Tag Archives: ideology

No Other Reason

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I looked at the anchor. There was a lot to it, but it was all small. Still, it showed no sign of motion when I bounced on it. Bouncing on it was my job, and that was OK, even if the anchor failed its test. I hadn’t called ‘off belay’ yet. If the whole thing blew out of the crack in the Apache sandstone, I would fall about thirty feet.

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It wouldn’t be pretty, but everyone would survive, because I had done the same thing at the last anchor. Having tested the set-up, I did the usual thing and stopped worrying about it. I would check it a couple more times as part of the process, but those would be dispassionate inspections and a matter of course.

I felt a twinge of pride in my hard-earned discipline because, from a certain perspective, I was in the process of engineering m own Armageddon. I had both of my teenage children 500 feet up a technical climb with no fixed anchors. If things went wrong, everybody could end up dead. Sure, the climbing was far from a red-zone effort for me, but the possibility remained. From a certain perspective, our trip up the route was irresponsible, if not abusive on my part.

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The perspective in question had been on public display over the past couple of weeks. Just before our climb, two alpinists were given up for dead on a mountain in Pakistan. The typical mewling followed.

“Darwinism in action.”

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“Stupid.”

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“Irresponsible.”

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“High price for a cheap thrill.”

As always, the simpering pieces of shit making those comments were … well, to be fair, they were simply unqualified to comment. They were the kind of weak which makes me ashamed to be classified in the same species as them.

They were Nietzsche’s vision of the last man, realized.

I believe the term-of-art is, “punk-ass bitches”.

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Anyone who has climbed knows why the two men were on that mountain in Pakistan. They were there because it moved them – the mountain, the climbing, the commitment, the whole thing. While they were climbing, they were living by a pure aesthetic, and anyone who has not lived that, cannot understand it.

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Frogland, 5.8, 6-7 pitches, 700 feet, Red Rocks, Nevada

Those who have lived it know: There is no other reason.

 

 

 

 

 

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Socrates Is Not a Number

The heavyweight teetered on his shoulder for a moment, and then the plane of his back tipped slightly beyond perpendicular to the mat. Everyone groaned. They knew that it was over. In those days, before high school students had really gotten into the steroids, heavyweights were heavy. If one got turned onto his back, the victim was doomed to stay there until the refree slapped the mat and the portly victor rolled off.

The poor kid who now faced being pinned to the mat in the district semi-final was typical of the heavyweight breed. He was a kid who was interested in athletics, despite being pretty un-athletic. He was too heavy. But he was large. He was tall and broad, and it made his weight wieldy enough to let him play on the line in football, and wrestle in the heavyweight division. Some of his species were hyper-aggressive, likely in response to the hazing they received from elementary school on up. He was well-adjusted however, which worked against him on the mat.

He had an unfortunate name, ‘Jonah’. In the bible belt, that immediately earned him the nick name, ‘Jonah the Whale’. We had hung out on the sidelines waiting for our turns to wrestle and I liked him, as far as I knew him.

I hadn’t qualified for the district tournament, so I was watching Jonah from the stands with my father and the choir director from our church. We were rooting for Jonah, because he was up against a wrestler from a rival school. If Jonah won, our team locked in the tournament win. It was not to be. Under the combined weight of his opponent and his own bulk, Jonah sank flat. His legs flailed briefly in a futile attempt to bridge his shoulders off the mat. The referee slapped his hand and blew his whistle. Jonah’s legs went limp.

The choir director turned to my father and said, “Now, isn’t that just like a nigger.”

My father usually would not reply to stupid crap like that. He saw no point in useless conflict. But this time, he looked like he didn’t even know what he might say. He was flabbergasted, and so was I.

It was not the words; it was the tone.

The choir director didn’t sound angry, bitter or vindicated. He had a note of sadness and resignation in his voice. He expected Jonah to give up and lose, because it was in Jonah’s blood to give up and lose. Jonah had inherited an identity which played in certain narratives and not others. To our choir director, black folks were lazy, unreliable and weak-minded. Jonah was black, therefore Jonah was lazy, unreliable and weak-minded.

