Rebirth of Reason


Metaethical Foibles at Work
by Tibor R. Machan

The quality of political discourse has indeed been deteriorating big time. Ad hominems are now the rule, not the exception. It is distressing that substantive criticism of the ideas and policy recommendations of the two major parties has nearly vanished. Even though put downs and quips are often clever, it would be so much more productive to learn how to say something meaningful and useful against or for one's opponents' position. Well, freedom of speech is a good thing but it would be better if exercised in a civil tone and with clarity rather than largely with venom and disdain. Pretty please!

So there is much speculation about what is going on in the public policy debates that are afoot these days. But no one to my knowledge has noted that a particular philosophical position may be very influential in all the discussion. This is the idea that moral/political judgments cannot be provided with rational defense. That is the famous is/ought controversy, unleashed in the modern era by David Hume, the famous Scottish philosopher who argued that judgments as to what is morally/politically right versus wrong just cannot be rationally proven. So no matter how long they debate the matter, whether Obamaís health care policy is sound or not, will never be resolved since it is about what ought to be adopted, not about what is the case.

In much of twentieth century moral and political philosophy it had been emotivism that became prominent at prestigious centers of learning. The idea is that when one states what ought to or ought not to transpire -- e.g., implement Obama care -- there simply is no way to demonstrate one way or another. All one can do is express an emotion of approval or disapproval about such matters. And one cannot show such a thing as right or wrong. It is just how one feels and thatís the end of it.

One consequence is that disagreements cannot be adjudicated by reasoning. All that is left is attempting to discredit oneís opponents, most often by ad hominem charges, name calling, besmirching and the like. The atmosphere that dominates in such disputes is largely irrational.

Unless this is understood, one will be baffled by what is transpiring during public policy disputes. Each sides will declare the otherís motives devious, a matter of ill will, etc. Opposing parties will be demonized and one side will not listen to the arguments of the other since argument assumes the possibility of a rational outcome.

If you are one of those people who believe that ideas, especially that of philosophers, do not matter, please reconsider.
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