is a special sense for detecting these alternative sorts of worldly feature. According to Mackie, no adequate explanation of these properties has ever been posited; further, he does not believe any such account is forthcoming. We therefore ought to suppose that these bizarre worldly features which are posited as real in fact are not. Moral judgments are best understood as subjective reactions on the part of agents to the world around them; such reactions, however, cannot undergird any categorically motivating moral value. Therefore, moral values do not have categorical motivating power.

Mackie concludes by recognizing that the ’queerness’ of moral objectivity is not as easily recognized in everyday moral judgments as it is in outlandish
philosophical reconstructions like Plato’s Forms. Mackie thinks this is so because in everyday judgments, the prescriptivity derived from the presupposition that morals are objective exists alongside other reasons, thoughts, and language. In some sense, then, the queerness is disguised. Further, Mackie thinks that since we tend to read our feelings into external objects, we probably do the same for moral things: we suppose (incorrectly) that the feeling an object or act elicits is a property of the object itself. Yet another psychological reason is that when we desire something, we try to characterize it as good. But instead of recognizing this, we pretend that the thing is intrinsically good, and that that is why we desire it. Mackie also thinks there are pragmatic reasons for the persistence of prescriptivity in our language: it might be the case that society depends upon the use of such
language. Keeping people in order may depend upon a claim of objectivity to our prescriptive language. This pragmatic reasoning also holds for individuals: people recognize (consciously or not) that objective morality provides a wellspring of authority; it allows demands made upon others in interpersonal relationships to be imbued with a motivational force they would otherwise not have.

Logical Outline

Argument One (There are no objective morals)

  1. In order for values to be objective, they must compel us to obey regardless of our desires, and they must be intrinsically reason-giving.
  2. Moral values do not motivate us to obey categorically.

S1. Natural objects do no impart categorical motivation to obey.
S2. So, if objective morals categorically motivate, they must be an
as-of-yet unknown type of feature of reality (r), and further must be detectable by some as-of-yet unknown perceptual apparatus (p). [from S1]
S3. No adequate explanation for (r) or (p) exists, and none is
S4. Therefore, it is most reasonable to suppose moral values are
subjective rather than objective. [S2,S3]
S5. Therefore, moral values are not categorically motivating. [S4,S2]

3. Moral values are not intrinsically reason-giving.

S1. If morals are subjective, then moral prescriptivity is best un-
derstood as emerging from intuition and not reason.
S2. If moral prescriptivity emerges from intuition, then moral values cannot be intrinsically reason-giving.
S3. Therefore, if morals are subjective, then they cannot be intrinsically reason-giving. [S1,S2]
S4. The variation of moral values among cultures is best explained
as emerging from alternative, subjective ways of life, not that it emerges from alternative perceptions of objective reality.
S5. Therefore, it is most reasonable to assume moral values are
subjective. [from S4]
S6. Therefore, moral values are not intrinsically reason-giving.

4. Moral values do not impart categorical motivation to obey, nor are they intrinsically reason-giving. [2,3]
5. Therefore, moral values are not objective. [4,1]

Symbolic Notation

Primary Argument
1. O → (C ∧ I)
2. ¬C ∧ ¬I…Therefore, ¬O
3. ¬C (2, SIMP)
4. ¬C ∨ ¬I (3,ADD)
5. ¬(C ∧ I) (4,DeM)
6. ¬O (5, 1,MT)

Where O=Moral values are objective, C=Moral values are categorically
motivating, and I=Moral values are intrinsically reason-giving.

Sub-argument One: Moral values are not intrinsically reason-giving
1. S → E
2. E → ¬I
3. S…Therefore, ¬I
4. S → ¬I (1, 2,HS)
5. ¬I (3, 4,MP)

Where S=Moral values are subjective, E=Moral values emerge from
intuition, and I=Moral values are intrinsically reason-giving.

