A Secret Meeting
t was agreed that, in every field, there is some bullshit that no sane person believes, but which every new entrant to the field must pretend to accept. One of the Melancholy Boys added,
"It's usually some methodological principle which underlies day-to-day research. It's held fanatically because, if it were given up, most professors' work would be rendered meaningless."
The Melancholy Boys were being rebellious in ways they weren't allowed to be in their own departments. One of their number, the rotund Starcher, did go to the open door and look up and down the hall. But Starcher was commonly acknowledged to have paranoid tendencies. The others could hardly imagine that there were spies in or about the Pink Room on a Sunday morning.
A number of examples of sacred bullshit were put forward before Jones said,
"In philosophical ethics, the theorists claim to know exactly what meaning people have attached to a word like "good" over the ages."
"What about all the different languages with their different moral terms?"
"They say that there's a term corresponding to "good" in each language. They then lay down the common meaning. They disagree as to that meaning, but they agree that whoever's right is right for all times, places, cultures, and persons."
"Whereas, in fact, different cultures, and even different persons, have different concepts of goodness."
"That is pretty obvious. How did these people ever work themselves around to denying it?"
"To make their conclusions seem more important. If each guy said he was only analysing his own notion of goodness, no one else would care."
"Perhaps he could just put his analysis out as a suggestion. The read-it-and-see-if-you-like-it sort of thing."
"Ethicists claim that ordinary people can't really understand the analyses and aren't competent to judge for themselves."
There was general laughter at that. Jones was then asked what the analyses were like. He replied,
"There's naturalism which says that attributions of goodness can be verified scientifically. One kind of naturalism claims that goodness consists in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people."
"How do you tell what will lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number?"
"You can't really. This is strictly in principle. You'd have to agree on a way of measuring happiness, and then try to apply it. Another version of naturalism says that good actions are the ones we'd approve of if we had all the relevant information."
"It sounds as if it might be as hard to decide what's relevant as what's good."
"Probably. It's also assumed that everyone would agree on their moral judgements if they had the same information, which isn't terribly likely."
"There's intuitionism. According to this view, goodness is a non-natural quality which can't be detected empirically, but which we perceive with a special moral sense."
"That sounds rather old-fashioned, but I think a lot of people do have that outlook."
"Since everyone is assumed to have the same moral sense, this view also effectively assumes that people would agree in their ethical judgments if they had the same information."
"People certainly don't seem to agree."
"The intuitionist argues that, even if they seem to be judging the same action, they really aren't if they have different information about the action and the participants in it."
"So the intuitionist can always use that as an excuse. Any other positions?"
"There's the one that treats the word "good" as analogous to "true". If you say, "It's going to rain", it only adds emphasis to say "It's true that it's going to rain." By analogy, you don't go much beyond the command, "Give to the Salvation Army", if you say, "It's good to give to the Salvation Army." The word "good" at most alters the tone."
"So we could get along without it altogether?"
"Yeah, that's the idea."
"That sounds suspiciously like having no ethics at all."
"Even if you don't use ethical terms, you can still use persuasion of various kinds."
"To get people to do what you want them to do?"
Jones smiled and added,
"You can also offer bribes when appropriate."
The Melancholy Boys laughed at the idea of substituting bribes for ethics, but there was an undercurrent of resistance. They had mostly been in the service, and, while there was a definite truculence toward authority, there had been so many kinds of inter-dependence that rules seemed to be necessary. Someone asked,
"What do you do if someone decides that he'd rather not participate in a frontal assault? Offer him a chance to pillage and rape if he fights?"
"That's exactly what used to keep armies going. But you can still threaten to shoot him in the back if he doesn't advance."
The Melancholy Boys still weren't satisfied. Leo, the only one who had actually been a combat infantryman, objected,
"The carrots and sticks aren't really the main thing. It's the loyalty of the men to one another that keeps the army going. It often isn't enough to get them to attack, or to do what the officers want, but they'll protect each other almost to the end. When someone does bug out, the others use plenty of ethical terms that couldn't easily be eliminated."
"We had a little of that, not as much as the infantry, but I know what you mean. A battle context is one thing and who'll be a good president for the PTA is another. That's where you can talk about effectiveness in a fairly objective way and never talk about goodness."
By the time that the cokes were finished, it seemed to everyone that different analyses of "good" would have to be given for different persons and/or different contexts. Jones remarked casually,
"I might get a paper out of this without even doing any research."
Out on the river, the little eddy pools left by Jones' oar blades spiraled back to join the wake spreading from beneath the transom. The line of bubbles in the middle of the wake produced by the shallow keel of the boat would forever separate the two sets of eddies, however faint they might become. It seemed to Jones that he had a fascination with the action of water as such, and he wondered how a boy meant to be a farmer or garage mechanic had come by it.
