Monday, June 15, 2009

Some Final Points About Feser & A Preview of Coming Attractions

[If you have no idea what I'm talking about, see here, and don't worry. By Wednesday, we'll be back to talking about phil of logic.]

So I was going to let it go and use the previous post exploring the connotations of "logician" to transition back to the more usual subjects discussed here, but given some of what's been said in this debate since my original post, I did want to briefly follow up and make a few summary points before changing the subject for good.

(1) This whole thing started when Ed Feser wrote an angry, unhinged blog post explaining why a recently murdered doctor was an evil, worse-than-Dahmer mass murderer who had forfeited his right to live. He also claimed to nonetheless fully oppose “vigilantism.”

(2) None of his critics--not me, not Ryan, not Leiter, not Shipley--have at any point in all of this denied the existence of that supremely unconvincing disclaimer or “lied” about it. The point of my first post on all of this was that it seemed hard to square that claim with the obvious upshot of everything else that he had to say.

In normal contexts, when someone hears about a murder and they respond with “well, y’know, he did deserve to die,” everyone takes that as a bit of positive commentary on the murder. Feser demands that people refrain from taking his words this way, because his “of course I don’t approve of vigilantism” disclaimer magically cancels out the rest of what he said, no matter how hard it is to fit the two together in a coherent framework. Thus, when some of us have noted the presence of the disclaimer but declined to take it very seriously given his overall views, he’s accused us of spewing “lies” and “libel.”

(3) Even if you take Feser’s disclaimer to be (a) sincere, and (b) somehow compatible within a remotely plausible framework with his claims that Tiller was worse than Dahmer, had forfeited his right to live, etc., then it would still be the case that Feser was an enthusiastic apologist for doctor-killing.

On that reading, he didn’t object to the fact that Tiller was killed. He only objected to the fact that the wrong people killed him. Feser (on this reading) would prefer to wait for abortion to be banned and the death penalty applied to abortion doctors. At that point, he would be all in favor of Dr. Tiller being lethally injected or strapped to a chair and electrocuted for the crime of helping women end unwanted pregnancies in safe conditions instead of using coat hangers. Moreover, even a cursory glance at Feser’s original post, which was replete with claims that Tiller was a servant of the demon Moloch, that he was worse than Dahmer in five distinct respects, and so on, should confirm that Feser was extremely enthusiastic in pushing for his position that Tiller had "forfeited his right to live."

Thus, even on this reading--that is, to concede for the sake of argument that Feser’s defenders are entirely right and the rest of us are entirely wrong on how to read his original post--it is a banally obvious statement of fact that Feser is a “doctor-killing enthusiast.” Given that, it says something about the standards of reasoning in force over at W4 that, in this comment thread, Feser calls me a “nasty, unrepentant, shameless bald-faced liar” because I called him a “doctor-killing enthusiast.” Regardless of who is right and who is wrong in the argument we’ve been having, on any possible reading of Feser’s original post, he is indeed a doctor-killing enthusiast.

(4) That said, the reading on which Feser “just” wished that Dr. Tiller’s killing had been carried out by different hands is far from the most natural or reasonable reading of his actual words. The central reason not to take his “of course none of this means I actually approve of the actions of people who take all this ‘abortion doctors are serial killers’ rhetoric at face, no, I wash my hands of that” rhetoric very seriously comes in the form of some forceful arguments by analogy advanced at various points in the debate by Shipley and by Ryan. Here’s Shipley:

"Suppose a racist government refuses to protect a minority from persecution. Don't members of the minority have a right to protect themselves? Or, suppose a government refuses to outlaw rape. Would it not be justifiable to protect women by means outside the law? Do you really believe that there are absolutely no circumstances in which vigilante action is justified?"

After Leiter quoted this item, Feser made a long-winded, detailed-looking reply to Shipley, in which he responded to individual sentences of Shipley’s with lengthy blocks of text, but he conspicuously failed to touch this paragraph. He changed the subject to say that vigilantism might be justified in societies as bad as Nazi Germany, but the U.S. wasn’t as bad as all that. He utterly failed to acknowledge or respond to Shipley’s hypotheticals. I took Feser to task for this omission in my original post on all this, then Feser responded at length to me....but once again conspicuously failed to respond to the content of the paragraph just (once again) quoted. To make the point even sharper, Ryan has been asking anyone who will listen, in the comment thread on his own comic and in some of the comment threads over at W4:

"Suppose that Jeffrey Dahmer wasn’t ever captured. Suppose he were free and still torturing, slaughtering and eating people. And suppose the government refused to do anything to try and stop him. Would you decry the actions of the vigilante who brought him down?”

