Pluralism takes all kinds

Sat 28 Feb 2009 02:42 PM

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk to the UNLV philosophy department. I extend a belated thanks to Greg for inviting me and to everyone else for vigorous discussion.

I presented on theory concept pluralism. There's a woefully old version of the paper here.

The gist of my argument is that pluralism about SPECIES concepts in philosophy of biology provides us with a model for pluralism about THEORY concepts. So it's an argument by analogy:

[T]he features that figure in the argument for species concept pluralism are present in the case of theory: There are several distinct THEORY concepts which are employed by practitioners in science studies and philosophy of science. Some of the concepts are inscrutable in important instances. Some of them depend on an arbitrary fineness of grain. Some overlook important temporal and contextual features. Ultimately, no concept applies usefully in all cases.
In another paper I'm working on with Christy Mag Uidhir, we argue that a similar analogy supports pluralism about ART concepts. I insist, however, that the argument won't establish pluralism about every philosophically interesting concept. It doesn't generalize into mad dog pluralism about everything. It won't yield crypto-omnivorous relativism. That would be a reductio of my argument; even if such an extreme position were correct, my little argument by analogy couldn't be enough to establish somethign so extreme.

Todd began the Q&A by suggesting a scenario which might motivate pluralism about FAIRNESS concepts. Karen extended this example in a way I found plausible. In some contexts we may be concerned about equity while in others we might be concerned with procedural impartiality. Our projects in particular situations may lead us to sometimes prefer one FAIRNESS concept over the other, while still keeping them both in our conceptual repertoire.

Even if this is taken as some motivation for fairness concept pluralism, the case is different than species, theory, and art in some significant respects. First, there is nothing conceptually impossible about applying just one FAIRNESS concept to every situation. It would just lead to unpleasant results. In contrast, it is not simply that biology would become a distasteful practice if we used just (for example) BIOLOGICAL SPECIES. There are some organisms to which the concept does not sensibly apply at all.

Bill, James, and others pressed the matter further. They thought my argument might be used to establish pluralism generally in ethics. I think the idea was to run a parallel argument for pluralism about the concept GOOD or the concept RIGHT.

Something funny happens if we try to extend the argument this far, however. In the case of SPECIES, different concepts are appropriate depending on the objects of enquiry (which organisms are in question) and the aims of enquiry (what we want to learn or explain). Biological enquiry itself does not say what questions we should ask or which enquiries are worthwhile. It can say which enquiries are important given our aims or interests, but it can't tell us what our interests should be. To take a specific example: Fruit flies and zebra fish are studied because they are useful as genetic models, but the fact that we do or should care about genetics is not a result of those studies.

Similarly for THEORY: Which concept is appropriate depends on which scientific episodes we are examining and what questions we mean to answer.

And for ART: Which concept is appropriate depends on the particular objects we are considering and on why we care. Someone interested in spiritual contemplation may use a different ART concept than someone interested in brokering art sales.

Even with FAIRNESS: Which concept is appropriate depends on the context in which decisions are being made and on our broader value commitments.

Of we course, we can ask whether it is best to engage in biological enquiry, where we should concentrate our attention in science studies, what role artifacts should play in our lives, and what our values ought to be. In answering questions like these, we appeal to a general conception of the good or the right.

If pluralism about concepts of goodness is supposed to be like the kind of pluralism I advocate, we would have different conceptions of GOOD that we would use as appropriate in different contexts and for different purposes. Yet what purposes should we have? Answering that requires considering what would be good, and so we would need to determine which GOOD is the right one to consider. Vicious circularity ensues.

Thus, it seems to me, there is an important disanalogy between the argument deployed for pluralism about GOOD and all of the other parallel arguments. The analogy is much weaker. This does mean that there still is some analogy, I guess. If you were inclined to be a goodness concept pluralist, then this would provide you with some additional reason for that view.

All I need to avoid the mad-dog-pluralism reductio, however, is to show that my argument by analogy would not establish pluralism about every concept there is. The strong disanalogies in the ethical case are sufficient to do so.*

I now think there is a more direct argument against the reductio: Pluralism about SPECIES means that there are several ways of specifying what a species is. The pluralist may say that 'species' is really just an imprecise way of gesturing at these different specifications. A concept like BIOLOGICAL SPECIES, one among the plurality of species concepts, must be more precise. It may still require context to become fully determinate, but it cannot split into several fundamentally distinct concepts the way SPECIES simpliciter does. If it did, a regress ensues and species concept pluralism dies the death of a thousand cuts. As such, species concept pluralism requires that there are concepts which we are not pluralist about in the way it recommends we be pluralist about SPECIES.

So any position established by analogy with species concept pluralism similarly requires that some concepts be more determinate than the one to which the position applies. SPECIES, THEORY, ART, and perhaps others-- but not everything.**

* I am honestly not sure what to say about the FAIRNESS case, but I do think this: The premises required for applying my argument also make fairness concept pluralism plausible. Either the premises hold or they don't. If so, then my argument would yield a plausible position. If not, then my argument would not yield the position. The reductio fails in either case.

** Of course, this does not show that we should be monists about the concept GOOD. The people advocating mad dog pluralism during the Q&A after my talk did not offer it as a reductio of my position. Rather, they seemed to think it would lead to a kind of moral anti-realism that they found appealing.

Thinking about it now, I don't thin that goodness concept pluralism would require moral anti-realism. In a sense, GE Moore was a pluralist about GOOD. He thought that moral good, truth, and beauty were irreducible and incommensurable values. Moore was not similarly a pluralist about the beautiful, however.

In recent work, Jerrold Levinson argues for pluralism about BEAUTY. He offers a whole roster of more specific concepts.

Although Moore and Levinson aim to establish pluralism by different arguments than mine, both cases nicely illustrate the inconsistency of mad-dog pluralism. In each case, the philosopher aims to replace one concept which has traditionally been thought of singular but mysterious. The replacements must themselves be less mysterious and so more determinate.