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, September 24, 2012

Answers for Aristotle: response to the Weekly Standard

by Massimo Pigliucci

My new book, Answers for Aristotle, is about to come out. It is an excursion, aimed at a general public, into what I call “sci-phi,” the practical conjunction of science and philosophy — a theme familiar to readers of this blog. If you wish, you can think of it as a self-help book for people who dislike self-help books. The basic idea is to explore “the big questions” (you know, the usual suspects: morality, relationships, politics) from the joint perspective of the best science and the most compelling philosophy available to date. After all, the standard answers to those questions come from either religion or folk wisdom, the first one being based on imaginary entities and their arbitrary pronouncements, and the second being, shall we say, somewhat more fallible than one would wish.

The first couple of pre-publication reviews were positive. Kirkus called it “a useful introduction to sources on both sides of the science-philosophy divide,” while Publishers Weekly said that it is a “careful examination of the surprising connections between science and philosophy ... a witty and insightful look at the relevance of philosophy today.” So far so good!

Then the review by Mark Blitz was published in The Weekly Standard (the neo-con magazine directed by Bill Kristol), and I knew there would be, ahem, misunderstandings. Blitz is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy and director of the Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom (of which Kristol is Chairman), at Claremont McKenna College, and is kind enough to say that Answers for Aristotle “is not a bad book,” but it’s clear that there isn’t much he likes about it.

Blitz begins by remarking that Answers joins “the current gaggle of semi-popular works meant to inform the eager, but ignorant, about what neuroscience and psychology say about this, that, or the other thing.” Well, no, actually, it is precisely that crowd that I don’t wish to join, hence my emphasis on both science and philosophy, an approach that Blitz blithely dismisses as a marketing ploy on my part. Besides, isn’t the point of popular books about topic X to inform those who are “ignorant” (literally, the ones who do not know) of X?

The first substantive issue raised by Blitz is that I am allegedly “a bit too beholden to academic authority” (hey, I’m a university professor!) on the odd ground that whenever I cite a source in the book I use the form “psychologist x, political scientist y, neurobiologist z.” I wondered what exactly is wrong with acknowledging the proper field of expertise of the people you mention, particularly in a book that deals with a multiplicity of disciplines. After all, you wouldn’t want me to cite psychologist x’s likely naive opinion of a philosophical argument, or neurobiologist z’s personal political opinion.

I didn’t need to wonder past the end of the same sentence: “and, most desperately, philosopher Peter Singer, as if his job title makes his views less, rather than more, ridiculous.” Ah! It shouldn’t surprise me that a writer for a neo-con magazine despises (not just disagrees with, but feels compelled to ridicule) one of the most influential (and, yes, controversial) contemporary professional philosophers. After all, Singer is known not just for his work in defense of animal welfare, but also for advocating pretty unpopular positions among the political Right, including euthanasia and infanticide (under very restricted conditions, but still). Unlike Blitz, however, I think it intellectually healthy to help oneself to good arguments regardless of who advanced them, which does not imply buying someone’s opinions wholesale. In fact, I disagree with much of what Singer says, largely because he is a utilitarian and I am a virtue ethicist, so I don’t find several of his conclusions compelling. But when he takes interesting positions, I cite him appropriately (professional affiliation and all).

“Pigliucci’s general point is that if we know more, we will choose better and be happier. Oddly, he never argues this point, and some of his own discussions call it into question. He does not analyze, let alone debunk, obvious ways in which ignorance can be bliss or its handmaiden.”

I always find it disconcerting when an intellectual seriously argues that people should be kept ignorant “for their own good.” Yes, there is indeed some research (mentioned in the book) showing that — to a small but measurable degree — ignorance and even superstition may ease our way through life (see, for instance, a RS podcast episode on the latter point, as well as a couple of posts we have published about it). But Answers for Aristotle is written from the point of view of virtue ethics, and ignorance is most definitely not a virtue, for Aristotle as well as for most of us, neo-con wishes to the contrary notwithstanding. If Blitz’s ideal society is one of ignoramuses who do not question authority and common wisdom, happy with the modern version of panem et circenses (what would that be, cheeseburgers and Netflix?), that is his prerogative, but my entire career as a public writer is informed by the exact opposite stance.