Sub-Argument Two: Moral values are not categorically motivating.
1. C → (R ∧ P)
2. ¬E
3. ¬E ≡ ¬(R ∨ P)…Therefore, ¬C
4. [¬E → ¬(R ∨ P)] ∧ [¬(R ∨ P) → ¬E] (3,EQUIV )
5. [¬E → ¬(R ∨ P)] (4, SIMP)
6. ¬(R ∨ P) (5, 2,MP)
7. ¬R ∧ ¬P (6,DeM)
8. ¬R (7, SIMP)
9. ¬(R ∧ P)
10. ¬C (11, 1,MT)

Where C=Morals are categorically motivating, R=Moral values exist as a
currently-unknown facet of reality, P=We need an alternate sense to detect
moral features, and E=There is an adequate explanation for R and P.


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Article Summary: “A Critique of Ethics” by AJ Ayer

Ayer, AJ. Language, Logic, and Truth. New York: Dover, 1952, 102-113.


Ayer argues that ethical terms are not really propositions at all – they are ’pseudoconcepts’ which do not add any factual content to sentences in which they occur, but merely express the feelings of the utterer. They can thus be neither true nor false. Ayer pursues this conclusion by attempting to show that the alternative theories of meaning with regard to ethical terms – naturalistic theories and what he calls the ’absolutist’ theory – are incorrect. Then, Ayer deals with a major objection to his theory.

First, Ayer differentiates four common subjects of ethical philosophy, and says that only one of them is actually philosophy proper: (i) The exploration of the meaning of ethical terms; (ii) The study of propositions describing moral experience; (iii) Commands to be moral; and (iv), The study of actual moral judgments. Ayer thinks (ii) is not philosophy but rather psychology; (iii) is merely telling us what to do, and thus do not belong in philosophy or science, and (iv), though not strictly categorizable, is not philosophy to the extent that it does not deal with ethical terms. So, only (i) is really ethical philosophy, and thus Ayer only need demonstrate that it does not deal with factual content to show that value judgments in general are not factual.

Ayer argues against naturalistic theories of the meaning of ethical terms by defusing the two strongest naturalist theories: utilitarianism and subjectivism. Ayer rejects the distinctly utilitarian notion that ethical terms can be reduced to descriptions of empirical fact about happiness, pleasure, or satisfaction because he says it is not contradictory to say that it is sometimes wrong to perform an action which will yield the greatest happiness or satisfaction. Further, it is not contradictory to say some pleasant things are not good. So utilitarianism cannot be correct about the meaning of ethical terms.

Subjectivism – the view that ethical terms reduce to psychological states of individuals (e.g., approval or disapproval) – too must be rejected, for it is not contradictory for a person to say that he approves of a thing that is not good, and likewise to disapprove of something that is good. If this is right, then subjectivism cannot be correct.

This leaves the ’absolutist’ view: the view that ethical terms are indefinable and unanalyzable. On this view, ethical judgments are produced by intuition. Ayer agrees with the absolutist view that ethical terms are indefinable and unanalyzable; he thinks this is the case because they are pseudoconcepts which have no real factual meaning. Ayer gives an example: If a person says ’You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ in reality, he has merely said ’You stole that money.’ The two sentences yield the same factual content. The former, an ethical judgment, merely adds a certain tone to the latter sentence. If the ethical judgment is generalized into a principle, the proposition containing it is neither true nor false. So, the absolutist view is wrong about why ethical terms are indefinable and unanalyzable, and Ayer’s radical empiricist theory is the only alternative.

Ayer then deals with a major objection to his theory: Moore’s objection to subjectivism, which says that if subjectivism were true, there could be no disputation of values; but, since there is in fact disputation about values all the time, subjectivism must be false. Ayer recognizes that on his view, there can be no disputation of values. So, if Moore’s objection to subjectivism is correct, Ayer’s view must be wrong. Ayer attempts to show that the objection fails because, in actuality, there is no real disputation about values. That
is to say, when a person disagrees with another about the moral value of an action, upon close examination the interlocutors will be disagreeing merely about empirical facts, such as the motivation of the agent, the consequences of the act, or the circumstances in which the act occurred. If they agree about the facts and still disagree about the value of the act, they resort to abuse – calling the other person morally undeveloped and the like. So ethical judgments, to the extent that they are factual, reduce to empirical facts.

Logical Outline

Argument One (Radical Empiricism is correct about ethical terms)

  1. Either naturalistic theories, the ’absolutist’ theory, or radical empiricism is correct about the nature of ethical terms.*
  2. Naturalistic theories are not correct about the nature of ethical terms.

S1. As the strongest representatives of naturalistic theories, if it is not the case that either utilitarianism or subjectivism is correct about the nature of ethical terms, then naturalistic theories in general are not correct.*
S2. If utilitarianism is correct about ethical terms, then they can
be reduced to empirical facts about happiness, pleasure, or satisfaction.
S3. Ethical terms cannot be reduced to empirical facts about hap-
piness, pleasure, or satisfaction.
S4. Therefore, utilitarianism is not correct about the nature of
ethical terms. [S3,S2]
S5. If subjectivism is correct about ethical terms, then they can be
reduced to statements of individual preference.
S6. Ethical terms cannot be reduced to statements of individual
S7. Therefore, subjectivism is not correct about the nature of eth-
ical terms. [S6,S5]
S8. Neither utilitarianism nor subjectivism are correct about the
nature of ethical terms. [S4,S7]
S9. Therefore, naturalistic theories are not correct about the nature
of ethical terms. [S8,S1]

3. The ’absolutist’ theory is not correct about the nature of ethical terms.

S1. If ’absolutist’ theories were correct about ethical terms, then
ethical terms would be legitimate propositions which express factual
content about the world.
S2. Ethical terms do not express factual content, but rather are
mere expressions of emotion; ethical concepts are pseudoconcepts that
are neither true or false.
S3. Therefore, ’absolutist’ theories are not correct about the nature
of ethical terms. [S2,S1]

4. Therefore, radical empiricism must be correct about the nature of ethical terms. [1-3]

Argument Two (Refuting Moore’s Objection to subjectivism)

  1. 1. If Moore’s objection to Subjectivism is correct, then there is in fact disputation of values in ethics.
  2. If there is in fact disputation of values in ethics, then radical empiricism
    is false.
  3. Therefore, if Moore’s objection to Subjectivism is correct, then radical
    empiricism is false. [1,2]
  4. There is no disputation of values in ethics; all disagreement is over
    empirical facts.
  5. Therefore, Moore’s objection to Subjectivism is not correct, and radical
    empiricism has not been shown to be false. [4,1]

Symbolic Notation

Argument One
1. [(N ∨ A) ∨ R] ∧ ¬[(N ∧ A) ∨ (N ∧ R) ∨ (R ∧ A)]
2. ¬N
3. ¬A…Therefore,R
4. (N ∨ A) ∨ R (1, SIMP)
5. N ∨ (A ∨ R) (4,ASSOC)
6. A ∨ R (5, 2,DS)
7. R (6, 3,DS)

Where N=Naturalistic theories about ethical terms are correct, R=Radical empiricism is correct about ethical terms, and A=The ’absolutist’ view is correct about ethical terms.

Argument Two
1. O1 → D
2. D → ¬R
3. O1 → ¬R
4. ¬D…Therefore, ¬O1
5. ¬O1 (4, 1,MT)

Where O1=Moore’s objection to subjectivism is correct, D=There is disputation of values in ethics, and R=Radical empiricism is correct about the nature of ethical terms.

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Book Review: “Is Voting for Young People?” (2E) by Martin Wattenberg

Watternberg, Martin. Is Voting for Young People? With a Postscript on Citizen Engagement, 2nd edition. Harlow: Longman, 2007.

In this concise work of political science, Professor Wattenberg of UC Irvine sketches the outline of a potentially serious problem facing modern democracies: the ever-declining political awareness and participation among youth.

Wattenberg analyzes election surveys and public opinion polls in order to ascertain the following points: Newspaper readership among youth is declining, political news consumption via television among youth is declining, and political participation among youth is declining.

