Interview by Richard Marshall
'My basic take, which I'll get into below, is that in the 1780s, Kant thought that rational beings should wish to be without their inclinations, whereas in the 1790s, Kant changed his mind, and concluded that the inclinations were good in themselves. And that the reason he did this had to do with theodicy. But if you're suspicious of talk of Gods and evil, then what's at stake for you in this debate?'
'Long story short, Kant thinks that the morally good person will realize that (1) you can't explain why God does what He does; (2) you can't use evil to disprove God, (3) being committed to the moral law means accepting the postulate of God's existence. So, his theodicy is actually an anti-theodicy: trying to provide God's reasons is itself evidence that you've got a culpably messed up view of what you can know, and trying to use evil to disprove God shows the same. What you should instead do is try to be a good person, and faith in God will come.'
'Arguably, Kierkegaard thought that most people acted as though they didn't accept Christianity, despite espousing it. So, you could be a theistic meta-atheist. Second, I've been wondering for a long time what it means to say of someone that she behaves differently from how she believes. Since so few people who claim to accept QAnon don't actually go around doing crazy stuff, does that mean they don't really believe QAnon?'
'We think that Hume is neither atheistic nor agnostic, on the basis both of what he asserts in his Natural History of Religion , and in his letters to his contemporaries. Consequently, we see Philo's belief in a designer as sincere. But if Philo is sincere, then on what basis does he believe in a designer? After all, he spends five chapters of the Dialogueslaying waste to the argument from design, which was not only Cleanthes's argument for belief in a designer, but also the main argument in Hume's day for belief in a designer, at least in Scotland and England.'
'Why are only 30% (as of 2007; it's pretty much remained at that level as of 2015) of philosophy majors female? Second, why are only 21% of employed philosophers women (as of 2007; it's 26% as of 2015 )?'
Robert Gressis is working primarily on Kant's moral psychologies, specifically his conceptions of character, evil, happiness, and maxims. In addition, he's working on meta-atheism, the meaning of life, Kant's moral argument for belief in the existence of God, and figuring out which libertarian account of free will to accept. Here he discusses Kant's religion and ethics, including the role of inclinations, his change of mind, his views on the problem of evil, God's Grace, what kind of God did Kant have in mind, Kant's maxims, meta-atheism, Hume and religion, peer disagreement, the gender disparity in professional philosophy, and whether it's ok to be a philosopher anymore.
3:16: What made you become a philosopher?
Robert Gressis: The answer I usually give is: when I was an eighteen-year-old student at the University of Dayton (UD), I initially majored in economics. I think the main reason I chose economics is that my father, who was a finance professor, really liked that I was interested in economics. However, I took an introduction to philosophy and religion class, co-taught by the philosopher John Inglis, and I really liked how everything seemed up for discussion in philosophy. You could argue about the existence of God, socialism, morality, art, etc. Since I really liked arguing about such things with my high school friends, philosophy seemed like the major for me.
However, the honest answer is: I don't think I know why I became a philosopher, for two reasons. Let me tell you a story: when I was an undergraduate at UD, I had been taking a lot of German classes, and so my mom, who was a professor in UD's languages department, asked me, "who's your favorite German teacher?" I responded, "It depends on what you mean by 'favorite.'" She got angry at me, (probably, rightfully) pointing out that it's a very simple question that normal people can answer. But I really didn't know how to answer the question! So, the first reason I don't know the answer to your question is that answering your question seems to depend on an understanding of what becoming a philosopher is, and, though I have such an understanding (which I can tell you about if you want), I haven't scrutinized it, so I'm not sure it's any good. Perhaps the fact that I can't help but to ask such questions shows that I've been a philosopher for a while. Or maybe it just shows that I'm irritating.
The second reason I don't think I know what made me become a philosopher is that I don't think we're that great at understanding the factors that cause us to do what we do. I'm taken by a variety of experiments in social psychology that seem to indicate that the kinds of reasons we think usually move us -- appreciation of the merits of a certain course of action in a particular situation, let's say -- may not actually move us. Take Isen and Levin's phone booth experiment. 88% of people who found a dime in a phone booth would help a passerby pick up papers she dropped, whereas only 4% of those who didn't find a dime would help her. If you had asked the helpers why they helped, they probably would have said, "because she needed help" or "it was the right thing to do." Apparently, though, the accurate answer would have been, "because I found a dime." So, maybe I decided to major in philosophy because I had a particularly good sandwich on the day I signed up.
3:16: You're an expert in aspects of Kant's philosophy and in particular his arguments about religion and ethics. So one issue you've looked at is the issue of inclinations in Kant: in some places he says we shouldn't want to be inclined one way or the other, but in other places he says inclinations are good in themselves. You discuss this in terms of his theodicy and his view about radical evil. So first could you say something about what this is about and what is at stake - especially for contemporary philosophers who might be suspicious about talk of Gods and evil?
RG: I confess, I bristle when I get called an expert in anything. To the best of my knowledge, this isn't mock-modesty, though it's probably a defense mechanism: "hey look, if I don't know something about X but I'm not an expert in X, that's ok; but if I'm an expert in X and I don't know something about X, then that's not ok." I realize, of course, that it's ok for an expert not to know something in his domain of expertise. But the feeling persists. Maybe there's another worry, like, "holy cow, if someone who knows as little as I do counts as an expert, then the world is in big trouble." Which may be true -- the world may, really, be in big trouble. Finally, there's a thing about me: I genuinely think I'm more of a dilettante than many other people who do philosophy, especially Kant scholars. Kant is so systematic, it seems like you can't really focus on one part of his system without knowing the rest as well. Since I feel that I do know one part (the religious part) much more than the other parts, I also feel like what I'm about to say will expose me as a fraud. But now, after both covering my own ass and going up it as well, I'll answer your question.
My basic take, which I'll get into below, is that in the 1780s, Kant thought that rational beings should wish to be without their inclinations, whereas in the 1790s, Kant changed his mind, and concluded that the inclinations were good in themselves. And that the reason he did this had to do with theodicy. But if you're suspicious of talk of Gods and evil, then what's at stake for you in this debate?
My quick answer is that I'm not sure anything is at stake for you. When I write my articles, I often don't think about what's at stake for other people. I just find something that puzzles or torments me, and I try to find a solution to it. In the case of this article, I definitely didn't wonder about what's at stake for philosophers who don't care about God, evil, or Kant. Not every article is for everyone, so if you don't care about any of those issues, then the article might not be for you!
That said, I'm now going to try to explain what might be at stake. I had never thought about that particular question when I wrote the article, but in rereading the article, I see that I actually have a few things to say.
The basic issue I'm investigating is why Kant thinks people act immorally. Do they act immorally because their desires literally make them act immorally, or because they give in to their desires when they shouldn't? If the former, then our own desires are the source of immorality. If the latter, then our desires aren't the problem; it's how we think about them that is.
I could be wrong, but I suspect that an Aristotelian -- and a Buddhist, probably more so -- could live with the idea that our desires, at least partly, are the source of our vices. Each of us, as children, is dealt a lot in life, coming from the combination of our genetics and our environment. If we have good luck, the right upbringing, etc., then by the time we reach the age of moral maturity, our desires will be disciplined, and may even be a source of goodness (just so long as you desire the right thing in the right way at the right time). By contrast, if we've had bad luck, the wrong upbringing, etc., then by the time we reach the age of moral maturity, our desires are enemies we must fight.
By contrast, the idea that it's how we think of our desires that is the source of immorality will be more appealing to Kantians, not to mention lots of other people who I probably can't think of a good label for ("intellectualists", perhaps?). On this view, the reason you can't resist some of your more objectionable desires is not that you literally can't resist them, but instead stems from the fact that you think of them as irresistible. If you just thought of them differently -- as defeasible sources of reasons, for example -- then you could resist them.
This idea -- that the source of immorality is how we think about things rather than our desires -- itself raises problems. The first problem is that the desire account helps to make sense of our phenomenology, in that some desires literally seem stronger than others. Some really do seem irresistible, or almost such. If our desires literally can't make us do anything, then we do some feel so much more forceful than others? Perhaps even the strongest desires can't make us do anything, but it still seems right that desires vary in their strength, and it seems implausible to me that the only reason they vary in their strength has to do with how much authority we choose to give them. Even if it's true that our crediting our desires to various levels helps to explain why some feel weaker and others stronger, there's got to be some additional account as well that is more, well, physiological.
The second problem has to do with why we think of our desires in the way we do. To see what I mean, let's take it for granted that the source of immorality is not our desires themselves, but rather how we think about them. If this is right, it just raises the question: "why do we think about our desires in that way?" Now, at least Christine Korsgaard, who is compatibilist about free will, will be perfectly happy to admit that we think about our desires in objectionable ways because we were caused by our circumstances to think of them in that way. I suspect her view would be the dominant view among scholars of Kant's ethics. But I don't think Kant himself would be happy about that possibility. Indeed, I think he came up with his doctrine of radical evil precisely in order to avoid concluding that our circumstances cause us to think about our desires in the wrong way.
3:16: Your explanation is that Kant changed his mind and he did this because of his thinking about morality. So can you take us through this and where your explanation leaves Kant's position regarding immorality and inclinations?
RG: In the 4:428 of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and 5:118 of the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Kant says that rational beings, to the extent they're thinking rationally, should wish to rid themselves of their inclinations, but at 6:58 of the Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason (1793), he says that inclinations are good in themselves. This presents a puzzle: if Kant thinks inclinations are good in themselves, why would he also think that rational beings should wish to be without them? Most interpreters who have examined this question try to solve the puzzle by claiming that Kant isn't being literal in the Groundwork and the second Critique . They say he doesn't really think that rational beings should wish to be without their inclinations. Instead, he's just saying that for rhetorical effect. Marcia Baron , for example, thinks that Kant says this because he really wants us to avoid thinking that our inclinations are valuable in themselves, so he overcorrects, and says, 'not only are they not valuable in themselves, we'd be better off without them altogether!' Kant's real view is the one he expresses in the Religion , which is that inclinations are good in themselves. In my 2018 paper in Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie , "Kant's Theodicy and Its Role in the Development of Radical Evil", I call all this the Rhetorical Interpretation.
I think there are a lot of problems with the rhetorical interpretation, but rather than get into them, let me sketch and explain my own interpretation (if you want to read about my criticisms of the rhetorical interpretation, I present them near the beginning of my 2018 paper). I favor what I call the Literal Interpretation. On the Literal Interpretation, I take what Kant writes in the Groundwork and second Critique literally -- I think, at the time, that he really thought we would be better off without inclinations, because if we didn't have any, then we would always do what the moral law commands. But given that he is a theist (or at least, he sure seems to be to me and a number of other interpreters), this wish is actually an uncomfortable one. It basically amounts to the claim, "hey, God, you should have done a better job when you created us." So, in his Conjectural Beginning of Human History but more fully spelled out in his Lectures on the Philosophical Doctrine of Religion we find Kant saying that God created us perfectly, it's just that our inclinations are "uncultivated." It's because they're uncultivated that we do bad things. But still, even though we act wrongly on account of our uncultivated inclinations, it's still true that these wrong actions are our fault; after all, if we had merely cultivated our inclinations, we wouldn't have acted immorally. Moreover, as history progresses, the human race will eventually completely cultivate its inclinations, and then no one will act immorally. In light of this theodicy, then, when we wish to be without our inclinations, what we're wishing for is to be without our uncultivated inclinations. But our uncultivated inclinations are, indeed, the source of our immorality, or so it seems the Kant of the 1780s believed, at least in some of his moods.
However, by the time he wrote the Religion, Kant changed his mind: he concluded that, actually, inclinations (presumably, even uncultivated ones) are good in themselves after all, so we shouldn't wish to be without them. I say that the reason he changed his mind was for theodical reasons; he realized that his 1780s view of inclinations would either make God responsible for our evil (because God created us with these uncultivated inclinations), or would make us not responsible for our evil. Why would his 1780s view make us non-responsible? Well, if it's really our inclinations that are causing us to act immorally, then they're responsible for our immorality, not us. And even if they're not literally causing us to act immorally, but are merely strongly inclining us to be immoral, it's still true that the stronger the inclination, the less our responsibility. But I think Kant didn't want us to think that our inclinations are either causing us or strongly inclining us to act immorally, because to the extent we believe that, we can excuse ourselves for our immorality.
To get us out of this excuse-game, Kant argued that we should think of ourselves and everyone else as having a propensity to evil -- an innate tendency to accord undue weight to immoral courses of actions that conduce to our self-interest. It is this innate tendency that explains why we view our inclinations as reason-giving even when they're not (and note: because God created us with our inclinations, it follows that they are good in themselves, so they are sometimes truly reason-giving).
Arguably, this just pushes things back one step: if this propensity to evil is innate, then doesn't it either implicate God for creating us with it or exonerate us for succumbing to what is just our nature? Here Kant ventures rather boldly into asserting that we should view it as innate, in the sense that you should think of everyone as having it, and as having it as soon as they reach the age of reason, but we should also view it as self-imposed, precisely to avoid the problem of implicating God or exonerating ourselves. How can it be self-imposed, though, if everyone has it, and has it from a very young age? Kant's answer seems to be: we don't know, but we should nonetheless view it as such. (I also think that he relies on the resources of a rather metaphysical transcendental idealism to make this move, but that interpretation isn't popular, so I'll just mention it once and move on.)
3:16: Is this how he explains away the traditional problem of evil that confronts anyone who believes in an all powerful , all knowing and good God?
RG: To understand Kant's solution to the problem of evil, you need to know his attitude to theodicies. To the extent Kant is open to the possibility that God is real, and not just a useful heuristic (I personally think Kant thinks that God is real, but leave that aside), then God is noumenal. Because God is noumenal, we can't have any kind of theoretical insight into God's nature or reasons. That is, we can't use, say, a cosmological argument to prove that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God, based on the fact that something exists, or based on the nature of change, or what have you. That rules out a theoretical basis for both theism and atheism.
Now, Kant appears to think that, even though not everyone accepts transcendental idealism, everyone believes, on some level, that people cannot have insight into why God allows us to suffer and act immorally. (This seems clear enough to me from Kant's discussion of Job and his comforters.) And yet, despite knowing that one cannot have insight into God's reasons, many people go around asserting that they know God's reasons. (Kant calls the offering of God's reasons for allowing evil "doctrinal theodicy".) Because Kant thinks that people can't really believe the doctrinal theodicies they offer, he sees the offering of theodicies as itself evidence that someone is radically evil. The idea is, if you don't believe that you know why God allows evil, but you pretend to know, then on some level you're dissimulating, and that's evidence of what Kant calls an evil Gesinnung (this is usually translated as "disposition"; think of a disposition as your overall orientation to morality). In other words, even offering a theodicy in the traditional sense is evidence that you're a bad person. (So too, by the way, is offering an argument from evil to the conclusion that God doesn't exist.)
The truly good person, Kant thinks, is someone who has the right orientation to morality. She thinks following the moral law and trying to contribute to the highest good (a state of affairs where everyone is perfectly virtuous and happy) is the most important project in her or anyone's life. But Kant also accepts what has come to be known as the moral argument for the existence of God; basically, this is the idea that if you accept the moral law, then you will see how demanding its obligations are, and how far away you are from meeting them. And yet, you have to think you are able to meet them, and so you have to believe in the afterlife as a condition of your being able to do your duty. Moreover, you have to think that the highest good is an achievable state of affairs in order to try to bring it about, so you have to believe in a God who will organize things to allow for the realization of the highest good.
Long story short, Kant thinks that the morally good person will realize that (1) you can't explain why God does what He does; (2) you can't use evil to disprove God, (3) being committed to the moral law means accepting the postulate of God's existence. So, his theodicy is actually an anti-theodicy: trying to provide God's reasons is itself evidence that you've got a culpably messed up view of what you can know, and trying to use evil to disprove God shows the same. What you should instead do is try to be a good person, and faith in God will come.
3:16: Why was Kant noncommittal about God's Grace or does he have other arguments?
RG: I published an article,"Why Is Kant Noncommittal about Grace?" . In that article, I highlighted a passage from p. 6:44 of Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason where Kant writes, "Supposing that, for [the human being] to become good or better, a supranatural cooperation were also needed, whether this cooperation were to consist only in the diminution of obstacles or also in positive assistance, the human being must yet make himself worthy beforehand to receive it, and must (which is no trifling matter) this aid, i.e., admit this positive increase of power into his maxim; through this alone does it become possible to impute the good in him and to cognize him as a good human being." The question I had about this passage is, Why does Kant write, "supposing that" the human being needs God's grace to become better? Like, does Kant think that we need God's aid to become morally good or doesn't he?
The answer I arrived at was that Kant was intentionally not answering that question, not just for theoretical reasons, but also for practical reasons. Since we cannot have insight into God's activities, then, from a theoretical point of view, we have to be agnostic about whether God does or doesn't grant grace. But interestingly, from a practical point of view, Kant thought both that asserting that we do or don't need grace can have negative repercussions on one's moral character, depending on the individual. On the one hand, if you think we don't need grace, then this is either because you think it's not there for the offering, or because you think that you can meet the moral law's demands without any help. If you think grace isn't offered, this could be bad; if you recognize how massive the moral law's demands are, then you may just not even try to be good. You'll be morally timorous. On the other hand, if you think you don't need grace, all the while recognizing the severity of morality's requirements, then you're you're morally cocky.
But similar dangers lurk for those who think we do need God's grace. If you think God offers grace, then this make you morally complacent -- you might not try very hard to be morally good because you figure that God will help you anyway. Alternatively, you may think that you already are good, and that you are good because God has helped you, in which case you may be tempted to think that you're one of God's elect, which may make you morally supercilious.
Being open to the idea that God does or doesn't offer grace can counter these attitudes, though. If you're morally timorous, someone can tell you, "don't give up; God can help you!" If you're morally cocky, someone can tell you, "the only reason you managed to do what you did was that God helped you." If you're morally complacent, someone can tell you, "you might be wrong; God might not help us, so you better try to do things yourself." Finally, if you're morally supercilious, then someone can tell you, "you may not be God's chosen after all -- it could be that God didn't help you." In other words, it's important that Kant not take a stand on whether God offers grace.
3:16: When examining Kant’s views on God, what are we looking at – is this a Christian God that Popes and/or evangelicals could happily identify as being theirs - or is it a philosophical construction rooted in his overall philosophical ethical system with general monotheistic features consistent with Christianity, Islam , Judaism but without the particular elements within any of these actual religions?
RG: I would say that it's much closer to your second option. I understand Kant's philosophy of religion to be methodologically of a piece with the rest of his critical philosophy. Take, for example, Kant's approach to ethics. It seems to be a fact that we experience ourselves as having moral obligations. And by "we", Kant means every rational human being. Given the universality of this ethical outlook, there must be some ground for it in reason that explains why we feel the pull of morality. Similarly, though perhaps not every person feels a religious pull (at least, using that word in contemporary language), every culture has a religion. It follows that there must be something within reason that explains why each culture generates a religion.
But just what is religion for Kant? If you take Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason as a guide, religion emerges from the following pattern: there is a problem that all people face on an individual level, namely, the propensity to evil. The problem the propensity to evil presses upon us -- our self-imposed temptation to immorality -- requires some kind of solution. The solution Kant thinks we need is to change our orientation to morality in a revolutionary act. Kant calls this solution "moral revolution." But as I pointed out in my previous answer to the question about divine aid, Kant thinks you may have reason to think that you can't do this yourself, so you may have to posit divine aid as needed for you to change. The thing is, even if you successfully undergo a moral revolution, you still have another problem: you're a social creature, and as such, you're strongly influenced by the society you're in, so you will need some support to avoid relapsing into evil. And even if you didn't need this support, you'd still need a community of like-minded, morally good people to work to bring about the highest good. In other words, you need what Kant calls a "church." But finally, even if you do have a church, that church is susceptible to "priestcraft"--its clergy perverting the mission of the church from one that is primarily practical (shoring up people's good moral dispositions and working to bring about the highest good) to one that is primarily theoretical (claiming to have knowledge of God's ways, and making assent to that knowledge the condition of solving the individual problem of your propensity to evil).
So, as Lawrence Pasternack has pointed out in his Kant on within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, the structure of the Religion is as follows: individual corruption; individual purification; group purification; group corruption. I think that that's also Kant's understanding of religions in general: their important religious doctrines arise to point out or solve the problem of individual corruption, which leads to the solutions of individual and group purification, but they always bring with them a new problem, which is group corruption.
It doesn't follow from the (putative) that all religions arise to solve the same problems that their solutions are equally good. Some may have as central doctrines ones that Kant may think of as more wrong-headed than others (e.g., Buddhism offers the doctrine of no-self as the solution to the problem of individual suffering, which they see as rooted in desire. But given that Kant thinks that desire itself is not the problem, but rather our attitude to it, and given that Kant seems to believe in the self and the dignity of individuals, it's possible that Kant would look at Buddhism and think it more thoroughly corrupted by priestcraft than Christianity). And it also isn't the case that Kant wants to dispense with all talk of miracles. Given his openness to the possibility of legitimately believing that God helps you become a better person, Kant is open to the propriety of interpreting certain events as miraculous, and he thinks doing so can be extremely important for our moral development. (For more on why he thinks that, see Lawrence Pasternack's essay, "Religious Assent and the Question of Theology" in the anthology Kant and the Question of Theology.)
That said, Kant is fairly clear that the main reason to believe in doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, or the Atonement would be practical. And as it turns out, he thinks that the mainstream of Christian interpretation of those doctrines is wrong--first, Kant doesn't think the doctrine of the Trinity has any practical usefulness, so he thinks there's no reason to believe in it; Kant reads the Incarnation and the Atonement in a much more rationalistic way than traditional Christians do (such Christians see the Incarnation and Atonement as historical events , whereas Kant seems to think that there is something within the way we think of our own moral development that we can call Incarnation and Atonement); and as for the Resurrection, again, I don't see him as ruling out the possibility of Jesus' physical resurrection from the dead, but he does think that a general resurrection, wherein everyone gets a new, risen body, is silly, because why would we want to drag our bodies with us to the afterlife? So, I wouldn't say that Kant is a Christian (perhaps a very heterodox Christian), but I also wouldn't say that he is a purely philosophical theist, because he sees important roles for symbols, and because he is open to the possibility of divine intervention.
3:16: As you say, maxims are a key part of Kant’s approach to ethics. First, for those not familiar with what Kant’s maxims are, can you explain the various ways they have been understood?
RG: I wrote two papers on maxims for Philosophy Compass . The first was called "Recent Work on Kantian Maxims I: Established Approaches." To set the scene, I point out that a proper interpretation of maxims is crucial to understanding Kant's ethical theory, because maxims figure largely in it. How so? Well, as is well known, Kant claims that actions done from duty have "moral worth", while actions done merely in conformity with duty do not. Now, what makes an action count as one done from duty? The answer is: its maxim -- the practical principle underlying it. If the maxim underlying the action is universalizable (i.e., one such that you can conceive of or will a world in which everyone accepts and acts on that maxim), then the action has moral worth, and so, is morally permissible; if not, then the action has no moral worth and is morally wrong. Finally, refraining from morally wrong action (or inaction) is morally obligatory. Consequently, to find out what kinds of actions are morally right or wrong, you have to know what maxims are.
So, just what are maxims? In this first paper, I cover five interpretations. Rather than go into the specifics of all five interpretations, I'll organize them into two schools of thought and give them misleading names. The first school sees maxims as consciously adopted practical principles. Call this school "the German school", as its most well-known adherents--Rüdiger Bubner, Rüdiger Bittner, Otfried Höffe, and Manfred Kuehn--are Germans. The second school understands maxims as linguistic expressions of your intentions, or at least as principles that can be attributed to you based on your behavior. Call this school "the Anglo-American school", as its most famous members--Onora O'Neill, Henry Allison, and Christine Korsgaard--, are all American or British.
For the Germans, you don't always act on maxims, but you know the maxims you act on when you do act on them. Examples of maxims could be, "I won't eat meat or dairy products" or "always look out for number one." Note as well that on this view, you can adopt a maxim but fail to act on it: I might adopt the vegan maxim, but in a moment of temptation have some ice cream.
The main reasons for interpreting maxims in this way is that Kant sees a connection between a person's maxims and her character. Indeed, in at least some places, Kant seems to think that character is constituted by the maxims you adopt and act on (see Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 7:292). Moreover, in his lectures on pedagogy and anthropology, Kant says that people have to learn how to act on maxims. If maxims are consciously articulated principles that you can adopt but fail to act on, then this makes sense. So on this view, we gradually develop character by learning to act on self-imposed policies in a consistent way, rather than by acting merely out of habit or conformity.
The main problem with the German view is that if maxims are policies we consciously adopt and have to learn how to act on, then how do we assess the actions of people who aren't acting on maxims? E.g., let's say that eating meat is wrong, and you eat meat merely because others do. When I say you eat meat merely because others do, I'm not saying that you say, "I'll eat in ways that others eat" -- that would be a maxim. No, I'm saying that the causal explanation (to the extent that actions are caused) for why you eat meat is that others around you do. You've just never given the issue any thought, let's say. In that case, it seems that your action of eating meat has no maxim. So how do we assess your action? Is it morally right or wrong? Or does it simply have no moral status at all? And if the latter, does that mean that Kant thinks that the habitual or conformity-induced actions of people are simply non-moral? Like, they're behaviors but not actions ? And if that , then could it be that most of what most people do is simply not morally evaluable at all? I call this the Problem of Maximless Actions.
I suppose that's a possible view, but it would be rather surprising if Kant held it, not to say weird and implausible!
OK, so let's look at the Anglo-American view. According to this reading, maxims aren't consciously adopted, practical principles that you may fail to live up to, but are rather linguistically formulated expressions of the motivations that actually drove you to do what you did. On one reading (that of the early O'Neill), maxims are just linguistic formulations of specific intentions (e.g., "I'll get Richard some tea" is the intention, and the maxim would be something like, "when Richard is my guest, I will get him some tea, in order to satisfy his desire"); on another reading (that of the later O'Neill), maxims are linguistic formations of general intentions (e.g., "I'll get Richard some tea" would be an intention, but it wouldn't be the maxim; the maxim would be, "I'll make Richard feel welcome", and it's my having this maxim that explains why I have the more specific intentions I have); finally, on the last interpretation I deal with (Henry Allison's), maxims are practical principles that we ascribe to people (including ourselves) to make sense of their actions. Regardless of what your intention is, if the best way to make sense of your behavior, attitudes, etc., is attributing to you a specific maxim, then that was probably your maxim.
The main reason to adopt the Anglo-American view is to solve the Problem of Maximless Actions. Since all our actions are actions on maxims, it follows that each of our actions has a moral status. The main problem with the Anglo-American view is that it has a harder time making sense of Kant's position that we have to learn how to act on maxims. If every action is on a maxim anyway, then what does it mean to say that we have to learn how to act on maxims? I call this the Learning Maxims Problem.
I think that both the Germans and the Anglo-Americans can respond to both the Maximless Actions and the Learning Maxims problems (indeed, a recent contributor to the German approach, Sven Nyholm, came up with what I think is a plausible solution to the Maximless Actions problem in his"Do We Always Act on Maxims?" , but I think that anyone who adheres to either school needs to say at least something about them.
3:16: You’ve looked at some recent interpretations of the Maxims which shed new light on them – one takes them to come from a Wollfian tradition, according to which maxims are the major premises of practical syllogisms, another understands them through attention to Kant's distinction between rules and maxims, as well as Kant's concept of happiness, and a third which claims Kant understands maxims equivocally. So can you say something about these three approaches, and why do you say that it’s the equivocational approach that works best?
RG: I discuss these three approaches in my second paper on maxims, "Recent Work on Kantian Maxims II". (Note: it was supposed to be called "Recent Work on Kantian Maxims II: New Approaches" but for some reason the subtitle wasn't added.) The Wolff-inspired approach, which Richard McCarty and Patricia Kitcher both advance, sees maxims as the major premises of practical syllogisms. An example of such a syllogism would be "health is good" (major premise); "exercise is healthy" (minor premise); therefore, "exercise is good" (conclusion). So for this view, "health is good" would be your maxim, and "exercise is good" is the conclusion that could eventuate in action, say, by leading to jogging (in such a case, "exercise is good" would become the maxim of a new practical syllogism (e.g., "exercise is good; jogging is exercise; therefore, jogging is good")).
