Ethical Perspectives

September 2016


  • Bart Pattyn

The clarity of an argument depends in the first instance on the conceptualisation of the subject and the preferred frame within which the chosen concepts are compared and contrasted. In order to make a claim, it is thus important to find the appropriate words and expressions that adequately communicate what one wants to communicate. In some arguments it is sufficient to use simple indicators, as you would if you were solving a problem in class and you wrote an ‘x’ on the board with the words: “suppose this is person x”. If you want to consider something particular, however, you will have to use a more complex concept or description, as you would if you were explaining a personal feeling or a special memory. In addition to the way you represent aspects of reality, the frame within which you juxtapose the said aspects will be decisive for the clarity of your argument. A frame can be understood as a virtual playing field in which the mental operations you are able to implement are determined by the rules, presuppositions and expectations you are expected to respect on the field. A frame can take the form of a particular theoretical model, regulatory system, or system of coordinates, but it can also be based on a prevalent way of thinking, a characteristic language of a shared worldview. Each frame occasions a specific understanding or joint intentionality between the persons participating in the communication, whereby every one coordinates his or her momentary mindset and thereby focuses on the same perceptions, presuppositions and expectations. While a frame occasions a shared involvement, whereby signs, expressions and arguments can be interpreted and experienced in a parallel manner and the mental operations one is able to implement within the framework are subjected to shared boundaries and expectations, each frame represents a pre-given experience of reality. As Erving Goffman observes in his Frame Analysis (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1986), the frame offers a shared perspective on what is going on and an orientation towards a shared set of expectations related to what everyone is expected to do in the given situation. A frame, therefore, is not only employed to give form to a shared involvement that allows us to understand each other’s concepts and arguments, it can also be used to improve our collective perception and grasp of something that occurs in reality. For this reason, theories and worldviews will always be subject to adaptation and reconstruction.

A confusing argument is one in which all sorts of clumsily formulated and ambiguous thoughts and ideas pass in review without it being obvious which frame must be used to relate these thoughts in a sensible way. In such an argument, no one has a grasp of what is being proposed and everything seems to be jumbled together, without any clarity on what one is expected to focus within the shared involvement. In a comprehensible argument, on the other hand, clearly represented aspects of reality are related to one another according to strict rules. The simpler the frame, the less the uncertainty concerning the way in which the argument should be understood. Mathematical frames are the least ambiguous in this regard. Arguments presented in mathematical terms might, as Pascal suggested (l'Esprit géométrique), appear strange at first sight because they differ so dramatically from the arguments we use in everyday language, but once we put this aside and grasp the playing field and its binding axioms, the logical steps followed in such arguments tend to be crystal clear. A pregnant example of just such an argument can be found in Hun Chung’s “A Game-Theoretic Solution to the Inconsistency between Thrasymachus and Glaucon in Plato’s Republic”. Chung conceptualises the propositions of Thrasymachus and Glaucon in a mathematical frame akin to that used in game theory. Chung thus appears to be able to demonstrate with conviction that Thrasymachus’ claim that justice benefits the strong is compatible Glaucon’s proposition that the pursuit of justice came into existence when the weak joined together in their resistance against the powerful who claimed everything for themselves in the original state of nature. Chung shows that even if justice came into existence as Glaucon suggests, the powerful will ultimately benefit the most from a just social system if they are in charge. In such a system, the economic surplus generated by cooperation in a just order will be siphoned off by the mighty. Such a system moreover will also benefit the weak because it offers them protection in contrast to the state of nature. Chung’s argument is crystal clear because the geometric style of argumentation allows him and his readers to highlight specific aspects of the issue at hand and juxtapose them in an unambiguous manner. The operations he implements are thus coherent and compelling, given the pre-agreed presuppositions.

A characteristic feature of the Anglo-Saxon manner of philosophising is to opt for unambiguous concepts and a precise conceptual framework, rooted in the conviction that only clear argument can expose something conclusive. Clarity as such, however, does not guarantee relevance. One can opt in a text, for example, to limit the number of aspects of reality one intends to explore in relationship to a given problem and to simplify the frame within which one will juxtapose the said aspects. The intelligibility and manageability of what emerges from such arguments will be considerable, but the resulting clarity will be at the expense of the accuracy image given by the text of what is going on in reality.