Interestingly, these trends are apparent across almost all Western democracies, making explanations that emphasize single-country events (Watergate, etc.) insufficient. The explanation proffered by this book is that this is a generational issue: As the newer generations (about 1980 onward) have been socialized in the “TV Age,” with its emphasis on entertainment above all else, they have naturally been exposed to less political information, and thus have exhibited less knowledge and interest in politics.

The only limitation I could find with Wattenberg’s analysis is the failure to consider certain online alternatives of political information. For example, the only mention of the word “Internet” in the entire book is in reference to online newspaper websites, such as those of prestigious newspapers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal) and local newspaper websites (p. 28). Unsurprisingly, youth avoid such websites just as they avoid newspapers in general. However, such polls fail to take into consideration “unofficial” sources. Online resources like BBC’s “One-Minute World News” and blogs that youth may frequent aren’t considered at all.

In any case, this does not defeat the primary argument of the book, since political knowledge and participation continues to decline regardless. In short: “unofficial” sources don’t appear to be stymieing the flow of people away from civic participation either way.

Wattenberg asserts that lest modern democracies become governments “of the old people, by the old people, and for the old people,” something needs to be done. After (too) briefly examining alternatives, Wattenberg advocates for mandatory voting along the lines of Australia’s system. Wattenberg uses the analogy of banning smoking in public places: Sometimes it is best to force people to do what is good for them, even if it is construed as a violation of individual rights (p. 173). While I personally disagree, and in any case the proposition has very little popular or political support, it does get the reader thinking about the issue in a provocative way.

Finally, this edition features a brief postscript on unofficial methods of political participation. While activities like protesting and contacting elected officials are more common than ever, most of the increase can be accounted for in age groups excluding young people. Thus, the increasing prevalence of unconventional participation does not refute Wattenberg’s argument.

In short, this little book, which can be consumed in a single evening, is a worthwhile contribution to voting behavior, and should be of interest to political scientists, informed citizens, and those teaching voting behavior at the undergraduate level.

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Book Review: “The Political Economy of American Industrialization, 1877-1900” by Richard Bensel

Bensel, Richard Franklin. The Political Economy of American Industrialization,   1877-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

In this monumental work of political economy, Richard Franklin Bensel seeks to explain how the United States rapidly industrialized from 1877-1900 while simultaneously preserving its democratic processes and institutions.

Bensel’s main hypothesis is as follows: Industrialization was carefully orchestrated by the Republican party through its pursuit of the “developmental tripod”: a series of economic policies that redistributed wealth from the West and South (the “peripheral” zones) to the North (the “core” zone) while masterfully deflecting popular opposition. These policies included the tariff, the gold standard, and the creation of a national market.

According to Bensel, the tariff helped take wealth from the mainly agrarian peripheral zones and funnel it into the core by protecting industrial interests. Most importantly, however, it served as the “glue” that held together the Republican party coalition, enabling it to pursue the other, more important legs of the tripod. To this effect, the tariff was allowed to operate in the Congress.

Adherence to the gold standard, meanwhile, was important because it served to stabilize American exchange rates, thus attracting foreign investment into the core. Because adherence required daily administration, this leg of the tripod was placed in the hands of the executive branch, which also served to keep it one step removed from public opinion.

Finally, the creation of the national market was absolutely essential for industrialization, leading to the creation of the modern business firm and a huge comparative advantage for the United States in the world economy. As such, it was placed in the hands of the Supreme Court, whose members were carefully vetted by the Republican party to ensure the policy would be supported. This also served to protect the policy from popular opposition, since the S.C. is the most insulated of the three branches.

Thus, the argument goes, the Republican party relied on careful central state planning to ensure the necessary build-up of capital in the core zone that unlocked industrialization, while avoiding the use of brutal, authoritarian measures to ram through reform (epitomized by Russian industrialization under Stalin), thus preserving democratic processes.