There are several reasons to read maxims as the major premises of practical syllogisms. First, when he discusses maxims, Kant doesn't give much of a rigorous definition of maxims; this suggests that he expected his audience to know what they are. Second, as the major premises of practical syllogisms, you always act on maxims, for you always act on practical syllogisms. So this solves the Problem of Maximless Actions. Third, if you know what you think of as good, you can figure out what maxim you acted on; so this allows maxims to have a greater degree of transparency than they do on the later O'Neill's or Allison's approaches. Fourth, Kant in his lectures on metaphysics is quoted as claiming that maxims are the major premises of practical syllogisms. Still, though, this approach faces the Learning Maxims Problem. If you always act on maxims, then what does it mean to say that you have to learn how to act on them? An additional problem is that when he gives examples of maxims, Kant never--I don't think there is even one example in his published work--formulates maxims this way, which makes me raise my eyebrows about whether this is what Kant had in mind.
The second approach is that of Maria Schwartz. In 2006, she published a book, Kant's Concept of Maxims is one way of translating it), in which she advanced the view that imperatives are prescriptive, but maxims are descriptive. E.g., "when you have the free time, you should exercise" would be an imperative, whereas "when I have the free time, I will exercise, because I enjoy it" would be a maxim. Finally, rules are like maxims, in that both are descriptive, but the main difference between rules and maxims is that a rule describes a course of action you're undertaking to achieve some mediate aim, whereas a maxim describes a course of action you're undertaking to advance an immediate aim, i.e., your own happiness. So, "when I have free time, I will exercise, because I enjoy it" is a maxim, whereas "when I have free time, I will exercise, because it's good for my health" would be a rule. The structure of a rule is, "in circumstances of type-C, I will perform an A-type action, because it allows me to bring about an end of type-E", whereas the structure of a maxim is "in circumstances of type-C, I will perform an A-type action, because it makes me happy." Now, although every maxim has happiness as its intended end, it doesn't follow that your reason for adopting the maxim is bringing about its intended end. Indeed, what makes a maxim morally worthy or not is the reason that moves you to adopt it. If you adopt the exercise maxim because you think you're a valuable being who should respect that value, then that maxim is morally worthy. But if you adopt the exercise maxim solely because you're concerned about your happiness, then it's not a morally worthy maxim.
I think Scwartz's view is quite interesting, for not only can it overcome the Problem of Maximless action (every action is action either on a maxim or a rule, and if an action is on a rule, this rule was adopted because of an earlier or higher-level maxim-adoption), it can perhaps over the Learning Maxims Problem (what you have to learn to do is not act on maxims, but act on maxims for morally worthy reasons). That said, I'm not convinced that it overcome the Learning Maxims Problem, and there are some places where she needs to say more (e.g., what does she say about maxims where you refrain from doing something that is immoral? Do you really refrain from telling lies just because it makes you happy?).
At the time I wrote my two-part article, I was skeptical that any view that interpreted maxims univocally could solve both the Problem of Maximless Action as well as the Learning Maxims Problem. That's way I ended up siding with Jens Timmermann , who thinks that Kant meant three different things by maxims: first, a thin sense of maxim according to which they're principles we could ascribe to each action anyone undertakes; second, a thick sense of maxim that refers to particularly vigorous, long-held principles that an agent regularly acts on; and third, as the "highest maxim" that describes one's orientation to the status of morality in relation to personal happiness. Since we always act on maxims in the thin sense, there is no Problem of Maximless Actions; and since we have to learn to abide by maxims in the thick sense, there is no Learning Maxims Problem. The main problem with Timmermann's view is that Kant nowhere says that he means maxims in different senses. He just seems to use the term in different ways. Since I didn't in 2010 (and still don't) believe that to be a particularly big problem, I thought Timmermann's solution was the best.
That said, thanks to Sven Nyholm's article, I've now become more open to the German understanding of maxims. The most useful part of Nyholm's article is that he makes a good case that the Problem of Maximless Action isn't actually a problem at all. Even if you don't act on a maxim, it could still be true that the way you acted could fit with someone acting in that same way, and having the same motivations, but also acting because she accepted a particular maxim. If that maxim would have been universalizable, then the action is in conformity with duty, and so isn't morally wrong, even if it's not morally worthy; and if the possible maxim wouldn't have been universalizable, then the action would be morally wrong, even though it was not motivated by acceptance of a maxim.
3:16: What’s meta-atheism?
RG: I think Georges Rey invented the term in an article called "Meta-atheism: Reasons to Think that Few People Actually Believe in God ". Rey summarizes meta-atheism as the view that "most Western adults who've been exposed to standard science and claim to believe in God are self-deceived; at some level they know full well the belief is false."
There were a few things that interested me about meta-atheism. First, you can accept it while being a theist. Arguably, Kierkegaard thought that most people acted as though they didn't accept Christianity, despite espousing it. So, you could be a theistic meta-atheist.
Second, I've been wondering for a long time what it means to say of someone that she behaves differently from how she believes. Since so few people who claim to accept QAnon don't actually go around doing crazy stuff, does that mean they don't really believe QAnon? (In his book Not Born Yesterday , Hugo Mercier raises this point about flat earthers. He concludes that most of them don't believe flat-earthism as anything more than a "reflective belief", i.e., a belief that is relatively insulated from your day-to-day behavior.) The reason this matters to me is that I don't know what it means to believe a radical philosophical belief. E.g., do I really accept Peter Singer's arguments for the demandingness of morality? (I wrote a little piece a while ago where I tried to understand whether I believed them or not.)
Third, what was Rey's reason for saying that people who claim to be theists actually behave no differently from people who claim to be atheists? One reason was that people who are Christians grieve just as much as people who are atheists; yet if they're really Christians, they should be happy when a loved one dies, because that person will go to heaven. I had a few problems with this response. First, not all Christians are universalists. Some believe that at least some people go to hell or purgatory, and if you thought that, you wouldn't necessarily be overjoyed by a loved one's death. Second, even if you did think your loved one went to heaven, you might be sad that you won't be with him for a long time. Heck, I get sad when my son goes to day camp for six hours. Third, you can think "probably, my loved one is in heaven" while also thinking, "but maybe, he's not", and be really sad. Finally, and most important, how did Rey know whether Christians grieved just like non-religious atheists? It's easy to say, but it looks like an empirical question to me, so my friend David Feldman (a psychologist) at Santa Clara University, along with his student, Ian Fischer, decided to research the question of whether believers grieve in the same way as nonbelievers.
We wrote up our findings for the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion , in an article called " Does Religious Belief Matter for Grief and Death Anxiety? Experimental Philosophy Meets Psychology of Religion ". As it turns out, and contra Rey, there are differences in how believers and non-believers grieved! To wit: "avowed believers appear more likely than nonbelievers to view death as potentially positive and therefore to accept it" (535); "though avowed believers and avowed nonbelievers both recall experiencing approximately equal levels of grief immediately postloss, believers appear to experience somewhat lower levels of grief and higher levels of grief-related growth than nonbelievers on average three years later" (535-36). That said, those conclusions apply just believers vs. nonbelievers. And those are very large and internally diverse groups. So, we also looked at how different views of God affected how you grieved. Here's what we found: "negative views of God [i.e., viewing God as "impersonal, distant, and with little or no interest in [one's] life" or viewing God as "inconsistent or fickle"] appear to be associated with greater death anxiety, more intense grief, and lower levels of approach death acceptance" (536). We also looked at how belief in the afterlife affected grief, and discovered that "though belief in an afterlife does not appear to be associated with less grief, it does appear to be associated with both greater growth through the grief process as well as less death anxiety" (536).
There are important limitations to our study, some of which we addressed in the paper. But the study offers *some* evidence that meta-atheism isn't correct.
