Sep 19, 2010

Charles Taylor on Irreducibly Social Goods

Charles Taylor has a neat essay called "Irreducibly Social Goods." [1] He wants to know whether there are any irreducibly social goods, i.e. social goods (e.g. friendship) that cannot be decomposed into what's good for individuals. His argument that there are appeals to Wittgensteinian considerations about the 'background,' the implicit array of meanings that makes possible our language practices. For Taylor, I can think of myself as sophisticated, whereas that thought simply isn't available to medieval samurai, due to deep differences in our cultural backgrounds. Without a background of the relevant sort, certain thoughts are impossible. The same holds for values. On Taylor's view, being in a certain culture makes it possible for certain things to be values. Sophistication can be a value for us, though it can't be for the samurai, according to Taylor.

Taylor then wants to apply this Wittgensteinian point about values to the question of irreducible social goods. The argument goes like this. Suppose a culture makes possible certain individual goods. It will follow, all else equal, that the culture that makes those goods possible is a good. But what kind of good is it? It is closely linked to various individual goods, as we've seen. But this linkage isn't causal; the culture isn't one among many things that could have brought it about that the individual goods exist. Rather, those goods are unintelligible apart from the culture. Because of this intricate connection between the culture and the goods it makes intelligible, Taylor thinks that the culture is an intrinsic, rather than merely instrumental, good. Further, the culture is an irreducibly social good, because there is in principle no way to make a value intelligible just to some individuals in the culture and not to others. (Cf. Wittgenstein's rejection of private language.)

This is an intriguing argument, but I don't think it quite works. For one thing, why should it be that whatever makes it possible for something to be understood as a good is itself a good? As far as I can tell, Taylor doesn't answer this question, and it's certainly not obvious why we would want to answer in the affirmative. It's not clear that it's relevant, for example, whether the making possible is merely causal or not.

Another worry is that Taylor's argument equivocates about the concept of cultural background. We can agree, for the sake of argument, that the connection between there being a cultural background at all and there being values at all is essential, in a non-causal sense; but it doesn't follow that the connection between any particular cultural backgrounds and the particular values it makes possible is also a non-causal connection. For presumably any number of different cultures can provide a background against which the values that are intelligible in our culture would also be intelligible. We need a way to individuate cultural backgrounds to spell out this worry in detail, but it at least seems like there might be an equivocation here.

Taylor has a second argument later in the article, but it's geared toward a somewhat different set of social goods. So, it's pretty important for his overall purpose whether this argument in fact succeeds.

[1] Reprinted in Charles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments.

Cheating and Deception in Sports

This is like picking low-hanging fruit, of course, but I can't help commenting on this piece by Bruce Weber in the Saturday NYT concerning cheating in sports. Apparently Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter faked getting hit by a pitch. Though the ball only impacted the bottom of his bat, he dramatically acted as if the ball hit his hand. Bruce Weber wants to argue that it's puritanical to find something objectionable, morally or otherwise, about Jeter's histrionics; unfortunately he strikes out when it comes to giving good reasons for his view.

The proposal is that we can distinguish licit deception from cheating proper in terms of spontaneity. If a player is responding spontaneously to the situation of the game, like Jeter supposedly was, that's fine; if the action is more deliberate and planned, that's more likely to be cheating. But why should degree of spontaneity have anything to do with whether pretending to get hit by a pitch, or taking a fall in soccer, is to be considered cheating? Typically, how premeditated an action is will matter only for the blameworthiness of an actor, not for the rightness of the action; here, it's supposed to matter for rightness, and that's just perplexing.

Weber also claims that deception is inherent to competition. But that's obviously false. How could I deceive my opponent in tic-tac-toe, for example? And even when a game does involve some deception- like chess, arguably- there's a difference between deception that's built into the structure of the game, and deception that is outside that structure. (For example, it would be objectionable to promise not to look at your opponent's Scrabble board while he grabs a sandwich, but then sneak a peak. It's simply not part of the game of Scrabble to look at your opponent's board!)

I think it's difficult to spell out what a good view of this question is, but I'd suggest a few basic points to start with.

1. We respect honest players more than those who capitalize on opportunities to gain through dishonesty. Moreover, we ought to do so.
Weber disagrees, saying that we don't expect players to argue calls that it's not in their interest to reverse, even if they know they were wrongly made. I guess he doesn't expect much of athletes morally; that's a shame.

2. What counts as cheating is going to depend on specific facts about the sport. (Weber agrees with this.) In American football, for example, a quarterback's hard count is designed to trick the defense into rushing before the snap, and receiving an offsides penalty. I would say this is fine, perhaps partly because this practice is common knowledge, so it's not as deeply deceptive as feigning injury. What's common knowledge among participants in an activity will vary depending on what the activity is; it's different in baseball than soccer, and might be different across token games of the same sport.
(Common knowledge has a technical meaning in philosophy. It's common knowledge that something is the case if everyone knows it, and everyone knows that everyone knows it, and so on.)

3. This is a bit more adventurous: what it means to be a good x while y-ing is sensitive to what it means to be a good x. So, what it means to be a good person while playing some particular sport is sensitive to what it means to be a good person. I don't know if we can say much in general about the relation between being a good person and being a good athlete, because of point (2). But Weber's article tends to deny any kind of relationship here, which I think is dangerous. The demands of morality and propriety don't vanish when we step on the field.

4. This gets pretty messy, since it involves a doing/allowing distinction, but here goes: There's a difference between actively deceiving an umpire (like Jeter seems to have done), and merely failing to correct the mistakes of an umpire. Weber disagrees with this, but doesn't give any reason for doing so.

That's all I want to say for now. My hunch is that there are interesting parallels between the right account of cheating in sports and the right account of lying in conversation.