Mathematics is the art of giving similar names to things that are different
I am currently covering my yearly quota of unuseful knowledge reading an introduction to metaethics. By this I mean, it is a knowledge that I do not pretend I will be able to use in my research or anything related to my profession at any point of my career. I just read it for fun and take a break from statistics, inequality, and extremism, which are the topics I read about these days.
Metaethics is a subject I have always being interested in exploring, especially after my girlfriend chose to think that being a Kantian groupie with existential accents was an intellectually acceptable stance.
It is a very obscure area of knowledge. Unlike other topics -say, political philosophy- I do not have too many preconceived ideas. Each time I approach a book, I have all kinds of commitments to different theories and views that I am naturally reluctant to give up altogether. When I read about statistics, I am now a committed Bayesian and that affects what I am ready to learn and understand every new piece.
While I have some intuitions about metaethics (thus my original interest), my views about it are very diffuse. Since I read Binmore’s Game theory and the social contract, I became particularly suspicious about moral claims made as if these were metaphysical absolutes that are usually formulated in the Kantian tradition. Another piece that drove my interest was this piece by Joel Marks Marks which challenged me to start thinking about morals in terms of tastes, and desires. The way I think about morals is as feelings, tastes which, as Marks suggest, are ‘window dressed’ as moral talk, but are actually ‘desires’ and motivations, not ‘beliefs’ about the world. These feelings are not, in my view, coming from heaven, and do not exclude all kinds of reasoning, or fully undisciplined. I think these can be transmitted using empathy, just as people become convinced that a work of art is beautiful if their tastes are educated to do so. To the extent that moral constructs works as abstract theories, logic and reasoning can be used to point out conflicting views. And, I find generically suspicious to speak of morals as if these were facts to be found out there. What lies below, in my view, are subjective (yet, potentially convergent) views about the world.
If you know anything about the subject, you probably will notice how rough the above views are, and to what extent there are potential tensions. The experience of reading about it is wonderful since it forces me to take a stance on issues I used to believe were compatible. For example, until now I thought that error theory, relativism, and emotivism were to a large extent the same approach thing, although error theory is a form of cognitivism and emotivism pretty much the opposite.
The learning experience is so rewarding because, while talking about morals and ethics, the discussion evolves on a completely different level. Cleavages in metaethics hardly map cleavages in applied ethics, but are extremely relevant to practical matters in that field. I realize that, to a large extent, many of the disagreements I have with my girlfriend on her political liberalism are driven by differences in metaethical sensitivities.
In math parlance, learning about a new field opens to your eyes new partitions of the sample space. It reorganizes discussions problems along completely new lines. It reshapes the structures and ideas you use to think about problems. I have had this experience each time I have started learning about a new subject, especially abstract topics. The more abstract, typically the more subtle the division, the more unconventional. Learning changes your view about the world, not only across pre-established dimensions, but by opening new ones and challenging ideas. The complexity created by the systematic re-organization and scrutiny of ideas is one of the more rewarding and liberating processes I can think of. It is liberating from simplicity and tribalism.
One of the reasons why I became fed up of writing politics is due to the tendency of ideological reductionism -the tendency to map all ideas on the left-right spectrum. I have always regarded my views about the desirability of redistribution or gender equality as neatly separated and logically independent from my views about elasticities and fiscal multipliers. I tend to think my moral intuitions about the former will remain, to a large extent, unchanged, but I would like my views about the latter to be highly open to new ideas and research. Of course, I understand an inevitable consequence of the collective action nature of the political process, this is perhaps the source of my disappointment.