point of view: a modern nihilism

Presents the author's evolving views of the best current positions on certain core philosophical and psychological problems. These positions together suggest a skeptical or nihilist perspective modified by evolutionary psychology and contemporary philosophy that embraces our desire to live as best we can and the relative and psychological reality of values, free will and other phenomena while recognizing limitations on their foundations and our understanding. The below makes no claims to originality for most of the ideas expressed, drawing on a range of mostly unreferenced texts (which will be familiar to philosophers and psychologists working in this area). Readers may want to start at the bottom with the first entry. - Marc Krellenstein (personal info here)

June 12, 2005

2.5 Moral and philosophical disagreement is mostly psychological in origin.

Purely philosophical discussion of morality cannot explain it, especially attempts to reduce it to a single principle. The most technical philosophical discussions often hinge on the intuitive acceptance or rejection of premises that simply seem reasonable or not to someone. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2001) has persuasively argued that morality is primarily driven by a range of intuitions and emotions, though moral discourse plays a role in persuading others if not a fundamental one in actually generating moral behavior. (This resonates both with traditional philosophical intuitionism — morality grounded on directly perceived intuitions — as well as with emotivism — that morality is more a matter of emotional approval/disapproval than specific principles. See Miller, 2003, for a discussion of recent philosophical attempts to ground morality.) Similarly, Caputo (2000) has observed that ethical reasoning usually starts with conclusions, not premises. A better way to understand a moral judgment (or even the embrace of an entire moral philosophy) might be to look at the individual’s temperament, upbringing, historical context, etc. and, for an entire philosophy, to recognize the tendencies to both over-generalize from one’s own perspective and to broaden judgments and theories to encompass phenomena for which they may not be applicable. Ad hominem arguments don’t refute facts or premises but can provide useful insights as to why someone’s core beliefs, intuitions and speculations are what they are when there is little objective basis (or discernible progress) in deciding between competing points of view. (The same can be said about this author and the views expressed here. One can only be aware of some of the pitfalls and be as careful as possible.)

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