3:16: Hume as we know woke Kant from his dogmatic slumbers and of course he wrote about religion too. He’s often taken to be writing to disprove the argument from intelligent design, but you think he was doing more in his Dialogues don’t you? So what do you think he was doing? Was he actually encouraging people to become religious?
RG: A colleague and I, Tim Black, co-wrote a paper on this topic, "True Religion in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion ". Like some other interpreters of the Dialogues , we pay a lot of attention to the dramatic elements in the book. We note not only that the Dialogues were set up to educate Pamphilus (Cleanthes's ward), but we also assert that they were intended to educate the reader, by modeling "true piety." The Dialogues do this not only by discussing various natural theological arguments, but also by giving the various characters--Cleanthes, Demea, and Philo--various character traits. We think Demea, with his dogmatism and recurring reliance upon religious authorities over arguments, not to mention his quickness to resort to ad hominems, is a model of impiety. By contrast, the pair of Cleanthes and Philo are together meant to model piety. This right away shows that on Hume's model, piety is something that you achieve in dialogue with others.
But what is piety, as (we think) Hume understands it? We think it is "having the right belief, for the right reasons, and maintained in the right way." The right belief is the belief that "an intelligent designer created and imposed order on the universe." The right reason to hold that belief is on the basis of an "irregular argument rooted in a certain kind of experience, for example, the experience of anatomizing complex natural systems such as the eye." And the right way to maintain this belief is to maintain it after subjecting it to "careful scrutiny" (246).
Now, one thing that separates our interpretation from many others (though not all) is that we don't think of Hume as either an atheist or an agnostic. If you think of Hume as either atheistic or agnostic, then you're liable to read a certain contempt from him in his portrayal of Cleanthes, and a certain identification from him with Philo. Moreover, you're likelier to think that Philo's own espousals of belief in a designer are ironic. But if you think of Hume as a believer in a designer--a deist, I suppose, would be the best term for Hume, though that term in its 17th century context is full of connotation, so I'm not confident of labeling Hume that way--, then you're less likely to think of the portrayal of Cleanthes as disdainful, and you're likelier to think of Philo's attestations of belief as sincere. We think that Hume is neither atheistic nor agnostic, on the basis both of what he asserts in his Natural History of Religion , and in his letters to his contemporaries. Consequently, we see Philo's belief in a designer as sincere. But if Philo is sincere, then on what basis does he believe in a designer? After all, he spends five chapters of the Dialogues laying waste to the argument from design, which was not only Cleanthes's argument for belief in a designer, but also the main argument in Hume's day for belief in a designer, at least in Scotland and England.
We think Philo did indeed believe in a design argument, but an irregular one, not a regular one. The irregular "argument" for design is not exactly an argument; instead, it's an experience of orderliness you enjoy when you use scientific instruments to examine tiny or vast phenomena -- a microscope to examine an eye, or a telescope to examine the cosmos --, which in turn leads to the conviction that such phenomena have a designer. In other words, the structure of the irregular argument is: "experience E -- belief B". That said, when people have this experience and move from it to the belief in design, they want to justify that move, both to themselves and others. The way they justify it is by what Hume calls the "regular" argument for design. This is the more standard analogical argument of the form, "1. The universe seems ordered; 2. ordered things have designers; therefore, the universe has a design." In the Dialogues, Hume attacks this regular argument, but in so doing, he strengthens the irregular argument.
Let me unpack that: imagine you strongly believe some conclusion, C. I ask you why you believe it, and you point to two justifications: experience E, and argument A. I talk to you further, and it becomes clear to you and me that A doesn't support C after all. And yet, despite learning that, you discover that you believe C just as strongly as you did before. Because you still believe C, but you realize A doesn't support C, you conclude that E must be doing all the work. And, just so long as you have reason to think that E really justifies C, then you could end up getting much more confident in E than you were before. Obviously enough, this is what we think is happening with the regular and the irregular argument for a designer. Hume thinks that the regular argument fails, and actually gets in the way of people's appreciating why they should believe in a designer. So, one point of the Dialogues is to refute the regular argument for design. But the other point is to strengthen the irregular argument for design.
I think, then, this is what Hume's model of true religion amounts to: first, It places a lot of weight on the experience of design, but very little weight in any argument that is supposed to justify belief in a designer. One benefit of that outcome is that it undermines what Hume calls "superstition"; basically, the belief that an authority like the Catholic Church is the intermediary between you and the divine. Second, it emphasizes conversation and subjecting your religious beliefs to argumentative scrutiny: the ones that wither as a result are ones you should abandon anyway; and the ones that survive become stronger, even in your own eyes, as your authentic beliefs. This openness to argumentative conversation about religious belief is another strike against a superstitious approach to religion. Finally, the experiences that lead to the most authentic, honest religious beliefs are experiences of orderliness, which not only makes natural science a source of religious conviction, but also strikes against the second source of worry for Hume in the religious sphere: "enthusiasm." Enthusiasm, basically, is the conviction that your own personal feelings should be your guide in religious matters. At first, enthusiasm might look a lot like what I'm saying Hume is recommending, but there are two important differences. First, the enthusiast will neither welcome nor take the right approach to argumentative discourse. He'll worry about arguments threatening the validity of his feelings, and so he'll approach a talk suspiciously (if he enters in at all). Second, the feelings on which the enthusiast bases his religious convictions are quite different from the feelings on which the Humean bases her religious convictions. The enthusiast's feelings may come from a stirred up crowd, a striking bit of music, a dream. By contrast, the Humean's feelings come from order.
So yes, he was encouraging people to become what he would think of truly religious: skeptical of institutional authorities, open to conversation, and moved by the appearance of order that scientific study allows for.
3:16: You’ve also been very active in contemporary controversies within and about contemporary philosophy in the academy, in particular in America. Doing so raises interesting issues about the epistemology of disagreement. You make a distinction between ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ epistemic standing to help understand disagreements between peers. Could you explain the distinction?
RG: I cover this in my 2020 paper, "Broad and narrow epistemic standing: its relevance to the epistemology of disagreement". To understand what broad and narrow epistemic standing is, you have to know what epistemic standing is. Epistemic standing, at least as I use the term, refers to epistemic peerhood, epistemic inferiority, and epistemic superiority. If you're just as intelligent, intellectually virtuous, and well-informed as I am, then our epistemic standing is one of peerhood: we're epistemic peers. If you're more of those things than I am, then you're my epistemic superior, and if you're less of those things than I am, then you're my epistemic inferior. That said, it could be that you're just as well-informed as I am with regard to one subject, but more so with regard to another, and less so with regard to still another. And that's where broad and narrow epistemic standing come in. Let's say you're just as good at philosophy in general as I am. In that case, we're broad peers with respect to philosophy. But let's say you're much more well-informed about metaphysics than I am, but I'm much more well-informed about Kant than you are. In that case, you're my broad peer in philosophy, but more narrowly my superior at metaphysics and more narrowly my inferior with regard to Kant. As you can tell, "broadness" and "narrowness" are defined relative to a frame of reference. Probably the broadest level of epistemic peerhood is peerhood with regard to all epistemic abilities -- you're just as good at reasoning, perception, memory, etc., as I am. And probably the narrowest level of epistemic peerhood is epistemic peerhood with regard to perceiving a particular object at a particular time, or with regard to assessing a particular argument at a particular time.
3:16: So what difference does it make to well known examples of disagreement if I focus on one or the other?
RG: In the field of disagreement, epistemologists often focus on particular examples to pump our intuitions. I say that what they're doing when they delineate their examples is thinking too much about broad peerhood and not enough about narrow peerhood.One famous way of motivating the "equal weight view"--the view that you should give an epistemic peer's judgment just as much weight as your own--is by thinking about things like this: if A and B are epistemic peers with regard to some issue F, then A is just as likely to be right about F as B is. Thus, if A and B disagree about F, then you A should think she has a 50% chance of being right about F, and B should think he has a 50% chance of being right about it. But if that's what they think, then they should both suspend judgment.
For example, if you and your peer are calculating how much money each person in a table for five owes for dinner, and you both try to give a 20% tip, and you both know that you're equally good at calculating a 20% tip, and nonetheless you conclude that everyone owes $43 and she concludes that everyone owes $45, then both of you should react by becoming less confident about your original calculations. How much less confident is a matter of debate, but that you should both lose confidence seems to me to be right. But the reason it seems to me to be right is that the example I've just given--which is a famous example from David Christensen -- is that the example stops right after we learn of our disagreement, but right before we try to see why we disagree. If we try to show our work, though, it should quickly become clear who is right and who is wrong. That is, even if we're broad peers with respect to splitting a restaurant check, we will not be narrow peers when it comes to splitting this restaurant check at this moment.
By the way, this happens with a lot of examples of disagreement in the literature. Richard Feldman has an example where you see someone who looks like the dean, and I don't see anyone at all. What should we do? Should we both lose confidence in our view, or should we remain confident in our perceptions? Well, I'd like to say what we should do is: get closer! Like, can I pass my hand through this person or do I run into something I can't see? Here's another example, from Thomas Kelly : you are a mathematician and you have a proof (in fact, a correct proof) of a long-standing conjecture. But every mathematician you show it to declares your proof unsound. Even though your proof is right, if lots of mathematicians independently declare it wrong, then even you should lose confidence in your proof, despite the fact that it's right. But what I want to know is: what do these mathematicians say to you? Do you find their arguments convincing or not? If you don't, can you come up with responses or not? If you can, how do they respond? In both these cases, the examples seem tailor-made to focus only on the fact of broad peerhood, and never on the facts of narrow peerhood. And as a result, I think these examples elicit conciliatory intuitions more than we should have.
In other words, though broad peerhood is important, it's not the end of the story. I think of broad peerhood as a placeholder for the reasons or evidence that someone has. If I can't have access to those reasons or that evidence, then the fact that a broad peer disagrees with me should cause me pause. But if I can access those reasons or evidence, then I think the evidential value of broad peerhood goes away, and what matters is those reasons or that evidence themselves -- which makes the issue one of narrow peerhood. That's why I call my view (I didn't do this in my paper, but I did it in an earlier presentation of it) the "placeholder view" of disagreement.
Note, by the way, that sometimes we really can't show each other our evidence, and so, broad peerhood is all we have to go on. For example, if a mixed martial artist punches her opponent at the end of the round, and it seems to you that she punched her right before the bell, while it seems to me that she punched her right after the bell, and if we believe our ability to detect such things to be roughly equal, then I think we should not only conciliate, but that we should remain conciliatory. And that's because we can't show our evidence to each other. I can't experience the world as you experienced it, and you can't experience the world as I experienced it. So we can't figure out who's the narrow inferior and who's the narrow superior. Which means all we have left to rely on is the fact of our broad peerhood. So in that case, I think we should both lose confidence about our own opinions.
3:16: One of the issues you’ve examined regarding contemporary philosophy is the clear gender disparity – although it is getting a little better I think isn’t it with a new generation of more women coming in? But still, ;more men than women study and teach it at the moment. So why is this? Is it the subject itself, the way it’s taught, the way people think about philosophy and do you think there’s something that could be done to further change the landscape?
RG: I and three co-authors--Debbie Ma, Clennie Webster, Nanae Tachibe--wrote about this in a paper entitled, "Explaining philosophy's gender disparities with stereotyping and identification ". There were two things we were trying to figure out in that paper. First, why are only 30% (as of 2007; it's pretty much remained at that level as of 2015) of philosophy majors female? Second, why are only 21% of employed philosophers women (as of 2007; it's 26% as of 2015 )?
The basic answer our group came to was: stereotype threat. But it was an indirect sort of stereotype threat. A direct stereotype threat would be something like, "philosophy is for men; I'm a woman; so philosophy isn't for me." A more indirect stereotype threat is like, "the typical philosopher exemplifies such-and-such traits; I don't identify with those traits; so this field doesn't feel right for me", where the traits in question are ones that men more commonly identify themselves with than women (in this case, some traits people associated with philosophy were: "intellectual", "deep thinker", and "analytical").
So, one of the reasons women didn't major in philosophy as much as men is that women don't identify themselves (as much as men do) with the stereotypes they associate with philosophy. But interestingly, these were the results for people who hadn't finished a major in philosophy, but were instead undeclared. And neither the male nor the female undeclared students thought of philosophy as particularly male.
But things changed when you evaluated people who had majored in philosophy; those people were more likely to associate philosophy with men than with women. So, our thinking was that something happened during the philosophy major. For some reason, women began to think of philosophy as a field more for men. Two possibilities we considered for explaining this change are, first, that women were taught by men much more than women; and second, that the kinds of philosophers students read over the course of a philosophy major were predominantly male. So, while changing the sex-ratio of philosophy professors or of the philosophy readings might not induce more people to major in philosophy, it may do a better job of convincing the women who did major in philosophy to go on to graduate study in the field.
Anyway, that's what we thought then. One possibility I've begun to consider has to do with the ratio of women to men in humanities majors in general. As of 2015, about 80% of ethnic, gender, and cultural studies majors are women; it's 70% for languages majors, English majors, and linguistics majors; it's about 65% for communications majors; and it's about 40% for history majors (see here). Thinking about this got me to wonder if maybe something like the following was going on: there are some men who like humanities; but most humanities fields they consider are predominantly female in their student composition; so maybe the men think, "eh, maybe this major isn't for me", and go to philosophy and history over English, communications, area studies, ethnic studies, etc. In other words, it could be that, because certain majors are so much more female than male, it's going to be hard, both to get women to leave them (and go to philosophy or history) and to get men to enroll in them (rather than philosophy and history).
But all this presupposes that one of the major determinants of what a person majors in is the sex ratio of the major. I really don't have any idea of the extent to which that is true, as opposed to how lucrative the major is thought to be, or what kind of work the major promises to give you, etc.
3:16: You’ve also wondered whether it's ok to be a philosopher? And whether there are any great ones anymore? And whether philosophy itself is any good? So as a take home, could you let us know what you’re thinking about these things now?
RG: I wondered about whether it's ok to be a philosopher in this bit of public philosophy called "Is Philosophy OK?" (I only later learned that every article entitled with a question always answers it with "no"; had I known that earlier, I may have named it something much more clever, like, "Philosophy: Blech?") My argument in that article was this: (1) it's OK to be in a profession only if it makes a positive difference; (2) being a philosophy professor doesn't, in many cases, make a positive difference; therefore (3) for many people, including myself, it's not OK to be a philosophy professor. There were two main problems people had with this argument. The first problem was with premise (1): it assumes an overly demanding conception of morality that is false; the second problem was with premise (2): I argued that philosophy teaching didn't make a positive difference, but in fact it does.
