John Nolt on Moral Arguments

For those of you studying IB Philosophy, or taking Higher but interested in going beyond the simplicities of the course, John Nolt’s Environmental Ethics for the Long Term has an excellent section on philosophical arguments in ethics.

Section 2.2.1 has one of the best explanations of the “is/ought” fallacy I have ever read. Using the terms ‘prescriptive’ and ‘descriptive’ to refer to premises that respectively contain or do not contain a sentiment of something being right or wrong, he uses the phrase ‘prescriptive reasoning’ to refer to an argument where (at least) one premise and the conclusion include some sort of moral valuing.

Of course an argument can be valid and sound if it contains no moral sentiments (1), and one which has ‘moral’ or ‘ought’ premises might lead to a valid and ‘ought’ type conclusion (2).

Example 1:

all volvo cars have a steering wheel

my car is a volvo

therefore my car has a steering wheel

Example 2:

one should intervene when one person is abusing another against the latter’s will

‘abusing another against their will’ is what happens in sex-trafficking

therefore you should be acting against sex-trafficking

Of course one might object to the ‘truth’ of each of the premises here, but if one did agree with both then it would commit you to the conclusion. This is an example of what Nolt calls ‘prescriptive reasoning’. The problem is when someone tries to move from purely ‘descriptive’ premises to a prescriptive conclusion. This is the is/ought fallacy. The example used by Nolt is the use of Social Darwinism by the Nazis, simply because the ‘strong’ or ‘fittest’ survive it certainly does not follow that one should act in a way to make this happen.

Allowing this ‘prescriptive reasoning’ to stand is not the same as believing it to be sound. In fact it can be particularly difficult to spot problematic premises. Consider the following:

We ought to eliminate suffering.

The only feasible way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate all sentient beings.

Therefore we ought to eliminate all sentient beings.*

*Nolt, J Environmental Ethics for the Long Term (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015) 39.

Nietzsche and Feminist Philosophy

In class this week I alluded to the belief that to take Nietzsche’s comments about women (in the GM or indeed any other text) as merely the expressions of a ‘man of his time’ was a mistake. In fact this (mistaken) view is exactly the one attributed to Walter Kaufmann by Kelly Oliver and Marilyn Pearsall in the introduction to their Feminist Interpretations of Nietzsche.
In addition to this, Nietzsche’s popular ‘bumper sticker’ reputation is that of a misogynist and of course it is not hard to find passages that, at a first glance, might support this reading. At the same time there a feminist philosophers that herald the famous German as an ally in their project, so things cannot be quite so obvious.In fact the more one reads Nietzsche, the less obvious this reputation’s deservedness becomes. It does certainly seem strange that a writer who put an unreasonable amount of thought into his metaphors elsewhere would use and celebrate feminine ‘birthing’ metaphors so readily.
Oliver and Pearsall helpfully separate two distinct, but not unrelated, areas of feminist Nietzsche studies. The first is concerning Nietzsche’s actual view of women, whether he is being ironic, hateful or something else in his comments about women, and the second investigates whether Nietzsche promises feminists helpful philosophical tools. At first glance, of course, there are a number of promising or fruitful considerations. In his denial that reason is faultless, objective and absolute or that ‘Truths’ (and even language) are something to do with power or even oppression Nietzsche must at the very least be interesting to feminist philosophy. The genealogical method itself is worth mentioning here. Further, as one credited with the ‘return to the body’ in Western Philosophy, the intrigue and promise of Nietzsche can surely only grow.
This book only arrived on my desk this week, and I look forward to reading it. For now it may be most beneficial as students to hear a little about the various view expounded, so you might think about them as we read the texts.
At the more ‘postmodern’ end of the scale in terms of reading Nietzsche, O&P describe Kofman as finding Nietzsche significant as she see him as denying the category of women ‘as such’. Likewise they interpret Derrida as finding Nietzsche refusing to understand sex (or perhaps gender) as something involving two polar opposites, whilst Higgins finds Nietzsche’s view of women “enabling” (10).
On the other hand, some readers find a thinly veiled parallel between male/female and master/slave morality respectively. Singer even sees that all women are ‘good for’ is mothering overmen and are even understood as “embodiments of ressentiment” due to their lack of manliness.
Tirrel reads Nietzsche as foreshadowing de Beauvoir in thinking it legitimate to talk of ‘woman’ not due to some ontological (natural) difference but because of the way cultures ‘create’ them. Wininger considers an ethical response to Nietzsche and adjudicates that feminist ethics must reject both slave and master moralities wherever it finds them.
This looks to be a brilliant collection of essays and could give rise to a very good IA or EE.

IB Philosophy IA ideas from my SQA classes…

One of the best bits about the IB Philosophy course is that it keeps philosophy ‘real’. I don’t mean that to sound quite as ‘street’ as it does but the arrangements ensure that the academic side will never become too separated from the real world.

Unfortunately SQA (Scottish) Philosophy does not have this link, although there are plenty of good teachers out there trying to forge it, and doing this despite massive time pressures. As someone who believes that philosophy too separtate from ‘real’ life is just plain boring I try to ensure that my students get this link better than their examinations authority.

Every year I ask my exam and core classes to find their own examples of musicians, filmmakers and artists ‘doing philosophy’. The sources they bring are invariably brillliant. Here are a few:


Vardy on the Ontological Argument

In high-school education, Philosophy of Religion in general, and the traditional arguments for God are becoming a well (perhaps over-?)trodden path. The danger of this is that if it is taught badly, or even indifferently, students can be left at the end of a unit feeling like they haven’t changed their minds about anything and feeling that they must agree with a certain understanding of causation, say, to maintain their original beliefs. Philosophy then becomes a sort of stroll or tour to apparent complexity but remains uncritical and impotent. Perhaps this is unavoidable before university (though I certainly it is not) and I am sure I have just condemned myself in saying the above.

I’m certainly not claiming that there is a clear and obvious ‘right’ answer in a lot of the areas we discuss, only that there are plenty of ideas that, under closer inspection, show themselves to be problematic.

ANYWAY, the reason I was prompted to think of this was that in his Thinkers Guide to God, Peter Vardy makes a claim that breaks from this ‘tour’ of different but equally valid offerings. He quite plainly accuses John Hick of misunderstanding non-realism, claiming that this leads him to err in his judgement of ontological arguments (87).

In doing so he is making a claim about what the religious believer means by ‘God exists’ in a way that reminds the reader of Swiss theologian Karl Barth’s interpretation of Anselm’s famous argument. Noting Malcom’s reliance on Wittgenstein, Vardy suggest that we must look at religious experience to progress in discussions about God’s existence. For the believer, God’s existence is certainly thought to be necessary, where the non-believer do not presume this in the same way. Vardy is claiming that such an argument offers no proof that the YHWH of Christianity, Islam and Judaism exists and in doing so he is in the company of both Hume and Kant.

IB Philosophy IA on the ontological argument?

I’ll come back and add to this at some point but if you’re studying IB Philosophy of Religion it should be clear enough…

Richard White’s Nietzsche

One of the things I always spend less time than I should talking about in class is the different interpretations of Nietzsche’s Genealogy. This is partly tactical, as it is more than possible to get a 7 without doing so but it is also because, I know the students often struggle with it.

Now that I’ve revealed myself to be an awful teacher who is afraid of a challenge (and that a proper covering of this area would take a whole term, perhaps more), I’m going to make an attempt to rectify my failure.I do so with the caveat that what follows is a gross over simplifcation, but at the same time is about the right depth for an IB Philosophy student.

The best place for a student to start on this would be to listen to Brian Leiter on Philosophy Bites. Leiter is, in a way, at the naturalistic ‘end of the scale’ of Nietzsche scholarship, belivineg that the best way to read the German’s work is by … At the other end of this scale there are what have been commonly referred to as ‘post-modernist thinkers’ and I plan to post on these later.

Though Richard White is certainly towards the latter ‘end of the scale’ it wouldn’t be fair to say he was right at the end of it. In Schacht (Ed.) Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality (London: University of California,1994) he offers a brief interpretation of the Genealogy.

White thinks that we read Nietzsche best if we understand slaves and masters as ‘modes of being’ not as historiacal actualities. He defends this view by refering to the opening sections of the work where Nietzsche is highly critical of the ‘origins’ accounts of the ‘english psychologists’ amongst others. Having read the introduction, White suggests, it would be strange for the reader to accept what appears to be another ‘origins’ account simply because the origins are not as palatable. He encourages the reader to keep an ‘ironic distance’ from such a straighforward interpretation. That ‘slave’ and ‘master’ refer to ‘basic modalities of human existence’ is further supported with a referenct to the intruiging claim in the Preface that we must attempt to calculate the value of the values we have.

It is well known and widely agreed that Nietzsche has a concern with ‘perspective’ and White’s interpretation is related to the previous points. White understands ‘slave’ and ‘master’ as two ways of looking at the world. If this is true it does make sense for us to read Nietzsche as trying to inspire a ‘recollection’ of ‘mastery’ in human psychology, as White does. This position also seems to alleviate or simplify the question that is asked by most students on finished the Genealogy: how, then, should I live my life?

Quite consistently White reads the forst essay as a ‘mythical prehistory’ and so Nietzsche’s philology becomes understood as evidence for a shift in psychological states. To this he adds that Beyond Good and Evil seems to suggest that parents pass a tendency for either to their offspring – a doctrine rather similiar to contemporary readings of the Fall. This leads us to the ‘mixed blood’ that Nietzsche finds so distressing and predicts is capable of the extinction of the human race.


This interpretation fits very well with Nietzsche’s parenthetical, and seemingly passing, comment that

a prehistory which, by the way, exists at all times or could possibly re-occur (II§9).

This of course leads us to the question of action or what the ‘master’ should mean to us, Nietzsche’s readers. White interprets ‘slavish’ psychology to refer to any arrangement where individualism is impeded. He uses Nietzsche’s own examples of belief in God and science, claiming that the common emphasis on objectivity (both believed and sought) leads to what a psychologist might refer to as an eternal locus of identity. White claims Nietzsche thinks this is the position that ends in nihilism as it entails only a willing not to will. On the other hand a true ‘master’ would be characterised by ‘pure willing’, soveriegnty and autonomy. Finally this requires the complete rejection of teleology and embracing ‘artistc self determination’. This account is supported with reference to the ‘new philsophers’ of BGE. To become masterly we must

put…an end to that grusome dominion of nonsense and accident that has so far been called “history”. (BGE 203)*

*White R, The Return of the Master in Schacht (Ed.) Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality (London: University of California,1994) 75.

Karl Pilkington and Environmental Ethics

Many an IB Philosophy Internal Assessment could be written on the discussions of Ricki Gervais, Steve Merchant and Karl Pilkington. My usual favourite wou be to write on virtue ethics using the below quotation, but here’s another possibility…


In series 2 of Idiot Abroad Karl mentions that he and his dad used to go ‘collecting’ slates…

RG: oh right so you were thieving then…

KP: nah it’s natural… You can’t nick from nature!


The Devil Wears Prada


This stuff’? Oh, ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic “casual corner” where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of “stuff.”

Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada.