About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Massimo’s Picks

by Massimo Pigliucci
* The latest Rationally Speaking podcast: Q&A with Julia and Massimo.
* The philosophy of history: what is history, and what does it mean to learn from it?
* The philosophy of forgiveness. It's complicated...
* From the American Philosophical Association meeting in Boston: neuropsychology and ethics, how science can inform philosophy.
* Comedian? Journalist? Or what? I love that the media simply don't know what to make of Jon Stewart.
* What does it mean to be a law of nature?
* Quirky little movie about robots. The last episode involves a human being coming to grips with the concept of mind uploading...
* Favorite Quote: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you.” -Oscar Wilde


  1. Massimo,
    Since you brought up the Philosophy of history. I referred you before to Daniel Little's blog on FB a few weeks ago.


    He also just published a new book New Contributions to the Philosophy of History, linked at his blog, that is insanely priced, but Springer has some chapters on line, or at least they did.

    Thought you might find Little's work interesting as he specializes in the Philosophy of history and social science in general, and Asia. He also has some of his academic papers on line and linked at his blog.

  2. Hello Massimo, the moral philosopher Philippa Foot died last year; the NY Times did a piece on her a couple of weeks ago, which was the first time I'd heard of her. I haven't had the chance to read her yet (her book 'Natural Goodness' may be out of print, but I've got it on order) - according to the Times, she seems to have been interested in an account of morality based in biology, perhaps similar to Darwin's version of evolved morality. I'd love to hear your thoughts about her as well, should you be interested...

  3. J&C, I don't know as much about Foot as I should, though I have read some her work. She was interested in virtue ethics, as I am, and one of her major contributions to the field was the idea of thought experiments involving trolleys about to kill people. The latter has become an industry at the borderlands between philosophy and neuroscience, acquiring the informal name of "trolleyology." I have written about it in a variety of places, including:


  4. Massimo, since the comment section isn't busy, and my question wasn't answered on the podcast, perhaps you could give a quick response here. So, how would you justify your moral positions, like slavery is bad, to a moral nihilist and a moral relativist?

  5. hmm, I really don't bother engaging with nihilists and relativists, for the same reason I don't bother to engage with complete epistemic skeptics.

    If someone tells me that there is no way to know whether the law of gravity works, I invite him to kindly jump out of a window, preferably at least from the 10th floor.

    Analogously, if someone tells me that all morality is relative, I invite him to kindly not call the police when someone robs or tries to kill him, not to file law suites against his employer for sexual harassment, and so on.

    In other words, I find those positions good only for mental masturbation.

  6. Massimo, those are cheap "fuck off" answers—they don't justify your position. You ought to be able to show Pol Pot is morally wrong, correct?
    The best answer I'm able to come up with, and it's probably naive crap (which is why I asked you), is to recognize moral intuition isn't accurate, and then build from the consequences. So, I’ll try to show moral intuition isn’t accurate, then show why we need an objective moral system, and finally why we must defer to an objective moral system.
    First, we can’t show with certainty that moral intuition is inaccurate without an objective moral system to test those intuitions against. The trolley problem might appear to show our moral intuitions are immediately flawed; however, it can’t because without an objective moral system there is no way to show the seemingly inconsistent moral judgments given by respondents are actually wrong. A person could simply claim their inconsistent answer is right, because they believe it’s right, and I don’t know of any way to show that they’re wrong.
    So, instead of showing moral intuition is certainly flawed, I think showing it is probably flawed is enough to ask people to defer to an objective moral system that’s rationally thought out, because if moral intuition is probably flawed then you can’t know if you’re correct. For instance, you could use your intuition to determine how many apples are in a bucket, and you could get close to the right answer, or you could get the exact answer, but you could also be horribly wrong and not know it until you test your answer objectively.
    I think moral intuition can be shown to be probably wrong just by showing how flawed perception, cognition, and other intuitions are. For example, even logical intuition is flawed as shown with the Monty Hall problem, and there are dozens of memory and cognitive biases that could easily skew your moral judgments and make them inaccurate. So, if all that’s acceptable, then I think someone must come to the conclusion that an objective moral system is necessary even if morality means nothing descriptively (moral relativism and nihilism). For instance, we have intuitions of justice, but we recognize how flawed those intuitions are (imagine a judge without law to guide them), and so we create objective systems of justice.
    Finally, I think we can show slavery is morally wrong if we accept that we must defer to an objective moral system (which all rationally show slavery is wrong), and I think you must defer if you accept your moral intuitions are probably inaccurate.

  7. hmm,

    I've actually covered some of this territory in several places here. I do think that morality evolved, so that there is a basis for moral intuitions. I also think that reason can improve on moral intuitions, just like formal math can improve on our natural intuitions about probability.

    Still, I do believe that the only response to the Pol Pots of the world is fuck you, especially if backed by overwhelming fire power.

  8. Oops. I wrote and copied that from notepad, and the paragraph spacing disappeared.

    Massimo, it's not just the Pol Pots of the world we have to deal with. I've met people that question how you can know cheating on a partner is wrong, because they believe "cheating is wrong" is just an opinion or just a societal mores. They could also say the human species is one of serial monogamy, and so evolutionarily speaking, their moral intuition that cheating is permissible is correct. Obviously, I could tell them to fuck off, but that's not so helpful if they're my brother-in-law.

    Anyway, is my justification naive crap? If so, lead me to a better one.

  9. hmm, okay, if your brother-in-law isn't Pol Pot then you need something more than fuck off backed up by guns. (Or is that something less?)

    You are not too far out with what you propose, except that I would stay away from making equivalences between moral reasoning and matters of facts (otherwise you risk making Sam Harris' mistake). As I've argued before, moral reasoning is more akin to logic or math than science.

    The best bet is to use logic (broadly construed, not just the classic Aristotelian variety) to show that, say, thinking of cheating as morally permissible carries the kind of consequences that *they* wouldn't like (you can use Kant's categorical imperative there). Or that equating natural with right also leads to nasty results.

    Stupendous examples of this type of exercise can be found in Michael Sandel's book, an absolute must if one is interested in how moral reasoning actually works:


  10. Massimo,

    Thank you, but why couldn't something like that have been your first response? It's always a struggle to get an answer out of you, although I will admit you're generous to respond at all.

  11. hmm, my apologies, my responses often reflect how much time I happen to have at that particular moment, my mood, how busy I feel I'll be over the next several hours, and of course whether I have addressed the issue before on RS. The unfortunate consequences of writing for free... ;-)

  12. Massimo, before I asked my first question, I did search your blog for posts on ethics, and I have been reading this blog for a while. I didn't find anything having to do with your meta-ethical justification, but I did find plenty on ethics. To avoid this problem in the future, maybe you could install the tag cloud gadget. It's available in the blogger design dashboard. This would allow you to label your posts under different categories (ethics, meta-ethics, philosophy of science, ect), and make it easy to find relevant posts.

    Also, you say you're writing for free, you probably know this, but you can use adsense on blogspot blogs. You can also monetize your youtube videos if they get enough views.

  13. hmm, meta-ethical comments are spread out across various posts on ethics, for instance here:


    Yes, I know about tags, but I'm a bit lazy in that department, especially now that we have almost 700 posts up... As for monetizing the blog, I'm resisting it because I do believe that a public intellectual ought to write unfettered by monetary considerations - especially when this is made possible by having a full time tenured job.

  14. Massimo, "On morality, a response to Julia" is exactly what I was looking for (I've already seen the other two posts, yet strangely didn't find that one). Your meta-ethical justification makes perfect sense on a individual level. I can see how you can justify a position like slavery is wrong, and how a person is wrong to be a slaver. However, I don't think your position justifies saying someone else's position that slavery is good is wrong unless they already share your position (your positions conflict, but they can't cancel the other out). Basically, I don't think your position is valid outside of where it's already accepted.

    Assuming all that's true, I think you can fix your position by interleaving it with rationality, which they must accept, and so they should accept your position if they accept rationality. So, if moral intuitions and personal judgement are unreliable, and yet you act on your moral intuitions and personal judgement (even moral nihilists and relativists act on their intuitions), isn't it rational to defer, where possible, to an objective morality?

  15. Massimo,

    Sandra Harding was required reading in our epistemology class.

    She came after we had read Hume's Inquiry, so I left many of her hyperbolic flourishes unconsidered.

  16. hmm, I'm not sure I can't make a rational argument against slavery. I can invoke something like Kant's imperative and ask my interlocutor whether he'd like to be a slave, for instance. Or I can take a virtue ethics approach, arguing that slavery diminishes what it means to be human. Or a consequentialist approach, and argue that slavery decreases overall human well being. Of course, the person in question ought to care about human well being and / or logic to be moved. But if he doesn't he is a psychopath, and we are back to backing my arguments with guns... ;-)


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