For the longest time, I thought that our choir director was wrong about Jonah just  because he was wrong about black folks. But I finally came to realize that our choir director was wrong about Jonah, because he was wrong about everything. Jonah could be represented by blackness, or fatness, or type B personality, but none of those things were Jonah. Nor was it true to say that Jonah represented any of the things that you could say about him.

Put enough of those things together, and you might be able to pick Jonah out of a crowd, or even predict what he might do in a particular situation. However there was no Form of Blackness, Property of Personableness, or Elan Vital , which determined his ethnicity, his being good mat-side company, or his being the proper subject of Biology.

Yet that was the world according to our pious musician. It was a world of causative kinds, where things like Good, Black and Life were not points on our map of the world, but the lands themselves, which we had discovered or, as he would maintain, were granted us by God. It seemed that he saw things that way, at least.

For a time, I considered the possibility that I was being too hard on him by speculating that he was the type who might claim that opium caused sleepiness by means of a dormative property. Maybe he was the type that saw a grander conspiracy, instead. Not the Conspiracy of Forms, but the Conspiracy of Form. Perhaps he saw the fact that our experience permitted mapping and the application of logic as evidence of some existential purpose. It could not be otherwise, otherwise we could not know that it could not be otherwise. Of course, that was the problem with the Grand Conspiracy – there could be no otherwise to propose. It was undecidable in principle and so the Grand Conspiracy could only be held as a humble hypothesis, on faith.

And that was why I came to believe that he was the first sort of conspiracy theorist after all. Like most in the church hierarchy, he was not really interested in anything humble. The factors of an authoritarian regime never are. They want the appearance of humility which comes with deference to order. A humble demeanor sets people off their guard, which makes it easier to bludgeon them into line (inevitably behind the club wielder). Such individuals will also pay lip-service to the Grand Conspiracy in order to cultivate a humble self-image, since a humble self-image makes the beatdown easier to countenance (I am merely an instrument; it is for their own good). However, what they act upon is the Conspiracy of Forms, because order serves its servants.

Later that night, Jonah wrestled in the consolation round of the tournament. What had gotten into him, I would never know, but he came out in an uncharacteristic, cartoon fury, twitching and spluttering like Daffy Duck. It took the opponent aback, but it did not make Jonah more graceful 0r skilled. It did not keep Jonah off his back.

Again the groan went up. Jonah’s coach and family screamed futile encouragement. In a grim replay of his earlier match, Jonah tried to bridge. And it worked.

The move didn’t flip the other wrestler off Jonah’s chest, or even raise Jonah’s shoulders off the mat. However, in his fury, he had worked himself into a lather, and lubricated by his own sweat, he was able to scoot himself and the large boy lying on top of him, across the mat and out of bounds.

From there, Jonah’s determination saw him through. Buoyed by his miraculous escape, he could not be held down, and after two more minutes of panting and pushing, Jonah won the match on points.

When it was all over, Jonah was still black, still alive, still personable, and still a heavyweight, just as Socrates was any number of numbers.

 

 

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Creation…

…demands a creator. A creator is instrumental. In other words, a creator draws upon what exists to produce novelty. This state of affairs is true even if the creator engages in rote copy-work.

There is an ‘if’ hidden in all creation – otherwise, the created must simply remain the extant. Creation necessarily occurs in context.

So, do theologians really mean to call their gods creators? Maybe they mean something else, or maybe they  mean to achieve something other than explanation in attributing creative powers to their gods.

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The Most Ridiculous Thing

What’s in a meaning? Something instrumental, and therefore fit to the circumstance of its usage, that’s what. Does that make meanings powerless, because they can be acquired and need interpretation? Not at all.

Take brand logos …

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In a magazine ad., the symbol above is meant to represent sporty sedans from Bavaria.

On the streets of Scottsdale, it says, “I might be a dick.”

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In the showroom this symbol indicates a luxury German car.

On the streets of Scottsdale, it means, “I am a dick”.

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Again, parked in the dealer’s lot, this logo stands for British all-terrain vehicles.

On the road in Scottsdale: “I have devoted my life to proving that there are worse things than being a dick.”

All of the above meanings carry plenty of weight. They are all circumstantial, too. People have no worries about that state of affairs, until they begin to talk about the meaning of our existence.