And then I read this stunner, mid-way through the review: “Locating, say, certain moral choices in this or that part of the brain, or uncovering hormones or chemicals involved in love, or seeing what brain scans show when someone makes a political judgment tells one about love, morality, politics, poetry, and philosophy only to the degree that one grasps these phenomena in the first place. Thoughts and feelings are directed toward what they are about, and are influenced by what they are about. They are mediated or structured by reason and what is general. Sight is not only about seeing, but about what is there to be seen. Mathematics is about what is true, not only about what happens in the brain. Politics is not only about my feelings and transitory opinions, but about ways of life and the common institutions that direct and help to form these opinions and passions. One needs to know the range and intricacy of love before one ascribes, locates, or reduces the experience to brain chemistry.”

Yes, indeed, all of the above! But at this point I have to question whether Blitz has actually read the book. Seriously, I know authors always throw that sort of line to their critics, but the above paragraph is a very good summary of what the book is about, because of my basic thesis that wisdom results from the best knowledge of facts (science) and the best reflections about those facts (philosophy). Blitz ought to have been very happy with a book like Answers, but he isn’t. I suspect this is simply because my reflections aren’t to his liking, not because I reduce love, politics and math to fMRI scans (since I most certainly do not).

Or perhaps Blitz just didn’t understand what I was after, despite my careful and (I thought) accessible treatment of the subject matter: “Pigliucci’s project seems precisely to be finding guidance for values in the facts that science (apparently) discovers.” That’s exactly what I don’t do! I don’t expect Blitz to have read my critical review of Harris’ nonsense about science answering moral questions. But surely science (or, more broadly, facts) aren’t irrelevant to ethical reasoning. If, for instance, we are debating abortion, and one of the salient points of our argument is that it is an acceptable procedure, say, before the point in development at which the fetus is capable of feeling pain, then obviously we need science to give us its best estimate of when that point factually occurs. But notice that science isn’t in the business of telling us why pain is an ethically relevant consideration, or how it is to be balanced against, say, the interests of the mother.

The chief problem Blitz seems to have with Answers for Aristotle is ideological in nature. He complains of me: “He honestly confesses his standard left-of-center political preferences, but also tendentiously skews things in this political direction.” Well, if I am honest about my political preferences (unlike, say, Blitz, who doesn’t say what his are anywhere in the review, even though they are clearly pertinent) it is hard to imagine how I can then dishonestly skew things for the reader, unless the latter simply wasn’t paying attention.

Here is an example of what Blitz is complaining about: “He acts as if John Rawls’s views have never been seriously challenged,” a fair criticism if I had set out to write a book about political philosophy, or a book pretending to have a “view from nowhere.” But I didn’t. I set out to advise readers interested in reflecting about the big questions in life, and I did so from a clearly stated progressive perspective. In my mind (and that of most political philosophers, from what I get from the primary literature) Rawls is the defining figure in the field in the latter part of the 20th century. Yes, he has had his critics, chief amongst them Robert Nozick, but even Nozick by the end of his life had serious doubts about libertarianism and embraced a type of collectivism, and at any rate his criticism of Rawls was far too nuanced to be of much comfort to the neo-con agenda.

And then we come to the other big issue from the perspective of the political Right, religion: “One place Pigliucci shows intellectual energy is in his discussion of religion. He thinks that religious belief is rooted in superstition, and argues that Plato has proved in the Euthyphro that we do not need gods to be moral. Although his discussions raise important questions, he ignores the place of belief in securing obedience to law, in advancing ethical action, and in elevating our understanding of ourselves and others.” [I take it as a point in my favor, by the way, that Blitz, who has written professionally about Plato does not substantially object to my take on the import of the Euthyphro.]

Ah, but the point of those three chapters in Answers is precisely that the intelligent and educated person (clearly, not Blitz’s ideal audience) does not need the crutch of religion in order to follow the law (as well as questioning it when called for), to work one’s way through ethical dilemmas for which the Big Ten are woefully inadequate, or to arrive at a fact-based, rather than myth-based “understanding of ourselves and others.”