So where do I stand on these two objections right now? Well, first, I'm certainly on the fence about the first premise. I wrote about it here . As for the second premise, I'm pretty confident about it, though not as confident as I once was. I think that schooling definitely makes a positive difference to some students (although not as many as most people think) and, though I think it also makes a negative difference to other students, I think I'm more personally praiseworthy for the positive effects than I am blameworthy for the negative effects. When it comes to the negative effects, I think I blame the students more than I blame myself, frankly. But I do blame myself somewhat. (Incidentally, if you want to see these two objections pushed against me forcefully, see this and this I did with the philosopher Dan Kaufman.)
As for whether there are any great philosophers anymore, I gather you're wondering about my answer to that question because of what I wrote in an article I called " The Philosophy Rapture ". Basically, my thinking in that article was this: philosophy is not like science; so, while even small scientific results can push the field forward, that's not true for philosophy. Instead, philosophy is pushed forward by big conceptual breakthroughs (and by applications of those breakthroughs to questions). I think that you have to be a great philosopher to make such a breakthrough. But since there are no big conceptual breakthroughs right now, it follows that there are no great philosophers right now. There's lots of ways to push back on many of the points I made in that article. (See this I did with Dan Kaufman where he does a lot of the pushing.) But when it comes to the particular question, "are there great philosophers today?", I think I have changed my mind from "no" to "I don't know."
There are two main reasons for my change of mind. First, if we were in the middle of a conceptual revolution, I'm not sure why I should believe I'd notice it. After all, one of the main determinants of what counts as a conceptual breakthrough is whether we have any use for it; but something that looks insipid right now might be of great use to other people a few years from now. I'm not--and I would bet, no one is--in any position to know. Second, I don't think I should have tied a philosopher's greatness to her or his ability to incite a conceptual revolution; I could imagine two philosophers being equally good at philosophy (whatever that means), one of whom incites a conceptual revolution and the other of whom doesn't, precisely because one has good and the other has bad luck.
Finally, when it comes to whether philosophy is any good, I assume you have my brief essay, " Why Most Philosophers Are Protestants " in mind? That essay was about a refrain I often heard but never agreed with, which is that most philosophy is crap. I've always thought most philosophy is good! Like, even if I read something that seems to make no original points, I'm usually impressed by the amount of work that went into it, and I often find that even just saying the same thing, but in a different way, is helpful to me. A more controversial point of that paper, though, is the idea that philosophy, as an institution, is functioning overall well. Sure, there are problems, big problems, but I think this is true of almost any institution, and certainly of ones that have existed as long as university philosophy.
Do I still think that's true? Well, I think institutional philosophy has gotten more unstable ;since I wrote that essay. Some problems I would identify are, first, that there are philosophical methodologies developing that I think make reasoned discourse harder. I think when it comes to topics of race, sex, and gender, philosophers who work on those issues either have to walk on several layers of eggshells, or have to risk dealing with severe professional sanction. I suspect the kind of people who don't mind risking professional sanction will also tend to be the kind of people who are also the most ... um ... let's say "indifferent" to what their colleagues think of them. So, you have this effect where the people talking the loudest are also the most abrasive (only on average, of course). And that will just confirm the viewpoints of partisans about the low character of their adversaries. That said, the Journal of Controversial Ideas has started, and this might actually help the discussion . Second, and probably more important, is the fact that there are lots of un- and underemployed philosophers. I suspect having an army of indignant or resentful faculty is probably not healthy for the discipline that produced them?
That said, this instability may be a good thing. There's no law that says philosophy has to be done in the university. It may actually be good for philosophy, and for philosophers, even ones with Ph.D.'s, to use those degrees in non-academic fields. I suspect philosophy can bring a lot to the table to business, government, etc. But I also think that working in business, government, etc. will do more to help those philosophers who work there. (At least if they get pretty good jobs.) I think working in academia has its benefits, but it can also cut you off from having a good sense of how non-academic institutions work. And I think knowing how those institutions work is important, especially for developing a more realistic philosophy.So why don't I jump ship to a non-academic institution and open up a space for one of those underemployed faculty? Well, I'd like to! But then I'd lose my academic job. That's one of the problems with academia, actually; it's very hard to stay in academia, get tenure, leave academia, and then come back, because if you do, well, there goes your tenure. I don't know how to fix this problem--the former economist and current Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith suggests getting rid of tenure altogether , and maybe that would work--, but I do think it's a problem, and one I'd like to see at least some part of academia address. Finally, what's funny to me is that reading all these essays together shows tensions I hadn't noticed before: I think most philosophy is good, but I also think most philosophers shouldn't do research; I think it's not OK to be a philosopher, but I also get something valuable from most research I read; I think most philosophers should focus on teaching, but I don't think teaching makes that much of a difference. I love discovering these tensions in my own thought; it gives me something new to think about. And I wouldn't have discovered this if I hadn't engaged in this career retrospective. So, thanks for asking me to do this interview!
3:16: And for the readers here at 3:16, can you recommend five books that will take us further into your philosophical world?
RG: I'm going to do this somewhat chronologically.
The book of philosophy that did a lot to get me into philosophy, and that probably most affected the way I write, is Peter van Inwagen's collection of essays, God, Knowledge, and Mystery. van Inwagen is my favorite contemporary philosophical stylist. What I love about his writing is his clarity, his use of parables, his often powerful arguments combined with the sense of the limitations of argument in general, and his awareness of his own temperament and the role it plays in the generation of his own philosophical work. Incidentally, in 2010 I wrote a sixty-three page article on Peter van Inwagen's philosophy of religion for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy , but I never submitted it because the editor at the time thought I should include criticisms of van Inwagen's work, and I hadn't done that in the draft I submitted. And then I ran out of time and had to do other things, so the article never saw the light of day. I'm not even sure I have it anymore.
The next book has to be Immanuel Kant's Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason . I did my dissertation on that book, wrote pretty much exclusively about that book from 2005-2016. It affected my thinking about religion in my own life pretty greatly, and I think the general approach is right. Incidentally, if anyone wants to read the Religion , I heartily recommend they read it alongside Lawrence Pasternack's Guide. It's clarifying, the interpretation Pasternack forwards is plausible, and the book is short.
From 2016 to now, I've been interested in the epistemology of disagreement, and the book that got me up to speed on that area was Jonathan Matheson's The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement . It's a clear, opinionated introduction to the field circa 2015. The field has moved on since then, but I think it's a great overview of the disagreement literature from about 1996 to 2015.
The next book is not a work of philosophy per se, but it has probably led to more emotional turbulence in my life as a professional philosopher than any other book I've read, and that's the economist Bryan Caplan's The Case Against Education. Many of my worries about the point of being a philosopher were crystallized or inspired by that book. A lot of people hate it, but I've only found two reviews (and no debates) that do a good job of responding to Caplan's arguments. The first review is by the economist David Balan. The second review is by a pseudonymous education economist named "Nick HK". Both worth reading, even if you arrogantly refuse to be sullied by engaging with Caplan!
The last work is a work at the crossroads of philosophy and psychology, and that's The Enigma of Reason by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier. It's really changed the way I think about the philosophical enterprise altogether, and has made me more interested in the role of signaling and basically Nietzschean motivations in philosophical life. It's also made me more detached. Not sure whether that's good or bad, but it's significant!
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