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mostly elephant, ergo…

Valerie Tiberius interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Valerie Tiberius is a switched on philosophy freak who gets high and hummin’ asking troublesome questions. She thinks we have to face the fact that our powers of reasoning are pretty feeble and that our ignorance about ourselves is surprisingly extensive. She wants to philosophise about living a life rather than what a good life looks like from the outside. She parts company with Aristotle’s jive and disagrees with Hume that we are slaves to passion. She always thinks optimism about human nature is important and wonders about our powers of constraining cynicism. Reflective wisdom is a big yes for her even though Pol Pot might be the bullet she has to bite. She asks whether we should brush our dog’s teeth and thinks xphi has resources that give philosophy a leg up in terms of a larger conversation. So when you consider it all, she is most indubitably the mezz.

3:AM: What made you into a philosopher? Were you always asking troublesome big questions or was that something that happened over time, gradually, until you felt you couldn’t stop?

Valerie Tiberius: My Dad is an educational psychologist who was a philosopher at heart. Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill were two of his favorite philosophers and there were a lot of their books around when I was growing up. I suppose he taught me the joy of asking troublesome questions. He also taught me that the reason we didn’t go to church was because we were atheists and the reason we were atheists was the problem of evil. When I got to college I was delighted to find people thought about these kinds of things and called it work.

3:AM: You’re known for your approach to morality. You have developed a theory of the reflective life and reflective values. To understand it, its important I think to set it in context and to contrast it with what it opposes. So firstly, can you say something about the issue of naturalism and morality that is a vital aspect of your approach. At the beginning of your book you cite the psychologist John Haidt who suggests that Plato’s metaphor of the chariot and the charioteer ought to be replaced by the metaphor of the elephant and the rider. These are metaphors about the power of our reasoning, and Haidt’s point, which you agree with I think, is that our reasoning powers are pretty feeble compared to the lumbering non-reflective self. Can you say something about this and why this is so important to moral philosophy?

VT: In philosophy, naturalism means a lot of different things. What I mean by it, basically, is that everything we want to understand has to be understood without invoking anything spooky. So I think that if we’re going to make sense of ethics or morality, we can’t talk about non-natural properties of goodness or rightness that are somehow in the fabric of the universe but not made up of the stuff that everything else is made up of. We naturalists also have to avoid talking about principles of reason that somehow exist independently of us and our practices of reasoning. For a naturalist, having an accurate picture of what we are really like is extremely important, since what we are like (and what the world is like) is all there is.

The point about our reasoning abilities has a more particular kind of importance. Now, I think our reasoning powers are feeble compared to what we have sometimes assumed, but I still think they’re pretty darned important. What I think is most important is to recognise that we’re not as rational as we assume and we don’t know as much about ourselves as we think we do. Once we face these facts, I think our reasoning will be improved.

3:AM: Now the approach you take contrasts with other approaches in several ways. One important approach you reject is one that tries to work out a theory of the human good, or well-being, or happiness or whatever that we can then apply to answer the question about how we should live. Can you say why this approach won’t do? There are quite a few philosophers who have taken this approach you reject so, as you say in your book The Reflective Life, why are you changing the subject?

VT: The truth is that I don’t think working out a theory of well-being is the wrong way to go – in fact, I’ve done a lot of work on this topic myself! But in The Reflective Life I wanted to talk about living a life as opposed to what a good life looks like from the outside, so to speak. I just think that the question of how to live is an important question in its own right and, while it’s related to the question of how to define well-being, different problems and solutions come up when you focus on the first person question.

3:AM: Some might think that you are approaching the issue in an Aristotelian way. After all, he considered people as part of nature and then asked what makes humans flourish given this nature. But yours is not an Aristotlelian approach and I think it will be helpful if you can explain why yours is quite a different approach despite the joint commitment to naturalism. I think your criticism of Appiaha’s approach was that it was closer to Aristotle than you think useful, even though it took seriously the challenge of naturalism to ethics. Am I right in thinking that?