Finally, Blitz — perhaps feeling that his case wasn’t strong enough — resorted to the weapon of last resort available to the critical reviewer, questioning the author’s competence, or at least his intellectual depth: “The examination [of a better book] would discuss studies in enough detail that we would know on whom they were conducted, how they understood the phenomena that compose their research question, how reliable and long-lasting their results are, and whether they have been replicated. ... Such a book would be a tall order, but anything less distorts understanding.”

But that sort of book, which Blitz is of course more than welcome to write himself (or he could check the abundant references in the “Digging Deeper” section at the end of mine), would have been a long technical tome, while Answers for Aristotle is expressly designed for the (intelligent, educated) general public. It would be like complaining that Stephen Hawking should have engaged in a lot of quantum mathematics to make his case in The Grand Design. It simply doesn’t work that way, and Blitz ought to know better. Perhaps the Weekly Standard’s readers will.


  1. Looking forward to reading your book for myself so I can compare it to my own (Evolutionary Philosophy). I'm sure I'll learn a lot from you and my thoughts will evolve. Good luck fighting off the Weekly Standards of the world!

  2. Massimo: I can't say much about the negative review or its source without resorting to ad hominem, so instead I'll just leave that alone and say that I'm really looking forward to reading your next book!

  3. Blitz sounds like an acolyte of Leo Strauss - training up the next generation of elites to control the masses.

  4. Blitz's review sounds petty and way off base. I'm looking forward to read the new book.

  5. @ Massimo

    You are on record for ascribing ontological status to mathematical objects, because we must presuppose these abstractions in order to do science. What about such abstract values as the good and the beautiful? Do we have to presuppose the perfect good in the abstract in order to do moral philosophy?

  6. Alastair,

    > What about such abstract values as the good and the beautiful? Do we have to presuppose the perfect good in the abstract in order to do moral philosophy? <


  7. An somewhat topical question: if I buy the book today will I have access to it via kindle or will I have to wait till the 4th? I'm psyched to read this :)

  8. @ Massimo

    > Nope. <

    Okay. So, what's your rationale for determining what is right, what is good, and what is virtuous?

  9. Alastair,


    Chris, Kevin,

    I think the e-book will download on 10/2, the official date of release of the book.

  10. Nozick never did give up libertarianism, http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/misunderstanding-nozick-again/. All he did was change his mind about some specifics. So your facts aren't quite correct. Also, even if Robert Nozick did give up Libertarianism that wouldn't really be an argument against it.

  11. Dan,

    and you trust whatever the CATO writes? Hmm. Nozick's change of heart is well known among political philosophers, and if I have time I'll do a separate post about it.

    Of course, you are correct that this is irrelevant to the soundness (or lack thereof) of libertarian doctrine. For that see, for example:


  12. @ Massimo

    "Where does all of this leave us? With the idea that morality is a human (and other relevantly similar beings’) phenomenon, so that to talk about universal morality makes precisely no sense. But human beings share certain (local to the species) attributes,*** such as preferring a long and healthy life to a nasty and short one, and it is those parameters of humanness that set the axioms of our moral thinking. Ethical reasoning, then, consists of what sort of rules and outcomes logically emerge from that particular set of assumptions. Just like a good mathematician would do, we pick the most promising axioms and work with them, but we acknowledge that sometimes the search gets stuck into unproductive corners of logical space and we go back and — cautiously — tweak the assumptions themselves and get back to work."

    (source: "On ethics, part I: Moral philosophy’s third way" by Massimo Pilgiucci)

    It seems self-evident (at least to me) that human beings seek the good, to be happy. It also seems to me that this desire is universal. Do you disagree? If so, why?

    (By the way, I believe an "axiom" (at least in the context of morality and ethics) should be self-evident.)

    Also, where exactly does Aristotle's final causation come to play in all this?

  13. Alastair,

    that discussion thread is now old, and I have no time to reopen it here, sorry. As for the role of Aristotle's final cause, I have no interest whatsoever in where it may or may not fit.

  14. @ Massimo

    > that discussion thread is now old, and I have no time to reopen it here, sorry. As for the role of Aristotle's final cause, I have no interest whatsoever in where it may or may not fit. <

    That discussion is directly relevant to what you discussed in your book - namely, the meaning of life, how to build your own moral theory, how to become really good, the power of will, and what about God. So, it would appear to me that you're simply evading the question. Therefore, I will conclude that you can't answer it.