But, does talk about existence itself having meaning, make any sense? Is existence in itself, for something? For example, would it make sense to say that God’s existence, or a hydrogen atom’s, carries an independent meaning?

It is an absurdity. It simply does not apply.

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Weaponized

There is an interesting post here about jargon. It explores one of the useful aspects of jargon, and as a consumer – indeed a purveyor – of jargon in the medical field, I completely agree. Technical terms give us simple clarity, and simple clarity is one of the most useful things around.

The post focuses on the utility of jargon within its natural environs – dialog between professionals, where it is quite useful as shorthand. As an example from my world, when I say ‘appendicitis’ to someone in the medical field, a fairly specific array of physiologic and anatomic processes comes to mind, along with their likely manifestations, consequences, implications for diagnostic testing and treatment, associated research studies, etc.

The conversation can move right along. Plus by way of its scope, the use of technical terms can serve as a check point in the dialog. If there is a malapropism, it is apparent.

When a colleague says, “The negative ultrasound ruled out appendicitis..”, the conversation must stop. We must clarify why he thinks that the ultrasound ruled out appendicitis, because it is commonly accepted that ultrasound does not, in and of itself, rule out appendicitis. The term ‘appendicitis’ as jargon, contains the understanding of its diagnostic criteria for those in the know.

The situation is different when a patient says, “I think I have appendicitis.”

Typically, the lay person who makes that statement knows little to nothing about appendicitis. The word refers to little if any of the content it carries when I mention it to a surgeon. However, the same process flows from its use, or rather misuse.

The lay person’s usage brings up the question, “Why do you think that you have appendicitis?”

In other words, technical terms provide some solid surfaces in an otherwise squishy conversational world. If we can’t alight upon them, then at least we may bounce off of them in some direction, rather than landing splat in misunderstanding or mere conflict.

The common complaint that jargon is obfuscation doesn’t hold up when we consider the honest usage of technical terms, even outside of their professional environment. There is, however, a dishonest way of deploying jargon.

The current poster-child for such corrupted terminology is ‘mindfulness’. In its original sense, the word referred to a non-reflective state. The idea was: your mind stays fully engaged with what is happening in its scope of awareness, without reaction or abstraction. It was the kind of thing which dart players, test-takers and athletes sought.

Now, though it still gets used to mean engagement with the present, it may also stand for a state of detached self-awareness, in which one is monitoring and regulating one’s responses to one’s present situation. Clearly, the latter meaning is at odds with the former, if only because the latter refers to an essentially reflective activity.  Dishonest users of the term shift back and forth between the meanings depending on the goals of the user’s discourse. If the occasion is a corporate retreat aimed at promoting harmony in the workplace, the second meaning is used. If the speaker wishes to convince the listener that chronic back pain does not require morphine if one simply ceases to reflect upon said pain, then the first meaning of mindfulness is implied.

Clearly, the sort of shenanigans at work when people bat around ‘mindfulness’ are what give jargon a bad name. Mindfulness started out its career innocently enough, as something which Zen practitioners and coaches discussed. But along the way, it picked something up. As something useful, it came to possess an air of desirability. As something desirable, it acquired the reputation of being something good, and then, of being good in itself.

Once imbued with moral character, the technical meaning of mindfulness, along with all associated contents relating to its use, became subsidiary. Being mindful became less important than being a mindful person, and when a moral role presents itself, it is open for definition. The corporate lecturer can tell us what a mindful person does at work. The pain specialist can tell us how a mindful patient takes medicine. The roles make the meaning henceforth.

The situation seems at least a minor victory for the moral expressivists – those who claim that our moral claims are not claims at all but expressions of sentiments like approval and disapproval. It would be a victory too, if the abusers of technical terms were actually making moral statements. But they are not.

When people utilize a bit of jargon with moral character, they are using it as a means to an end. They are weaponizing it. The listener doesn’t receive a sentimental expression from the speaker; the listener is invited to fill in the sentiment. The audience at the corporate retreat must make the connection: a weekly post on the suggestion board means I am mindful, which means I am good. That line of thinking isn’t really moral reasoning; it is a facilitated rationalization.

Jargon as a technical tool is not the problem. Yet, we are right to be wary of jargon. Its use should put us on the lookout for manipulation. But we should not be afraid to use it either.  We must just take care to use it mindfully, by which I mean being critically aware of one’s attitude toward the current subject, which was once known as being an adult. Oops…

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Let’s Do a Thought Crime

One more time, plus a  little more…

On a cold morning, a little girl named Suzy is waiting for the School Bus at the bottom of a steep hill. It was raining the night before, and water has been flowing next to the curb. The water froze in the early hours of the morning, forming a sheet of black ice. The ice sheet extends all the way down to Suzy, and unfortunately for her, passes under the tires of a Cadillac Coupe DeVille parked in the middle of the hill. As the sun hits the hill, the ice loses its grip on the tires and the car slides silently and rapidly down the hill, striking Suzy and killing her instantly.

Now suppose the same chain of events ensues, except this time, the car breaks loose just as the cars owner, Andy, sits down in the driver’s seat and closes the door. The inside door handle is broken, so he can’t just jump back out again. The power windows are up and the horn doesn’t work, so he has no way to warn Suzy of her impending doom. He desperately turns the wheel, but it’s too slick for the tires to grab. Suzy dies just as in scenario #1.
Again, suppose the circumstances are the same, but this time, the owner of the car is different. Let’s call him Brian. When Brian realizes that he is sliding out of control, he thinks, “You know, I’ve always hated that little bitch anyway,” and he turns the wheel to direct the car toward little Suzy. Again, the tires have no purchase on the ice and the chain of events is unaltered.

Is there a moral distinction in the incident between the unoccupied car and the occupied car?

Between the incident with Andy and the incident with Brian?

If so, where is the independent and objective moral fact in each case?

Imagine that none of this actually happened, but that Andy and Brian each dreamed the same dream, in which they behaved as they behaved. Each wakes with a sense of satisfaction about his own behavior in the dream, and goes on to live an impeccable life thereafter, never harming a fly. Is there still a moral distinction to be drawn between the two men?

When we speak of morality, are we describing a fact with inherent causal efficacy – like a runaway Coupe DeVille – or are we describing an attitude (or the formation of an attitude)?

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What Do You Really Fear?

If God has an explanation, how does It remain God? If God has no explanation, then why all the fuss?

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What Is It Exactly?

Theology and its discontents are the source of endless confusion. To be clear, there are certain, specific parts of it which are problematic.

“God’s intent”, “God’s thoughts”, “God’s feelings” are used as poor metaphors for our understanding  of some unfathomable necessity which precedes existence.

Apologies and Natural Theology cannot apply, as the “entity” in question defies explanation. You either feel, for one personal reason or another, that you can’t live without this “thing” at the bottom of it all, or not. I won’t argue against that; no one can.

But the “quotations” get dropped so quickly, and then the subject of the conversation becomes a truly disembodied mind. It is something without location or temporal orientation, yet it is something which has plans, thinks, and has experiences.

That set of notions is simply incoherent with the first notion. In fact, that second set of notions doesn’t fit together with anything. It is a word salad. You can’t convince me of it, and you don’t even believe it yourself, because there is nothing there to believe or not.

 

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Realism in the Time of the Troonians

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My son pointed at the massive dwelling crouched on the mountainside below us.
“Just one mortar round…,” he said, “Wouldn’t you like to see it?”
He was having some trouble adjusting to our move from rural Wyoming to the swanky part of the Southwest desert. He took little comfort in my assurances that all the car washes and golf courses would soon (in geologic terms) suck the metropolis dry and leave its snotty, effete denizens to perish on the parched dust like beached fish gasping for water. Even the fact that we were hastening the demise of this false oasis by our presence, did not satisfy him.
I, on the other hand, felt a certain degree of fulfillment from participating in the great blooming and dying-back.
But, I had to admit, I would like to see the house explode.
It was offensive to me, for a number of reasons.
The house was part of a cluster of housing developments and country clubs which had sprouted below a small range of granite crags north of Scottsdale. All were emblems of wretched excess, with the concomitant nomenclature: “The Estates at Xanadu”, “Regent Manors”, and the like. I had taken to lumping the lot under the oddest of their labels – “Troon”.
It wasn’t just a funny name; it designated a private golf course and a gated community, so it represented the entire syndrome nicely. The homes all cost millions, and they sprawled. The square footage stood for the worst aesthetic arrangement which our society had to offer, which was the joy of possession over the joy of experience.
Worse, though, was the history of the Troons relative to the surrounding crags. They had posed a serious risk to climbing access.
Most of the problems had been resolved with the creation of Pinnacle Peak Park. However, it was the idea behind the threat to climbing access that was offensive. The threat implied an equivalence, at least, between the Troonians’ appreciation for the crags, and my own.
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Clearly, that was not the case. For them, the rock constituted part of a lifestyle badge. It was kind of nice to look at, and living beneath it gave the Troonian status. He could feel a little removed, and above it all, like the proud peak in his backyard. He didn’t want climbers ruining the image of the rock, much less disturbing his sense of splendid isolation otherwise by yelling ‘off belay’ during his afternoon tea.
I understood the beauty of distant peaks, too. But I also knew the beauty of the rock close up, under finger and foot. It was something more, and forever unavailable to the Troonian. He had no right to impinge on my more complete and superior aesthetic.
But how could one convince a Philistine that he was a Philistine? The problem was intractable. He would always have some rejoinder about a set of related values which justified his being a rotten little twerp. In this case, it would be property, the rights of exchange which came with hard- earned (hah!) wealth, and liberty. Forget the fact that he could not own the rock in any meaningful way. He had to either bring it down or squat below it. Forget the fact that his array of goods for purchase was already limited by the aesthetics of his society, which found it distasteful, for instance, for him to buy humans for any purpose. Forget the fact that he had already sacrificed the greater portion of his liberty in the process of becoming a Troonian (the chances of one of those poor, business-softened bastards even scrambling up the Pinnacle Peak approach trail, were practically nil).
The Troonian’s frame of reference could not encompass my own. He would never be able to appreciate the inferiority of his aesthetic relative to mine, and so he would continue to hold his own values precious by mistake. If ethics boiled down to the reconciliation of intentionality and motivation with truth, there could be no ethical resolution between myself and the Troonian. There was no commonly held truth between us.
Traditionally, that class of differences has been settled with mortar shells. The Trooninan’s annihilation would be a consensual truth. But it would be a superimposed truth, and an impolite way of changing the subject. It missed the intention, since it was no longer about me and the Troonian and our aesthetic differences, but about the prejudicial elimination of those differences. And it was discordant with my motive, which was to appreciate the climbing experience.
The relevant truth was that the Trooinian and I valued something about the peaks, and generally valued our valuations in a similar way. That last bit was the truth that our difference was about, and it was not the truth to which my impulse to see his house explode and to hack him to death with a machete as he stumbled, flaming, from the wreckage, appealed. It did not feel as good, acting on this second-order stuff – the valuation of values – as would a good hacking which made its own truth. I could see how one would come to think that feeling anything about a moral decision was a red herring. And from there, I could see how one would come to think that moral decisions had a real and objective life of their own.
I looked back at my son.
“Hmmm,” I answered, “I’d rather climb the Y-crack.”
And I would. I would rather climb, keep my voice down, leave the crag before dark and choose to see the little McMansion at our feet as a quaint feature of the landscape. Hell, who knew? Maybe the squishy critter in the cage below us was really an old dirt bag who’d hit it big in the lottery and looked up at us with a sense of appreciation and nostalgia.
Maybe, but I doubted it.

Besides, there is always something better in Sedona

Besides, there is always something better in Sedona

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Meta-Ethics is Easy

I’m about to go on about a certain position within moral realism. Like everything that appears in this space, it is mostly rumination. You were warned.
I have my doubts about moral realism generally. I think it turns out not to be the case, at least in any traditional way. But I’m not certain of that judgment in general.
There is a particular brand of moral realism however, which is a dead duck. That variety is the one which claims that moral realism is an analytic truth, a truth like the statement, “all bachelors are unmarried”. I want to be specific about the position in question. It is not simply one which claims that certain values are analytic truths, but one which claims that realism itself is such a truth. It is the position that valuation is impossible without “truths by definition” as the result is otherwise unstable and necessarily without meaning.
The in-principle complaint is easily answered. J.L. Mackie does so in Ethics: “We can then offer a general definition of ‘good’: such as to satisfy requirements (etc.) of the kind in question.” Valuation occurs within the bounds of a subject, however large or small those bounds may be. To borrow further from Mackie, the universe doesn’t demand the existence of a knife, but that doesn’t stop us from distinguishing a good knife from a bad one. The fact that the qualities of a good knife don’t help us pick out a good spoon, doesn’t render our knife-judgments meaningless either.
But what about the pragmatic objection? It is the main argument in favor of the absolutist’s stance. The possibility of a subjective value system notwithstanding, it will fail in its application. Yet monetary systems work by the very means in question, and have proven effective and durable.
Theoretically, money stands in for valuable goods and services – for the variety of labor. But in practice, people value the money itself. They value its utility. The value of money withstands disassociation from an objective standard. The dollar needn’t be redeemable for a certain quantity of rare metal to retain its value. And the value of money can collapse. It isn’t valuable necessarily. Yet even when its value collapses, money doesn’t disappear. People value its utility even when its meaning is shown to be entirely relative.
So it is with meta-ethics. There is no essential supervenience of moral valuation on physical fact. There may be an explanatory supervenience of moral valuation on physical fact, and the necessity of that relationship is a legitimate point of contention. There is no theoretical relationship in the absolutist’s sense.
To illustrate the relationship between value and physical fact, think about murder. The word bears a negative value, but to what does it really refer? Is it a person’s death which necessarily bears the negative evaluation? We certainly evaluate some deaths as neutral or even noble. Is it a violent action of one person on another? Such actions are evaluated as neutral or at least justified in war or self-defense. Is it the pain of the victim or the victim’s loved ones? We sometimes view physical pain as necessary or even good, as it allows us to avoid debilitating injury. The pain of loss comes with love and it can be evaluated as a neutral adjunct of the latter. Is it the killer’s anger? Is it the killer’s functionalization of the victim’s life? Again, that is how people are treated in just wars, and it is the mechanism employed in the soldier’s decision to throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades. ‘Functionalization’ is the actual, ethical problem with what the murderer has done, rather than some meta-ethical fact isolated in principle. Value is not redeemable on any isolated fact. It comes with the whole circumstance, multifariously and specifically.
Again, none of this precludes realism. Maybe we do have an inborn moral sense, and some attendant, necessary evaluation of specific circumstances, just as we have red and green photoreceptors and so see grass like this and blood like that. It only means that realism is not a requirement, any more than red and green photoreceptors are.
The understanding that simplistic realism – where there is a fixed, gold-standard, theoretical, fact/value relationship – is false, has important ethical consequences. Returning to the murderer for a moment, the trouble with his act is an ethical issue, and not a meta-ethical issue. He may value his victim’s life, his own emotional comfort, his victim’s emotional comfort, his own life – and still get it wrong. He does so by functionalizing one value in terms of another.
In that case, the murderer’s ethical error is the same as the one which Solomon exposes when he offers to divide the halves of the baby between the two claimant mothers. The biological mother values the baby on its own terms. Her opponent values equity and is willing to interpret the value of the baby’s life – whose value she recognizes – in terms of equity. As Solomon did, we recognize in her interpretation, a usage error. However one thinks it is assigned, the circumstances upon which the baby’s value supervenes do not encompass social equity between the two women. In the second woman’s treatment of it, the meaning of the baby’s value has been surreptitiously changed.
It is no accident that we have Solomon’s example emphasized in a religious tradition. The stark moral realism associated with most religion offers an easy path to the ethical usage error, as it does to the mistaken notion that moral realism is an absolute necessity. Absolute values feel like they ought to be redeemable across circumstances. Absolute and universal are too easily confused, especially when proper usage is often inconvenient and always a little uncomfortable.
Solomon’s example is cautionary regarding the temptation to ethical short cuts and their usage errors. But, it is cautionary more broadly as well. His good judgment was necessary because meta-ethics is not easy. Whether or not there is finally a moral fact-of-the-matter, our moral valuations are specific and circumstantial, and they do not bear incautious usage. Saying otherwise is simply acquiescence to the lure of temporary emotional comfort, at the price of a flawed ethic. The position of “realism regarding realism” has no other justification.

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