He had joined the navy in the spring of forty one, right out of high school. His motives were mixed, but prominent among them was a desire to get out of his home town and away from the sort of employment that was available there. Half the boys in town felt that way, but Jones felt and thought more deeply. With a war obviously coming, it would be a good idea to beat the rush and maneuver himself into a favorable position.
At the beginning, there hadn't been that love of water. The navy was chosen as a way of avoiding the trench warfare of the army, and because the food was reputed to be much better. While the army would have to survive on whatever could be dragged through the mud and cooked over a can of sterno, cooks aboard ships with ample equipment and supplies would turn out quantities of tasty food.
Jones quickly found that many "sailors" remained on shore to drive garbage trucks at navy bases or hand out uniforms to new recruits. Such vocations, while safe, were too pedestrian.
After a brief stint on a garbage scow, he managed to become a gunner on a PT boat. The motion of a PT boat at speed took some adjustment. However, the girls showed much more appreciation for a sailor on a PT boat than for a naval garbageman, in whatever way the latter might try to disguise his mission.
One thing had then led to another, and, in the course of the war, Jones, while rising to be the captain of his boat, roamed great swathes of the Pacific. At the war's end, he headed for Cincinnati, the only metropolis he knew, and the great river on which it lay.
On this occasion, he became so fixated on his wake that he wandered out into the middle of the river. The hoarse bellow of a tug's whistle awoke him from his trance, and he changed course quickly. The tug, churning out great quantities of oily black smoke, pushed fifteen loaded barges past him. Someone leaned aggressively out of the pilot house and shouted something that he couldn't make out, but Jones, imagining Mrs. Blakey-Fenton leaving a tea party, waved daintily.
Closer to the bank, Jones was struck by the irrational behavior of a pair of great blue herons. They let him get almost past them, by which time it should have been obvious that he had no hostile intention, before flying. Then, they would fly upstream a few hundred yards in the direction he was going, necessitating another flight a few minutes later.
As usual, the herons, with their amazing length and wingspan, elongated themselves, flapped, and barely managed to lift. They were too angular and crooked-necked to be exactly graceful or beautiful, but, since Jones considered that he had no sense of beauty anyway, it hardly mattered.
Finally, the herons, plainly pissed off, squawked. Their so-called call was an extraordinarily loud and obnoxious noise, inappropriate for birds that were, if nothing else, majestic. The odd thing was that the two herons made noticeably different noises. Since there were Canada geese, ducks, and others honking, hooting, and carrying on in the area, it must have taken some discrimination for the herons to pick each other out in a crowd.
Since the heron call seemed to admit of so much variation, Jones added his version as the birds flapped their way into the air. They didn't seem to be convinced that he was a heron, and, indeed, his effort might easily have been taken for a rude imitation. Fortunately, neither bird wheeled into an attack.
The evident looseness of connection between sound and meaning in the heron world reminded Jones of the human condition as regards "good". But, then, it seemed that, if everyone had his or her own meaning for that term, they might equally have their own meaning for most or all terms. Surely, no two people would draw the line between red and orange in exactly the same place on the spectrum. Communication was possible (with slight discrepancies) because the area of overlap was so great. What philosophers called "the meaning" of a term or sentence was really just a construction out of the meanings attached to it on particular occasions as it was used by millions of people.
Jones chased the herons upstream another half mile, coming to what looked like a little refugee camp on the Ohio bank. The residents were more permanent than the hobos of the railway, and, since they flew the Confederate flag, they seemed also to have more complex things going on in their heads. Jones did waggle an oar in response to a shouted greeting, but he didn't want to find out more about the ideology that held sway on the bank.
Around the next bend, the smells from the stables of a riverside race track made Jones sneeze, and he angled out away from the bank. Some twenty minutes later, when drifting and enjoying his snack, he realized what the objections to his philosophical position would be. There was nothing to prevent someone meaning by "three" what other people meant by "four". He knew of no one who made this switch, but it would be possible to teach a child the numbers in such an aberrant way. It would then follow that, for such a person, two plus three would equal six. There was really no paradox in such a consequence, but philosophy operated more on the basis of ridicule than logic. He could imagine someone at a conference saying to him,
"Mr. Jones, do you really intend to say that, for some people, two plus three equals six."
In the face of laughter from the audience, it would be difficult or impossible to explain the position. If he were quick, he might get in an,
"Yes, by people who mean by "three" what the rest of us mean by "four".
But, most likely, he'd be shouted down before getting past the "yes". It was in those sorts of circumstances that Samuel Johnson had supposedly "refuted" Berkeley by kicking a stone. It was better to put things in writing, so that one couldn't be interrupted in these boorish ways. In the paper Jones was intent on writing, he would easily anticipate these simple- minded sorts of objections.