VT: That’s a good point. I probably do have more in common with Aristotle than I have admitted. The big difference is that I think Aristotle assumes that nature is in a way inherently normative. That people and animals and plants have a natural telos or goal that it’s good for them to reach. I don’t think this: there are no values in nature in the sense Aristotle thought. Values are, on my view, incompatible with nature, but they don’t come directly from nature without the intervention of valuers. So, to put it simply: I think Aristotle would say that in a world with no sentient beings (nobody to care about whether anything goes one way or another) there would still be some value, because, e.g., plants would be able to reach their natural ends. I don’t think this. I think in a world with no valuers (and I’m fairly open-minded about who counts as a valuer) there would be no values.

3:AM: So your approach is what you call a first person process led approach. Is that right? Can you say something about this.

VT: Yes, that’s about right. Basically, I’m interested in talking about how to live rather that what to get. I’m interested in (and I think it’s important to talk about) how to get from A to B, how to think about our choices, how to think about what matters to us, how to overcome the obstacles we have to pursuing what really matters to us, and so on.

3:AM: So from the perspective you outline, we’re largely controlled by non-rational impulses. We don’t have a good grip on what we’re doing, what we’re thinking, what we’re wanting. Like Hume, we’re a slave to our passions. We’re riding an elephant, as John Haidt suggests. This is backed up by cognitive science that seems pretty secure. So to some it may seem that to be able to live a reflective and wise life seems a hopeless task for a creature like this. You ask the question: ‘How should you live?’ and some might think we know too much about ourselves for the question to have any point. But you disagree. You think we can answer the question. You start by discussing three features of a first-person process. We’re to aim at reflective success, we’re to use norms that are not derived from unachievable ideals and we’re to recognise the importance of our passions and experiences for both information and motivation. Can you tell us more about this?

VT: Hume’s view was that reason is the slave of the passions and there’s a sense in which I agree with him about this. I agree that values are not dictated by reason; they come, ultimately, because of our passions. But this does not mean the same thing as saying that we are the slaves of our passions. We do have lots of non-rational impulses, but we also have the capacity to reflect, reason and change our minds. We may not be able to steer the elephant in the short term, but I think we can get our elephants going in better directions over the long term by cultivating certain good reflective habits. These habits involve some reflection, but they also involve (as you point out) passion and experience.

I do think that perfect wisdom is an unachievable ideal and I agree that we aren’t going to improve our lives by force of rational will. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t need to ask the question “how should I live?”. The fact is that most people do ask this question! And if you do ask it, what’s your option? One option is to give yourself over entirely to instinct, feeling and desire and to abandon all hope of exercising any kind of reflective control over how things go for you. Another option is to think really hard all by yourself, devise a purely rational plan for living and then try to enact it. I advocate a middle path. We should reflect about what kind of life we want to live, on what kind of life will allow for a good self-assessment (this is reflective success – it’s the “pat on the back” standard!). But when we do this we should draw on our experience and listen to our emotions. Then when we try to live up to our ideas about how we live, we should continue to pay attention to experience and feelings, since our plans might not really fit us very well once we try them out.

3:AM: The four conditions you say are very important for a life of reflective wisdom are perspective, flexibility, self-awareness and optimism. You say that these are key to contemporary life, contrasting them with more traditional settings. A striking element is your insisting that optimism is important in this context. Can tell us about these elements and why they are so important?

VT: Perspective and flexibility are important because we need to appreciate all the values that could contribute to our lives going well, and we have tendencies to (1) pay too much attention to things that don’t have that much value (we ruminate on silly things and take for granted what really matters) and (2) we get stuck in a rut where we only experience one kind of value (for example, we become so obsessed with work that we can’t enjoy the little time we have with friends). I think the pressures of contemporary life, particularly in North America, make these problems very pressing.

I define optimism as a kind of hopeful attitude about human nature. I think optimism is important because so many of our projects depend on other people in various ways that it will be difficult for us to sustain our commitment to them and enjoyment in them if we think that “people suck”. For example, if you play sports and you think that all your team mates and competitors are mean, selfish, nasty people, I think you won’t get as much out of the activity. The value of optimism about human nature is even more obvious when you think about the importance of close relationships with friends and family to our happiness. I will say that I’m the least certain about this chapter (on optimism) of all the virtues I discuss in my book. I wonder now whether we couldn’t just be cynical (I take cynicism about human nature to be the vice that’s opposed to optimism) about some people but not others, so that we can have our cake and eat it too. There’s some reason to think most of us are not capable of constraining our cynicism in this way, but I’m not as sure as I once was.

3:AM: The neat thing about your approach is that you think asking ‘how should I live’ is a pragmatic question that needs to be understood as being answerable without perfect information, perfect rationality, or full moral virtue. We’re mostly elephant after all! You link the approach to Hume and Rawls and Charles Taylor. Hume seems particularly important in that Hume connects evaluative authority to contingent human nature. (You don’t however defend the Hume who claimed that practical reason is instrumentalist though, do you?) This is the crux of your approach isn’t it, that we shouldn’t think we need an impossible ideal to live well using reflective virtues? And this helps explain why process is so important and we shouldn’t be trying to set up standards of authority outside of this process. Is this right?

VT: Yes, exactly. That’s a nice way of putting it. And it’s true that I don’t follow Hume in thinking that reason is purely instrumental. I think we can be reflective about our ends too. We can wonder if something we value for its own sake is really good for us. I do agree with Hume that there aren’t rational principles from which we can derive and answer, but I think that we can reflect on the question using our rational capacities and come up with a satisfying answer.

3:AM: This virtue wisdom in your view can’t be codified according to rules or principles. In this you agree with philosophers like McDowell and Nussbaum. But you disagree with them that it’s analogous to perception. Rather, you break it down into a set of skills that accord with what we know about our psychology and the limits of our rational capacities. Is this right? So why can’t it be codified, and why isn’t it like perception? Can you say something about this.

VT: I find the perception metaphor a little bit mysterious, which is why I wanted to avoid it. What exactly is being perceived? And what is the defect of someone who doesn’t “see” the right answer? I’m not sure what’s helpful about thinking of this as a perceptual defect. What can’t be codified, on my view, is the decisions that a wise person will make in different contexts. I don’t think we can capture all these decisions in a neat set of rules.

3:AM: But someone might suggest that by putting so much on the facts about us (psychological and cognitive facts especially) there are two risks to your theory: one, what happens if we find out new things about ourselves that suggest the reflective life is quite impossible? And another problem someone might raise is: how can oughts be derived from is’s? Just because we are predisposed to live harmoniously, (backed up by all we know about the psychological and rational cognitive facts about ourselves) can’t we still ask, should we? And if we can’t, then are you not actually doing away with morality?

VT: These are great questions! I have sometimes been genuinely worried about the first. So far, I don’t think the evidence favours the pessimistic view, though. I don’t think the psychological evidence shows that we are incapable of reasoning or responding to the reasons that we find. On the second, I don’t think oughts can be derived from is’s directly. Some ought has to be assumed in the inputs to get oughts as the outputs. The ought that I assume is a value – the value of living a reflectively endorsable life. What I say in the book is that to people who really honestly don’t value this at all, I have nothing to say. That may seem like a disappointing answer, but I think it’s the best we can do. I also think that almost everyone does care about living such a life, once they understand what it is.No one wants to regret how they’ve lived their lives or feel dissatisfied with how they did or think that the path they took was entirely unjustified or senseless.

3:AM: Can reflective wisdom endorse evil things as well as good on your account? So isn’t it imaginable that Pol Pot, for instance, might have done exactly what he did according to his own reflective wisdom? When we thought we had a moral ideal such as ‘Thou Shalt not commit genocide’, for example, you could criticize him. But how do I criticise Pol Pot from this perspective? Doesn’t your position leave us very much in a relativist bind?

VT: Yes. This is a bullet I am forced to bite. Because I distinguish a prudentially good life (a life that is good for the person who is living it) from a morally good life, and because my view about the prudentially good life is subjectivist, I don’t have the resources to make it impossible that an evil person could be living a reflective life (a good life for him or her). I do think, though, that these kinds of cases aren’t going to be as common as we might fear, because of what most human beings are like.