To date, neither Feser nor any of his defenders has actually answered this question head on, and answered it in the affirmative, saying that, yes, yes indeed, under those circumstances, they really would disapprove of vigilante action to stop Dahmer. To me, this failure strongly suggests that we shouldn’t take Feser’s claim that by saying that Tiller was worse than Dahmer, he wasn’t acting as an apologist for Tiller’s murder very seriously.

That's the point.

Now, enough of that.

On Wednesday, the subject changes to the Lottery Paradox, and what we can learn from it about either the rationality of holding inconsistent beliefs or the relationship between probability and justification.


Chris said...

In the last paragraph of point (3) you of course mean that Feser is a "doctor-killing enthusiast." Which you would be right about.

Ben said...

Whoops! Thanks. Corrected now.

Bobcat said...

Hi Ben,

Would you mind if I defended Feser's position?

Normally, I wouldn't ask, but at the end of this post you wrote, "Now, enough of that", which I think can be construed as meaning, "Thanks, but I'd rather not talk about this anymore." I'd perfectly understand that sentiment, but if you wouldn't mind indulging me...

Eric said...

Professor Feser is a 'doctor-killing enthusiast' if he supports a state sanctioned death penalty for doctors who perform late term abortions? Huh?

First, I don't know whether Professor Feser supports the death penalty in such cases, and I certainly don't think you're justified in supposing that he does. If I believe that S has lost his right to life as a result of A, it doesn't follow that I must support the state sanctioned killing of S. The loss of his right to life may be a necessary condition for a state sanctioned killing of S, but it's not a sufficient one. That said, I'm going to continue this post with your assumption to show that even if he does support the death penalty in such cases, your characterization of him as a doctor-killing enthusiast is -- well, absurd.

Now, let's say that Jones supports the death penalty for doctors who steal a kidney from their patients while they're under anesthesia. Would this make Jones a 'doctor-killing enthusiast'? Of course not; the very idea is absurd beyond words. Is Jones enthusiastic about the killing of his general practitioner, who has never harmed anyone in his life? Is Jones enthusiastic about killing the plastic surgeon with the fancy downtown office, or about killing his grandma's podiatrist? The fact that Tiller was 'a doctor' was largely incidental; it was Tiller's actions as a doctor that, it seems to me, Professor Feser has a problem with. (Some of the time, and with some people, you just have to point out the obvious.)


Eric said...

Now, Professor Feser seems minimally to believe that doctors who perform late-term abortions are, in many cases, no different from people who murder newborns. (Actually, he seems to believe that they're even worse than such people, given their professional commitments.) It seems reasonable to me to conclude that if he's right about this, then the death penalty is not an unreasonable penalty for doctors who perform late-term abortions. N.B. that the proposition I just judged reasonable is a conditional. (I personally don't support the death penalty at all, but I can concede that if anyone does 'deserve' it, it's someone who murders a newborn.) You can of course disagree with the notion that late term abortions are, in most cases, no different from the murder of newborns, but what's important to keep in mind is this: If Professor Feser believes that these acts can be reasonably identified, then he's not unreasonable for supporting the death penalty for those who perform late term abortions. In other words, he may be wrong about the antecedent, but, given his acceptance of it, the consequent seems to follow with relative ease.

Now, the murder of a newborn is worse, it seems to me, than the stealing of a kidney (ceteris paribus). Hence, if it would be obviously ridiculous to call Jones a 'doctor-killing enthusiast' if he supported the death penalty for doctors who stole kidneys, it's even more ridiculous (if that's possible) to call Jones a 'doctor-killing enthusiast' if he supports the death penalty for doctors whose actions he believes are tantamount to murdering a newborn. Hence, the absurd, 'is Feser a doctor-killing enthusiast?' faux-question is easily disposed of. Note, it's easily disposed of even if we assume, as you have, that he supports the death penalty for late-term abortionists.

Therefore, the real issue is this: are late term abortions, in many cases, tantamount to the murder of newborns? This is a difficult issue about which reasonable, intelligent and well informed people can disagree. It's also an issue that people on all sides are passionate about. But it is the real issue, and for this reason: it doesn't seem to me to be controversial to say that *if* late-term abortions can be identified, in many cases, with the murder of newborns, then advocating the death penalty for doctors who perform them is not unreasonable.

Hence, it seems to me that in your 'professor-smearing enthusiasm' (ridiculous, eh?) you've completely misrepresented professor Feser's position, and have now done so on numerous occasions and after having had ample opportunity to think these things through clearly.

Ben said...


Be my guest. When I said final thoughts, I meant that I was going to stop posting about it, at least for the forseeable future, not that people couldn't feel free to argue about it in the comment thread if they wanted to.

Ben said...


(1) Do you really think being a doctor is incidental to performing abortions?