You will learn A LOT about the industrialization of the United States by reading this book, and especially about the extremely uneven regional development that occurred. Still, the underlying contention that it was largely political power that shaped this development seems questionable. Besides necessitating a nigh-omniscient Republican party, it seems more likely that economic change was primarily what shaped the political landscape, rather than vice versa (an example: was the drain on Southern wealth really the result of intentional policy, or was it mostly the result of the collapse of slavery and the destruction of the Southern banking system after the Civil War?). In any case, the link between politics and economics is clearly bidirectional. Bensel just chooses to emphasize the political side more than most.

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Book Review: “Intellectuals and Society” by Thomas Sowell

Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Dr. Sowell’s book “Intellectuals and Society” claims to be a critical evaluation of intellectuals — those whose work begins and ends with ideas — on a wide range of subjects, from economics and law to war and society. In actuality, this book is a critique of a specific sort of intellectual: the member of the liberal intelligentsia.

This means that a wide swathe of conservative thinkers are exempted from Dr. Sowell’s analysis: thus, when media bias is the subject of discussion, Fox News receives no mention. This is the sort of one-sided analysis the reader should expect for the duration of the book’s length.

Further, Dr. Sowell gets stuck in a most ironic dilemma when he claims that intellectuals are those who have exceptional knowledge in one narrow subject but who extend their analyses beyond their range of competence (p. 155): this critique applies to Dr. Sowell himself! Either intellectuals can speak with some authority on subjects in which they did not get their PhD, or otherwise this book is itself a waste of time (Dr. Sowell has a PhD in economics).

But, if intellectuals can in fact speak on subjects besides their narrow band of expertise, then many of the leftist thinkers Dr. Sowell writes off are ostensibly speaking with authority, which Dr. Sowell explicitly denies. Rather than address the points of many of these scholars, the fact that they are speaking on subjects outside of their professional expertise gives carte blanche to Dr. Sowell to ignore their actual arguments.

For example, Noam Chomsky is mentioned several times throughout the book (pgs. 11, 284, 287), and in each case is written off as someone speaking beyond his realm of expertise, without any of Chomsky’s actual arguments being addressed. This is most ironic because at one point in the book, Dr. Sowell provides a taxonomy of “arguments without arguments” used by leftist intellectuals to dismiss opposing viewpoints without actually addressing their points. It seems as if Dr. Sowell needs to add an entry to the list for the strategy he himself uses.

If one can accept these limitations, there are interesting points to be gleaned from “Intellectuals and Society.” For example, the section on economics probably has the most insightful arguments, since it is after all Dr. Sowell’s realm of expertise. One example: the obsession of many intellectuals over the ‘plight of the poor,’ who treat the bottom quintile in income distribution (a statistical category) as if it is a static group of actual human beings. To the contrary, from 1975 to 1991, only 5% of those who started in the bottom quintile remained there, and some 29% of people who started there ended up in the top quintile (p. 38). In other words, rather than being an unmoving group of people which are languishing at the bottom of the American economy, the statistical category in question is a place where many people start out when they begin a relatively low-paying job, eventually working their way out as they develop more skills and experience in their chosen profession.

In another instance Dr. Sowell encourages the reader to ask a simple question: what have intellectuals contributed to society? In opposition to scientists, engineers, and the like, it is not as readily apparent what intellectuals have contributed to society or the world. This question should serve as an important check against the self-importance of intellectuals who simply presume what they are doing is of value to anyone besides fellow intellectuals.

In short, “Intellectuals and Society” is a skewed attempt to analyze left-leaning academics in Western culture. The author fails to address the majority of their arguments, simply writing them off as ‘beyond their realm of expertise.’ Further, conservative intellectuals bear no mention — despite the fact that they are surely subject to many of the same fallacies as leftists. Despite these limitations, the reader will likely glean several insights from this book that will make them ponder the role of the intellectual, even if the overall argument of the book is logically inadequate.

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Article Summary: “Relativism Defended” by Gilbert Harman

Harman, Gilbert. 1975. “Moral Relativism Defended.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 84, No. 1, pp. 3-22.


Harman argues that a specific sort of moral judgments – “inner judgments” – are relative to motivating attitudes. Further, he argues that such motivating attitudes are themselves derived from agreement. He is therefore arguing for a form of moral relativism. Harman concludes by tackling a cluster of objections to his theory.

Harman presents his idea as a “soberly logical thesis”: he says that inner judgments are only possible when an agent is assumed to have reasons for her actions, and further that the speaker (the person judging the agent) agrees with such reasons. By ’inner judgment,’ Harman means a specific use of the word ’ought’: there is the ’ought’ of expectation (“It ought not rain today”), the ’ought’ of rationality (“You ought not jump off that cliff if you want to live”), the ’ought’ of normativity (“We ought not invade foreign countries”), and the ’ought’ of morality (“You ought to honor your promise”). Harman is concerned here with the latter ought.

Harman gives an example in an attempt at clarification: it is not logical to make an inner judgment about Hitler, since the man was beyond any motivating considerations we might have. He is “beyond the pale,” in the sense that he never shared our motivating attitudes; therefore, we can call him evil, but we cannot say “He ought not to have exterminated the Jews” in the moral sense of ought, since he and us never shared any reasons for action.

Harman then formalizes his thesis into a four-place predicate: “Ought(A,D,C,M),” where A is an agent, D is a type of action, C are relevant considerations, and M are motivating attitudes. It is best to think of this as a sort of function whose outputs are various ’ought’ statements.

Next, Harman asserts that the underlying, motivating attitudes which produce inner judgments are reached via moral bargaining among groups. Harman thinks that we should accept this thesis because it best explains a previously mysterious aspect of our morality: the fact that we place a premium on not harming others, as opposed to helping those in need. Harman says that this is reasonable given his theory, since everyone could agree to not harm others; the rich and powerful, however, would be far less likely to agree that we ought to help all who are in need, since this would cost them the most. Therefore, bargaining results in widespread acceptance of the former
and a de-emphasis on the latter.

Harman next attempts to deal with a large group of common objections
to implicit agreement theories (the sort of theory he has just presented). The first three argue that: the fact that no one remembers reaching any agreement suggests that no such agreement exists; since no one can clearly spell out any agreement they are supposedly a part of, there probably is no such agreement; and finally, just because one agrees does not mean one has the motivation to fulfill an agreement. Harman believes that all three of these objections derive their force from equivocation over the word ’agreement’: for Harman, an agreement is merely sharing intentions with others; one need not actively sit down and discuss anything in order to do that. Further, just because one cannot spell out an agreement does not mean it is not there. Many other sorts of understanding are like this: we adhere to their precepts without being able to clearly define them. Finally, since agreement is merely shared intention, and intention entails motivation, motivation necessarily goes along with agreement.

The next objection Harman deals with is the idea that since we can judge those who are forced to agree differently than those who agree willingly, there must be some criterion of moral judgment before agreement is reached. Harman responds that, to the contrary, the argument that there are moral principles prior to agreement is itself only meaningful in relation to some agreement in intentions; therefore, the ’Ought(A,D,C,M)’ thesis stands.

The final objection Harman tackles is the idea that since there is disagreement about what is right, the ’Ought(A,D,C,M)’ thesis cannot be correct, since if it was, there be no room for disagreement, since judgments are all produced from implicit agreement. Harman says that his thesis does allow for disagreement; what the disagreement is about, however, are the implications for an agreement in relevant cases. It is the application of the agreement which can be called into question. Further, disagreement and even the gradual revision of agreements can occur internally where some part of the agreement contradicts another. So, disagreement and change are possible under Harman’s theory.

Logical Outline

Argument One (Presuppositions)

  1. Inner judgments are either relative to something, absolute, or non-
  2. Inner judgements are not absolute.*
  3. Therefore, either inner judgments are relative to something or are non-existent. [1,2]
  4. Inner judgments exist.*
  5. Therefore, inner judgments are relative to something. [3,4]

Argument Two (Inner judgments depend on bargaining)

  1. Inner judgments are relative to motivating attitudes. [45L]
  2. Motivating attitudes are formed via implicit bargaining. [45R]
  3. Therefore, inner judgments depend upon implicit bargaining for their
    existence. [1,2]

Argument Three (Inference to best explanation)

  1. In our morality, the duty to not harm others takes precedence over the duty to help those in need. [45R]
  2. The ’Ought(A,D,C,M)’ thesis best explains premise (1). [46L]
  3. Therefore, the ’Ought(A,D,C,M)’ thesis is probably true. [1,2]

Argument Four (Replying to Objections 1-3)

  1. If objections 1-3 are correct, then an agreement must be an explicit ritual which everyone is consciously aware of. [47L,49L,49R]
  2. To the contrary, an agreement is an implicit intention which one presumes to share with others. [47L]
  3. Therefore, objections 1-3 cannot be correct. [1,2]

Argument Five (Replying to objection 4)

  1. If objection 4 is correct, then there is no room for disagreement if the ’Ought(A,D,C,M)’ thesis is true, since what is ’right’ is merely what one agrees is right. [47R]
  2. There is room for disagreement even if ’Ought(A,D,C,M) is true; disagreement merely takes the form of disagreeing over the implications
    of an agreement in specific cases. [47R]
  3. Therefore, objection 4 is incorrect. [1,2]

Argument Six (Replying to objection 5)

  1. If objection 5 is correct, then the case of those compulsed to agree would suggest there are prior moral principles by which to judge (we judge the person compelled to obey differently than one who obeys willingly). [48L]
  2. The idea that there are prior moral principles before implicit agreement emerges is itself only meaningful in relation to an implicit agreement, thus affirming the ’Ought(A,D,C,M) thesis. [48L]
  3. Therefore, objection 6 is incorrect. [1,2]


Argument One
1. (∀x)(∀y)[Jx ∧ [(Rxy ∨ Ax) ∨ ¬Ex]]
2. (∀x)(∀y)(¬Ax ∧ Ex)…Therefore, (∀x)(∀y)(Jx ∧ Rxy)
3. (∀y)[Ja ∧ [(Ray ∨ Aa) ∨ ¬Ea]](1, UI)
4. Ja ∧ [(Rab ∨ Aa) ∨ ¬Ea](3, UI)
5. (Rab ∨ Aa) ∨ ¬Ea(4, SIMP)
6. ¬Aa ∧ Ea(2, UI)
7. Ea(6, SIMP)
8. ¬¬Ea(7,DN)
9. Rab ∨ Aa(8, 5,DS)
10. ¬Aa(6, SIMP)
11. Rab(10, 9,DS)
12. Ja(4, SIMP)
13. Ja ∧ Rab(11, 12,CONJ)
14. (∀x)(Jx ∧ Rxb)(13, UG)
15. (∀x)(∀y)(Jx ∧ Rxy)(14, UG)

Where J=Inner judgment, Rxy= X is relative to y, A=Absolute, E=Exists.

Argument Two
1. J → M
2. M → I…Therefore, J → I
3. J → I(2, 1,HS)

Where J=Inner Judgment, M=Motivating attitude, I=Implicit bargaining

Argument Three
Since an ’inference to the best explanation’ is not a formal inference, it cannot be formalized.

Argument Four
1. (O1 ∧ O2 ∧ O3) → E
2. ¬E ∧ I…Therefore, ¬(O1 ∧ O2 ∧ O3)
3. ¬E(2, SIMP)
4. ¬(O1 ∧ O2 ∧ O3)(3, 1,MT)

Where O1=Objection 1 is correct, O2=Objection 2 is correct, O3=Objection 3 is correct, E=Agreement is explicit, I=Agreement is implicit.

Argument Five
1. O4→ ¬R
2. R…Therefore, ¬O4
3. ¬O4 (1, 2,MT)

Where O4=Objection 4 is correct, R=There is room for disagreement.

Argument Six
1. O5→ P
2. ¬P…Therefore, ¬O5
3. ¬O5 (1, 2,MT)

Where O4=Objection 5 is correct, P=There are moral principles prior to

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