Friday, August 17, 2012

Be the Test Subject

Hard-hat warning. Rampant exploration ahead...

"I really feel, very strongly, that we shouldn't, you know, just SHOULDN'T, use normative language."

This was a snippet I crafted while in a Laurie Anderson mood. Yes, I was being flippant at the time, but it does suggest something interesting, does it not? It uses normative language to prescribe not using normative language.

When I was a young man, taking my first course in analytic ethics, I encountered this idea of a moral prescription and wondered what it was - how it worked. The textbook told me that it was intimately connected with words like "should," "ought," (and their contradictories), "good," "evil," and others, so I thought I'd try a little experiment. I decided to surgically remove these words from my natural discourse, my everyday speech. It quickly became apparent to me how prevalent these words and words like it are, and how subtly they are interwoven into our language.

Now, of course, we use "should/ought" in a couple of very different ways. In one sense, these words represent an expectation. Striking a nail firmly enough with a hammer "should" drive it into the board. This use of "should" is a prediction, not necessarily based on any normative considerations. This is not the meaning of "should" I was seeking to find, but it does end up becoming part of the context, in that many of our expectations are moral ones. Indeed one could argue that morality is a realm of reasonable expectations...

It is the other sense that really caught my attention as a student of analytic ethics. It is the use in which we pretend that something is to be the case based on a desire or a command (it's even hard to depict this without using those words). It is interesting to note that "should" serves a command function in our everyday language use. This is subtly disguised by a lack of direct reference to the commander.

"Do X" is a command referencing the speaker as the commander, X as the thing to be done, and the person spoken to as the one commanded. "You should do X" again gives us the X (the thing to be done), refers to the person spoken to as the commanded, but leaves the commander much less well-defined. This has the effect of making it hard to point at the commander and argue with it. Now, theists will say that the commander is God, and it is intrinsically ridiculous to argue with God, since God is, by definition, always Right in His commands. Without god(s), as moral commanders, suddenly the commander becomes obviously the speaker again and that leaves room for debate whereas before, no such room existed.

Trying to avoid prescribing normatively, I restated "oughts" and "shoulds" as if-then "must" or "expect" conditionals. If you value X, then you must Y. This kept me from asserting or "affirming" X. This had the interesting effect of distancing myself from my own normative evaluations. I started to define myself, not so much in terms of the values I held, but in my ability to recognize my own values for what they were - normative constructs, and what they weren't - facts/truths. In this way, I was able to look past my own biases and was able to start taking responsibility for not just my actions, but also my attitudes. And that's something theists never do; take responsibility for their attitudes. They don't see attitudes/values as something they have. They see them as something they are, and this is no small difference.

One of the greatest catastrophes of the Ancient Greek philosophical traditions is this idea of "living a philosophy." Of defining yourself in terms of this or that philosophical stance. We see it at work today, with phrases like, "stick to your guns," and "don't ever let them change who you are." This sentiment I find nonsensical. When did "don't change your mind" become a positive thing? When did refusing to learn and grow become a value?

This experiment is one I recommend to everyone, even if done only casually (I dedicated three years and then much of the rest of my life to it) if you wish to understand how these words work and what they mean in natural use. But more, if you wish to understand how normative-evaluative language controls your discourse and your thinking. It's not easy at first, but gets easier as time goes on - as you develop the skill. It's like being a skeptic, holding that possibility that one might be mistaken, firmly in one's mind. I often hear people say things like "well, no one can be skeptical of everything." Seriously? You can't hold the possibility that you might be in error at all times? Sure you can. It's easy, with practice.

What this experiment really did was help to illustrate with remarkable clarity the difference between a description and a prescription. A statement of fact and a command/desire. This is a skill I think we desperately need today. And this is also how I came to science philosophically - by recognizing my own biases at work, seeking to correct for them, not just when applied to the facts, but also in recognizing *how* I was making errors and how the language encourages me to make these errors - to impose my will on others with subtle command structures. With prescriptivity.

Prescriptivity (and normative language) is a self-referential web of command functions designed to influence you and to allow you to exert influence over others. This about control and use of them is about controlling others. And that, is the business of religion. But, what does it say about us that we think everyone else needs to be controlled?

This is why my working definition of religion is "a prescriptive philosophy."