  15. One of the great benefits of writing a book is that whenever a person asks you a question, you can invariably tell them to "buy the book and find out!" It makes life much easier.

  16. Alastair,

    > Therefore, I will conclude that you can't answer it. <

    You may conclude whatever you wish, but you would be committing an elementary reasoning mistake. Instead, you may want to check the entire RS series on ethics (seven parts), and/or do what Chris says, buy the book.

  17. @massimo

    Congrats. I'm looking forward to reading it. I'm impressed with how prolific you are. How do you do it? Have you always produced this much? Is it a struggle, or are you a little compulsive about it? Do you find expository writing harder or easier than fiction?

  18. OneDay,

    well, I've been banging on a typewriter (remember those?) since my grandfather gave me one in middle school. I actually do much of my thinking while writing (and while taking notes in the process of reading other people), and I absolutely love it. You could say I'm compulsive about it, I don't feel right if I haven't written something every day... As for fiction, I've never written any, tough some of the commenters on this blog would beg to differ!

    1. I find it hard to think if I'm not writing. My theory is that this is because I have very little RAM but the words on the page serve as peripherals.

  19. @ Massimo,

    I think you are using the term "neo-con" improperly. It is true that William Kristol is a neo-con. But not all the content of The Weekly Standard is neo-con. Neoconservatism is strictly a foreign-policy position. It is compatible with rational - even liberal (in the US sense) opinions on scientific, social and economic issues. Christopher Hitchens was a neo-con, for instance. Blitz really sounds like a theo-con!

  20. What an excelent defense prelude of Answers for Aristotle, the book is already pre-order on my Kindle, I cant wait to confrot the views. By now, I think it is obvious that despite the libertarianism pretended position of Blitz he wrote ultra-conservatory staments.

  21. I've begun reading Answers and am enjoying it quite a bit. But there are some things I'd like to clarify, either with Massimo or other readers. Where would be a good place on the Internet to discuss the book?

  22. Steve,

    well, this thread is good, though there may be book clubs around the web doing something with the book!

  23. Thanks! Puzzled by statement on p64: "...a human being could not possibly commit immoral acts if ... stranded on a deserted island..." Wouldn't unnecessary cruelty to animals be immoral? Also, unnecessary wrecking of the island's ecosystem might be immoral to planet as a whole?Even if morality is only a human to human matter, even though island is deserted now, humans may visit it in future, so it might be immoral to wreck it because that might deprive future visitors.

    1. steve,

      good point. I guess I was thinking of a deserted island with plants only... But the broader point is that, if one thinks of morality as a human construct, then only other humans can label an act as moral or immoral, as the category doesn't apply to other animals. Indeed, even in your example, we would need a second person to pass judgment on the first individual's acts before we could even talk about morality.

  24. Just finished the book. Liked it overall, but not quite as much as your "Nonsense..." book. One complaint, I thought your treatment of evolutionary psychology (p274-5) was not up to your usual standards... I was disappointed with the straw man style takedown of Miller & Kanazawa. Why should a crappy Psychology Today article be held up as a "sampler" for a field like EP?

    1. Steve,

      I think you may have been missing the point of that specific example: the discussion of the Psychology Today article wasn't meant as a debunking of EP (my sustained criticism of that field appeared in Nonsense on Stilts for the general public, and in Making Sense of Evolution for a more technical audience). It was rather an example of the perniciousness that may result when questionable science makes it into the pages of a popular magazine.

  25. Massimo,

    Since you responded with interest to my preview of your book on my blog, I thought I'd bring my review to your attention. It's not very positive, unfortunately, but I'm responding only to the first part of the book. I might post a Part 2 after I've read the whole book, and I suspect I'll have more positive things to say then. Just not sure when I'll have time.

    By the way, I was very appreciative of your recent posts on the naturalism workshop. Thank you for that!

    All the best,

    1. Jason,

      please note that it is "Aristotle," not "Aristitle."

    2. Please note? I guess that was a joke. I made a typo in the blog title, not in the text. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

  26. And Part 2 of my review. I do have some positive things to say, but I'm afraid I'm still focusing more on the negative. By the way, I've revised the first part of my review. I think it's a bit fairer now.



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