Sharp’s contribution to the present edition represents a textbook example of a carefully constructed argument in which each step is meticulously justified, as is characteristic of the analytical tradition. Sharp believes he can thus demonstrate that Wittgenstein’s observations on what following a rule implies are to be reconciled with moral generalism, which he defines as the view that moral theory can help us to formulate or articulate a coherent body of moral principles to guide practical deliberation (412). The accuracy and clarity of his argument, however, would appear to be rooted in a simplification that is implemented in the process of conceptualisation. Sharp seems to make an abstraction of a number of significant nuances whereby his generalisation is easily adapted to fit his final conclusion. His argument equates moral principles with moral rules. Moral rules, however, can assume a great diversity of forms. Rules can be based on private agreements, on group-specific patterns of interaction, on culture-bound boundaries and expectations etc. The discussion between particularists and generalists would appear to focus on the relationship between such private or culture-bound rules of behaviour and moral principles. Generalists usually argue that the moral principles they take as their point of departure transcend private or culture-bound rules of behaviour. If the difference between generalists and particularists is thus disclosed, then the conclusion to Sharp’s clear argument will no doubt be less self-evident.

Radim Bělohrad’s contribution “Self-Concern Without Anticipation” also fits within the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Bělohrad takes his point of departure from the idea that someone who acts out of self-concern accepts in one way or another that the self who will benefit from the said initiative is linked to the self who takes the initiative. As a result, an analysis of what self-concern makes possible will thus be based on convictions concerning what grants the self identity. Bělohrad’s approach opts convincingly for a narrative conception of self in line with Marya Schechtman. The present edition of Ethical Perspectives also offers an example of an argument that employs a conceptual frame that runs counter to what the Anglo-Saxon tradition considers justifiable. Erik Meganck’s contribution “What (Other) May I Hope For?” explores some very broad aspects of reality. He portrays the present era as a period in which matter-of-fact calculation and planning have eclipsed metaphysical expectations. Management, scientific knowledge and technological control are characterised in his view by an insatiable ambition. The passion to control nature would appear to be inspired by despair, a despair that would reveal modernity’s longing. In this sense, hope is also an important factor in modern society and one that has the potential to break open the prevailing worldview. Meganck explains a statement from Jean-Luc Nancy from this perspective: “When at the ‘end’ of metaphysics, planning loses its absolute hegemony in thought, the world dis-encloses” (473). The frame employed in Meganck’s article permits the use of baroque concepts, whereby speculative considerations can be created on the basis of broad generalisations. Precisely because the rules that prevail within this sort of conceptual frame are less demanding, what the argument demonstrates is less robust and clear. Take the concept of ‘hope’, for example. Hope is related in Meganck’s to the opening of a perspective on something that transcends the inner-worldly. Is this the only definition of ‘hope’ that matters? The idea that we live – as Nietzsche suggested – on a planet that will one day disappear together with everything we humans consider important, does indeed offer little if any perspective on the ultimate relevance of what we care about, but is the antithesis of that Nietzschean perspective that only hope-giving perspective? It would appear that the initial conceptualisation in this contribution likewise justifies the conclusion, even before the actual argument is developed.

The frame in which ideas and observations are compared and contrasted in many philosophical discussions often coincides with the conceptual frame of an authoritative philosopher. The legitimacy of the frame in such discussions is often linked to the authority of the theoretical principles of the author in question. The conceptual frame of John Rawls, for example, has served as a philosophically acceptable frame since the nineteen eighties. Accurate and honest reflection, however, are rarely related to fidelity to authority. Critical thinking presupposes that we call our familiar frames into question at specific times. Kyle Johanssen’s contribution discusses Cohen’s critique of Rawls’s point of departure, namely that principles of justice are restricted in scope to institutional structures. Cohen looked for a way to include individual initiative and the personspecific character of needs and necessities in the concept of justice. According to Johanssen, this led to an ethical theory that is no longer capable of clearly rendering what individuals should do in moral terms. In this contribution too, the implicit points of departure raise the most questions. Is it important that ethical theories offer a frame from which we can point to clear human obligations? Should ethicists strive to develop a theory on the basis of which it becomes possible to indicate what sorts of behaviour can be justified as moral or not, independent of the sociocultural historically determined context in which such behaviours manifest themselves?

Gabriele Badano contribution is also critical of a given theoretical frame, namely that of Alex Voorhoeve’s attempt to demonstrate the moral importance of numbers. As Pascal hinted, it is not always enough to tinker around with a theoretical frame in order to make it better. In Pascal’s view, moral issues cannot sustain a geometrical style. The important thing in a discussion on morality is to avoid abstractions and account for all the relevant factors that can have an influence on one’s final conclusion. This implies that narrow frames have to be broken open and steered in a fundamental way towards a multidisciplinary analysis of moral problems. People are disinclined to this kind of approach today because they fear it will lead to a loss of clarity.

As philosophers we owe it to ourselves to account for the fact that the clarity and logic of a discussion is, to a significant extent, the product of abstraction. It is because we limit the number of aspects of reality we introduce, take specific axioms as our point of departure, account for a limited number of presuppositions, and rely on the relevance of a strict frame that our arguments appear to be clear and coherent. This need not be a major issue, as long as we are aware of it and are able to face the limitedness of what we know.

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To  Ethical Perspectives 3/2016