Episode 57: Julia Annas discusses virtue ethics
Episode 145: Andrew Sepielli discusses quietism and metaethics
This episode, Matt and Joseph sit down with Andrew Sepielli (University of Toronto) to talk about metaethical quietism. His new book on the topic, Pragmatist Quietism, is out now from Oxford University Press. Click here to listen to episode 145 of Elucidations.Metaethical quietism is the view that ethical statements—or anyway, a large portion of the ethical statements we’re usually interested in—can’t be justified or disproved by statements from outside of ethics. There’s something autonomous about the topic of ethics (or rather, about a lot of ethics). Consider the question: in the scenario where a trolley is barreling down the track, on its way to clobber five people, and you have the ability to divert it to the other track where it will only clobber one, should you do so? According to quietists such as our guest, you can’t answer this question by asking metaphysicians or logicians for help. It won’t do to investigate whether moral facts are part of the furniture of the universe, or to study the grammar of words like ought. The only way you can answer a question like that is, well, whatever we usually do to answer ethical questions.Why are philosophers often tempted to think we can turn to metaphysics, logic, or the philosophy of language to help answer ethical questions? Andrew Sepielli thinks it’s because we conflate two different kinds of ethical statements: the statements he calls deep and the statements he calls superficial. A deep statement is one such that, if you believe it, that belief can impact your mental picture of how things are laid out in the world and guide your action. The fancy word for this mental picture of how the world is laid out is non-conceptual representation. A superficial statement is one belief in which does not influence your non-conpceptual representation of the world. The questions that moral philosophers often write about—such as whether one should divert the trolley, or whether utilitarianism is true—are superficial, which is part of why you can only answer them from within ethics. But there are also deep moral questions, such as: will the party we’re thinking of going to be attended by a bunch of jackasses? When you ask that question, you’re deploying moral language—jackass, specifically, so it is definitely a moral question—but you’re also trying to find out which individuals are going to be at the party. And which individuals happen to be at the party is part of the information in your non-conceptual mental map.In this episode, Sepielli argues that keeping track of when we’re having a superficial debate vs. when we’re having a deep debate can make it seem less mysterious how ethics could be its own autonomous area of inquiry. Tune in to see why he thinks this is the case!
Episode 144: Christopher Beem discusses democratic virtues
This episode, Matt talks to Christopher Beem (Penn State University) about how we can cultivate those skills that conduce to having a functioning democracy. His book on the topic, The Seven Democratic Virtues, is out now from Penn State University Press.The storming of the US Capitol Building in 2021 was an eyebrow-raising event, to say the least. It prompted historians, political scientists, and political philosophers to ask whether deep down, everything was going okay with our democratic system. Was this event some kind of sign that the voting process was under unusual strain? Was it time to start thinking about measures we can take to try to support and maintain it?Our guest says yes: that time is upon us. In light of evidence from evolutionary psychology that natural selection imbued us all with an instinct for tribalism, he argues that there are pretty strong causal forces working to congeal us into increasingly disjoint political camps. If we don’t do anything about it, members of these communities may one day no longer be willing to vote in the same elections. But what are we supposed to do about it? Although no one simple trick is likely to work, Beem argues that there are personal moral virtues that we can all work on developing. Democracy doesn’t just function by default; we have to actively work on ourselves in order to make it function. It’s not like we wave a magic wand, follow a couple simple steps and then we’re “done”. Rather, it’s always going to be an ongoing process to keep this crazy thing afloat.Tune in to hear Christopher Beem’s thoughts about what these virtues are and how exemplifying them can get our democracy back into whack!
Episode 143: Mark Linsenmayer discusses alternative models of education
This episode, Matt Teichman talks to Mark Linsenmayer about alternative models of education. Mark is creator and host of the Partially Examined Life, Nakedly Examined Music, Pretty Much Pop, and Philosophy vs. Improv podcasts. He is also the author of the recent book, Philosophy For Teens.There’s going to college and there’s listening to podcasts. Both can give you a way to learn new things, so in that general sense, both can count as forms of education. Going to college has advantages over listening to podcasts when it comes to learning—a college class can kick off a feedback loop where you’re given work to do, then you’re given one-on-one feedback on that work, then you do more work, and so on. In the best college classes, there’s a dynamic interplay between the state of your understanding and what happens next in the lesson. That means that at least for people who end up connecting with the college experience—not necessarily everyone, but some significant number of people—being in college has a certain intensity to it. It feels like you’re gaining understanding at a more concentrated dose.That said, though, in addition to these upsides, there is a downside to college, which is that it ends! The learning is nice and concentrated, but it’s also relatively short compared to listening to podcasts, which you can do for way more than just four years—theoretically, it’ll be possible for as long as the technology exists. (And it’s showing no signs of ever going away.) Sure, people can’t just go to college forever. If literally every single person went to college for their entire lives and no one ever did any of the work that makes society function, it wouldn’t be clear how we’d keep the lights on, run hospitals, create enough food for everyone to eat, build houses for everyone to live in, etc. At the same time, a lot of college students have the joyous experience of having their intellectual horizon expanded for four years, only to get suddenly thrust into a demanding work environment upon graduation that may not afford time for all that. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to embark upon your career while not giving up on exploratory learning? At least not entirely?This is where podcasts come in, according to our guest. They let you continue to explore new topics with a more free-form, lower-stakes structure. Maybe you don’t know whether you want to know more about something yet, but you suspect you might, and that’s enough. The fact that listening to a podcast doesn’t have to end means you can do it at your own pace, and more fundamentally, that you won’t suddenly go from having it to not having it anymore—the way it always seems to happen with formal education.Tune in to hear Mark Linsenmayer explain the kind of experience he seeks to foster in his listeners by way of four (!!) different podcasts!