3:AM: The approach seems to give authority to emotional responses, for example, as well as just rational ones, (when the circumstances permit). This is very different from traditional theories where the rational mind has been given sole authority to arbitrate on questions of what it is right to do. So this approach seems to have the potential to recognise the full scope of how human animals make up their minds. In this it seems very much like the Nietzschean view as set out by Brian Leiter where normative commitments are a mix of where nature put them and how we sort them. But truth is not a highest ideal, nor is moral goodness. There is no ‘higher ideal’, its whatever is practical for the circumstance and preferable for the personality type. Is this right?

VT: Well, I’m not a big fan of Nietzsche. I like the point about recognising the full scope of how human animals make up their minds. I do think that it’s a virtue of my view that it includes the emotions in important aspects of life from which they might previously have been excluded. But I wouldn’t sign on to the idea that there is no higher ideal than what is preferable for a personality type. My work has been about living a good life from your own point of view and in this work I have been fairly quiet about morality. But there are other ideals besides ideals of personal or prudential value. I think there are moral values and that these values sometimes give us overriding reasons to do things that might frustrate other aims that we have. Morally speaking, I think (as many people do) that we ought to be kind to each other, that we ought to stand up for justice in our societies, that we should be helpful and generous when we can afford to be, and so on. I also wouldn’t sign on to thinking that truth isn’t an ideal. Truth is an important aim in the context of scientific investigation and in ordinary life we should aim to believe things that are true.

3:AM: Why do you think we need to reflect anymore? Why once the grip of the old moral principles have been shown to be ungrounded can’t we forget all the languages and thoughts of normativity? What would be lost? I suppose this is a question about the relevance of any kind of theory, no matter how thin, about working out what we ought to do when we might suppose a fully understood naturalised account of agency wouldn’t need such a thing? If really there are no standards, no rules, then why not chill out in the knowledge that our natures will coordinate pretty well a life of fun, cooperation and so on, not because of values but because we’ve been selected for living in groups and these things make such living work? So instead of questions about whether she should kill her father, we just ask whether she’s going to or not? I guess I’m wondering why naturalism isn’t eliminativist as well as reductionist.

VT: I think I get what you’re trying to say, but you’ve attributed some ideas to me here that I don’t share. I don’t think the grip of old moral principles have been shown to be ungrounded. I don’t think there aren’t really any standards or rules. I’ve been talking about what it is to live a good life for a person. I haven’t been trying to articulate a moral theory, nor have I been trying to destroy moral theories!

In answer to the question about why naturalism isn’t eliminitivism and why we shouldn’t just abandon the language and thought of normativity in favour of just observing what we will in fact do, let me say this: normative language and thought also evolved with us (along with our nicely coordinated affective natures) and we need it. Think about a time that you confront a genuine question about what to do. Say you discover a friend’s boyfriend is cheating on her and you need to know whether to tell her or not. Or you discover a friendly co-worker stealing from the office. Or you get pregnant (or get your girlfriend pregnant) and wonder about the option of abortion, and so on. What do you need? I think you need a reason to act.

Imagine that you ask advice from an eliminitivist naturalist who thinks we can get rid of all this normative talk about reasons and rights and wrongs. Such an advisor might point out that in 55% of cases like the one you’re in, people (to stick with the first example), tell the friend the truth. Or, maybe they would say “in cultures a, b and c, people tell, in cultures d, e, and f they tend not to”. Or, maybe they’ll tell you that given your history, there’s a 65% chance that you won’t tell. Do any of these observations help you make up your mind? They wouldn’t help me. I’d want to know how the reasons of honesty, helpfulness and kindness apply in this case and how they can be weighed against each other if they conflict.

I guess what I want to say is that we can chill out pretty well until something goes wrong, until there’s a conflict, until we don’t know what to do. Then we need to think in normative terms. Maybe there are people who can avoid this – people who just do things without any thought to why they’re doing them or what counts in favour of doing one thing rather than another, without any thought about what the best course of action would be. I’m certainly not like this. I suspect not many people really are.

3:AM: Your approach would seem to require a different kind of education of morals (perhaps of everything) and a broader, richer conception of what humans are. This may strike some people as odd because it’s often a criticism of some versions of naturalism that it diminishes the image of the human animal. Do you think that, properly understood, science is adding to the potential of living the good life because we can understand ourselves as just animals at last? And how radical a change of self image for humans does this approach bring about?

VT: I would say that properly understood, science is adding to the potential of living the good life because it helps us better see the kind of animals we are. We are animals with powerful feelings and subconscious motivations, but we are also reflective animals who talk in normative terms and care about doing things for good reasons. Of course we are “just animals”, but this doesn’t mean that we are just a bundle of uncontrolled motivations. We are more than that, because of our complicated brains, though nothing that we are is something supernatural. I don’t know how radical a change this is. I don’t find it that radical, but I wasn’t raised to believe that we have non-natural souls. I do find it requires a change of self-image to realise that I’m not in control of what I do as much as I thought I was, but I don’t find this to be a fundamental kind of change. It’s a matter of degree.

3:AM: You start one of your papers with the great question ‘Should you brush your dog’s teeth?’ This shows that your approach is very lively, unstuffy and engaging. This is more than just style isn’t it? Is it important to you that the questions addressed are ones people recognise as their own, are in a sense domestic rather than too grand? How much does this reflect your belief about how philosophers should approach their work. Experimental Philosophers seem to have a knack of approaching much of their material like this. Are you one of them?

VT: Thanks! I do think it’s important to bring philosophy “down to earth”, to engage with real questions that matter to people other than philosophers and not to lose sight of things that really matter. But I don’t think this divides experimental philosophy from traditional philosophy. Some experimental philosophy is fairly esoteric and some traditional philosophy is well grounded in the big questions. Currently the term “experimental philosophy” is usually used to refer to philosophers who actually employ empirical methods. Typically, this takes the form of survey research to gauge people’s intuitions about concepts. “Empirical philosophy” is philosophy informed by the empirical sciences. I consider myself an empirical philosopher (or empiricist, or empirically informed philosopher). There might be a correlation between philosophers who are willing to engage with the empirical sciences and philosophers who keep the big, important questions in mind, but it isn’t a perfect correlation. One thing I’ve noticed is that philosophers who engage in interdisciplinary work are better at talking about their work in ways that non-philosophers can understand, which might give us a leg up in terms of being part of a larger conversation.

3:AM: And finally, what are the books, music or art things (if any) that you have found illuminating whilst you’ve been thinking all this?

VT: Some of the novels I refer to in the book: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguru. Hume’s Treatise, of course. Alan Gibbard’s Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, Christine Korsgaard’s The Sources of Normativity (more of an influence on past work, but still important), The Pursuit of Unhappiness by Dan Haybron, The High Cost of Materialism by Tim Kasser, The Robot’s Rebellion by Keith Stanovich, Welfare, Happiness and Ethics by L. W. Sumner, Stranger’s to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson, The Moral Psychology Handbook edited by John Doris – I was part of the collaborative research group that put this book together and that project was very influential.

I don’t think my work is explicitly influenced by art or music, but I do love to look at art and listen to music and I’m sure this has some kind of subconscious influence. I also find talking to my friends and family a very important source of ideas and insight.

3:AM: And finally finally, can you give the smart set here at 3:AM your top five recommended reads that will get them to understand better the issues of contemporary moral philosophy?

VT: This is a very difficult task. Contemporary moral philosophy is just far too big a topic for me to think about, so if you don’t mind I’ll focus on books about happiness, well-being and the good life. Even narrowing in this way, it’s hard to limit myself to five (of course, I’d also recommend the books listed in the previous question). Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves, which is by a psychologist, but is a fantastic discussion of the psychological research on self-knowledge and the adaptive unconscious. Dan Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness. Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics. Richard Kraut, What is Good and Why. L. W. Sumner, Welfare, Happiness and Ethics.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 8th, 2012.