Philosophy 9 - 1.2.4 Trade-offs

Conceptual analysis, logic, and sources of evidence together help philosophers compose a picture of the world that helps them get a better grasp of truth. Recall that philosophers are attempting to understand how things hang together in the broadest possible sense. However, it is unlikely that any single philosophical picture of the world will turn out to be so obviously compelling that it completely satisfies all criteria of logic, evidence, and conceptual analysis. It is much more likely that there will be competing pictures, each with strong reasons for believing in it. This situation is the basis for philosophical discussions. No one picture is so obviously true that all others can be discarded. Instead, we have to evaluate each picture of the world and understand the trade-offs that these pictures impose on us. We have to consider the practical and logical implications of the beliefs we hold to fully understand whether those beliefs are true and right.

Read Like a Philosopher

Excerpt from “Thinking and Moral Considerations” by Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was a German-Jewish philosopher who fled Germany in the 1930s and eventually settled in New York City, where she became a prominent public intellectual. She is best known for her work on totalitarianism, power, and the notion of evil. She coined the phrase “the banality of evil” when reporting for the New Yorker magazine on the Nuremberg trial of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. The Nuremberg trials were a series of trials held in Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II in which Nazi leaders were held accountable for their war crimes before the international community. Subsequently, Arendt wrote the article “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” in which she describes the ways that Eichmann’s inability or unwillingness to consider the real, moral consequences of his actions caused him to behave in radically immoral ways. Arendt diagnoses the core problem of a person like Eichmann as “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” She considers thought to involve aesthetic and moral judgments; thus, for a person to engage in evil action, they must necessarily disregard self-reflection and conscientious thought.

Read this article, particularly focusing on the first two paragraphs and the last four paragraphs. You may be able to obtain a copy of the article through JSTOR if you access this database through your college library. Then consider the following questions:

  • In what sense does thinking require consideration of moral and aesthetic concerns? What is the relationship between thought and judgment?
  • How does the word conscience function in Arendt’s analysis? What is important about this word for understanding the nature of thought?
  • How does the figure of Socrates function in Arendt’s analysis to reveal the role of thinking?
  • Why is thinking, in the sense that Arendt considers it, so easily disregarded by society? When does thinking matter most?

“Biting the Bullet”

Sometimes when weighing the trade-offs of a particular view and its logical consequences, you may decide to “bite the bullet.” This means that you are willing to accept the negative consequences of the view because you find the view attractive for other reasons. For instance, on the topic of free will, a philosopher might be committed to the idea that past events fully determine the future. In such a case, the philosopher is willing to accept the negative implication that free will is an illusion. In ethics, some philosophers are committed to the view that morality is entirely determined by the total quantity of effects caused by an action. Such philosophers may be willing to accept things that would otherwise seem immoral, like harming an individual person, if that action results in a greater quantity of positive effects in the end. No view is going to be perfect, and it is difficult to make sense of the world in terms that we can explain and understand. Nonetheless, we must be honest about the logical and moral consequences of the views we hold. If you are ultimately willing to accept those consequences to maintain the view, then you can bite the bullet.

Reflective Equilibrium

Another method for assessing the logical and moral consequences of our thinking is to use judgments about particular cases to revise principles, rules, or theories about general cases. This process of going back and forth between an assessment of the coherence of the theory and judgments about practical, applied cases is called reflective equilibrium. This process requires the revision of a theoretical and principled stance based on practical judgments about particular cases. Reflective equilibrium is achieved when you are able to establish some coherence between your theoretical and practical beliefs. Reflective equilibrium is a kind of coherence method: that is, reflective equilibrium justifies beliefs by assessing their logical consistency. As opposed to a traditional coherence approach, however, reflective equilibrium encourages the use of practical and applied judgments about cases as part of the set of beliefs that is logically consistent. Reflective equilibrium is an important method for introductory students to understand because students are frequently tempted to think they need to solve theoretical issues first before they can consider applications. Or they may choose a theory and then try to apply it to cases. Reflective equilibrium emphasizes that this procedure is likely neither possible nor desirable. Instead, a philosopher should be aware of both the theoretical commitments and the practical concerns of their position and use their understanding of each to inform the final analysis of their beliefs.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax