I Assign You Reading!

(Don’t worry, it’s short).

I’ve really appreciated all the reading suggestions that you’ve made which culminated in the List of Doom and the more manageable shortlist.  I’m going to keep writing about my reactions to the the books you recommended, and tomorrow I’ll be writing about G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

The trouble is, that as I started drafting, I knew I wanted to reference an idea that I’m not sure is in the common parlance.  ‘Metaphysical backsliding’ doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, so I can’t tell if it’s a real word yet, but I knew I needed to reference it.  I don’t want to have to take a lengthy digression in the middle of the post tomorrow (especially when other people have already explained it well), so would you all do me a quick mitzvah and read Eve Tushnet’s essay: “The Birthday Cake of Existence“?

She doesn’t use the phrase ‘metaphysical backsliding’ in the essay, but the whole piece is addressed to that problem.   Very briefly, metaphysical backsliding is the name my friends gave to having your metaphysics debunked by your ethics – a kind of proof by contradiction.  How sure do you have to be of an ethical principle to be sure that any metaphysical system which negates it must be wrong?  This question is coming back with a vengeance tomorrow.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10019240793982424774 Christian H

    Why was I entirely unsurprised to find out that that essay was about ethics? I was thrilled.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    If you don't read Eve Tushnet, you should absolutely add her to your list.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10019240793982424774 Christian H

    Is that a universal or specific "you"?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    Both!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01202543574090953195 Tony

    debate the proposition: denying solipsism means accepting incoherence. debate a second proposition: avoiding incoherence means coddling solipsism.Chesterton's Orthodoxy is about planning to avoid incoherence, as an alternative way to liveto me it's like deciding after having had lots of good sex that you were a bit crazy then and you'll settle for the memory of it now.it's amor fati for the infirm … not to be recommended for the young or for the old who want to suffer some, instead of giving in to arthritus, in order to stay limber longer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10845051786114528609 Julie Robison

    I enjoy reading Eve Tushnet as well! Thanks for the assignment. :)

  • Blamer ..

    A challenging assignment, but I finally got it done. Feels good. I'd be fascinated to discover the extent that each field of philosophy is progressing as a result of which others.Cheers! @blamer

  • Joe
  • Joe

    LOL sorry enjoy

  • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

    Yep. I just googled “Metaphysical Backsliding” for my own reasons and ended up here. Why am I not surprised? :)

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  • Liz

    I don’t like the idea of having your metaphysics debunked by your ethics. Ethical intuitions are often simply wrong — for evidence look at how “obvious” ethical truths have differed across cultures and times. Think of slavery, or infanticide in China, or the belief that marital rape is impossible. We need to do better.

    I actually agree with Tushnet about what one should *do* when metaphysics conflicts with ethics, but for different reasons. My rule of thumb: Don’t do something that competing theories say is extremely harmful unless you’re very sure you’re right, and don’t be too sure that you’re right.

    There is a lot of room for error in metaphysical arguments, and the amount of disagreement there is suggests that we are prone to get it wrong. For example, say my logic leads me to believing “killing babies is okay”. I should be cautious and think there’s, I dunno, a 70% chance I’m right about that, but a 30% chance that the more popular theory is right. That caution isn’t a good reason to throw out my logic, but it is a good reason to not kill babies — there’s a good chance I could do a lot of harm.

    This sort of caution is intuitive when we’re talking about bad things to do. But what about good things? Take, for example, “Singer’s Pond” — the hypothetical scenario that gets most people to agree that if you can greatly help someone at very little cost to yourself, you should. This implies that people should give to cost-effective charities until they are living on (very approximately) the smallest amount of money that leaves them comfortable. Most people see this argument, accept its logic, decide that the conclusion is preposterous, and throw the argument away without a refutation. I think that is a bad case of letting your moral intuitions overthrow your logic.

    To take a concrete example, my reasoning on abortion indicates it’s okay, but since many smart people disagree with me there’s a high chance that I’m wrong. So I give some weight to others’ beliefs and would not get an abortion; the damage of being wrong would be very high. But when I encountered the Singer’s Pond example I wrestled with it for a while and ultimately accepted it. Sure, I might be wrong, but in this case the safe choice is to donate generously.

    Tl;dr: Cost-benefit analysis and awareness of the limitations of your reasoning should lead you to *act* cautiously with morally nonintuitive conclusions, but moral intuitions are poor enough that they should not change your *thinking*.

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