Not Waving But Drowning

We’ve wandered into an interesting discussion here (here as in here below, Bound Together) about hand waving and value judgments, about whether moral and aesthetic judgments can be grounded, or rather (since I’m not sure anyone here claims they can be grounded in the same way that physics or mathematics can, or the way empirical inquiry can) what follows from the fact (if it is a fact, and do correct me if I’m wrong about what anyone claims) that they can’t. My colleague, if I understand him correctly, thinks that since in the case of a conflict between a well-grounded argument that would support, say, genocide, and ungrounded moral commitment, we would (most of us, one hopes) choose the moral commitment – therefore reasons are worthless, are just hand waving. And he makes the same argument for aesthetic judgments.

This is an old, old argument, of course, and one that philosophers have been brawling over for centuries. As Hume put it – It is not contrary to reason for me to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my little finger. Or words to that effect. It’s not illogical to be selfish, even grotesquely selfish, out of all proportion selfish. Nor is it illogical to prefer Kincaid to Rembrandt, or the latest Tom Clancy novel to ‘Hamlet.’ Granted. But does it follow from that that there is nothing more to say? Or at least, that anything we do say is just hand waving? I don’t think so. I’m also not entirely sure my colleague thinks so. As I said, we’ve been arguing about this for a long time (as he has with his other colleague – he’s an argumentative kind of guy), and he said something a couple of weeks ago about arguments (or perhaps they were facts) that are necessary but not sufficient – which would seem to indicate he doesn’t.

At any rate it seems to me like a false dichotomy. It seems to me there is plenty of middle ground – however fog-shrouded and swampy, however boggy and flecked with patches of wool – between unanswerable reasons and no reasons. And it also seems to me that there is plenty of useful work for those reasons to do, even if they’re not unarguable and absolute. One can use them to persuade people to read Hazlitt or Shakespeare instead of [insert favourite hack here], or to listen to Dream Theater instead of Take That. Naturally people are at liberty to ignore the reasons, or to use their own reasons to persuade one to read Favourite Hack or listen to Take That. But is that really a reason to abdicate? It doesn’t seem so to me. Just for one thing such discussion provides an opportunity to explore why one really does like Hazlitt or Dream Theater. It’s just a kind of thinking – and thinking is more useful than hand waving, surely? Unless you’re a particularly graceful, skilled hand-waver of course.

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