(2) To re-emphasize this point, *all* of this assumes the best possible interpretation of Feser's words. I'd strongly disagree with the claim that that interpretation is the one best supported by the available evidence.

(3) Even at that, I don't see what possible objection you could have here. Many doctors perform abortions. Feser wants them to be executed. He is *extremely* enthusiastic about all of this, as a cursory glance at the nearly psychotic hypberbole about Jeffrey Dahmer and the demon Moloch and the rest in his original post should demonstrate.

Thus, he is enthusiastic about killing a bunch of doctors. He is, to put that point succinctly, a doctor-killing enthusiast.

(4) The disanalogy with professor-smearing is that for me to be "smearing" Feser, I'd have to be (a) misrepresenting him, and (b) doing so on purpose rather than as a result of a sincerely held, well-supported interpretation of his slimy little rant. Obviously, I don't concede (a), much less (b). So I only turn out to be a professor-smearer on the *most negative* reading of what I wrote, whereas Feser turns out to be a doctor-killing enthusiast even on the *most positive* reading of what he wrote...a reading that, as I said, does not square well with the available evidence.

(5) As Ryan has been emphasizing so nicely over at the comment thread in his comic (linked to from the original post), if it is indeed the case that "reasonable, well-informed and intelligent people" can disagree about the morality of late-term abortion, then this alone should demonstrate the deep inflammatory absurdity of comparing Tiller to Dahmer.

I'd take that point a step further and say that, if true, it *also* renders absurd the claim that late-term abortions could be the moral equivalent of killing newborns, and thus the claim that doctors who perform late-term abortions deserve the same punishment as those who kill newborns.

Presumably, there is *not* room for "reasonable, well-informed and intelligent people" to disagree about whether it's OK to kill newborns, and no one who was caught killing newborns could be even partially excused on the grounds that they were acting on a reasonable view, held reasonably.

Eric said...

Re(1): My point is that Professor Feser's concern is not that Tiller was a doctor, but that he was a doctor performing late-term abortions, just as Jones's concern, in my example, wasn't with doctors per se, but with doctors who steal the organs of their patients. Hence, even if it could be shown that Professor Feser supported a state sanctioned death penalty for doctors who perform late-term abortions, it would be maladroit to describe him as a 'doctor-killing enthusiast.'

Also, the 'enthusiast' label is one you would never use in a less controversial, but otherwise similar, context. You wouldn't call someone who supports the death penalty for those who torture and murder children an 'enthusiast' for the killing of such people.

Re(2): Right, it's so much more plausible to suppose that the best interpretation of the evidence is that he supports the killing of late-term abortionists by vigilantes, despite his numerous statements to the contrary, his arguments concerning how his position is perfectly sensible given a NL moral framework, and so on.

Re (3): All that Professor Feser has said is that such doctors, by their actions, forfeit their right to life. As I said, while this is a necessary condition (given his NL framework) for supporting a state sanctioned execution, it's not a sufficient condition. In fact, again, Professor Feser is quite clear that he doesn't necessarily support state sanctioned execution here:

Feser: "That the lawful governmental authorities were, because of bad laws and bad court decisions, etc., not doing their job – which need not require executing Tiller in any case but only imprisoning him – does not entail that any private individual can usurp their authority."

Have you ever heard of the principle of charity? You're supposed to interpret what isn't as clearly said in light of what is clearly said. Professor Feser has explicitly said that he doesn't condone the murder of Tiller, and that had Tiller's actions been subject to the law he need not have been executed, yet you insist on twisting everything else he said to reach contrary conclusions about his positions.

Re (4): Why not grant Professor Feser the notion that informs (b)? He could both sincerely claim not to condone the murder of Tiller *and* to have a reasonable argument for the conclusion that morally, Tiller was as bad or worse than Dahmer. Why don't you apply to Professor Feser the same standard you want applied to your own words?

Re (5): No, the fact that people disagree about X would sorta be the point of comparing it with an uncontroversial case. One can easily imagine similar comparisons being made in a society in which slavery is widely considered to be a controversial topic about which reasonable, intelligent and well informed people can disagree. The very point of comparing slavery in such a case with an uncontroversially immoral act would be to clarify the immorality of slavery.

"Presumably, there is *not* room for "reasonable, well-informed and intelligent people" to disagree about whether it's OK to kill newborns, and no one who was caught killing newborns could be even partially excused on the grounds that they were acting on a reasonable view, held reasonably."

The same argument could've been used to justify slavery. There was once room for intelligent, reasonable, well informed people to disagree about it, but not for the then obviously immoral acts it could be compared to. Hence, if we take slavery, which is controversially immoral, and X, which is uncontroversially immoral, and compare slavery to X, it would follow from your reasoning that if X is uncontroversially immoral, it's absurd to compare slavery with X, since there is no room to disagree about X, while there is room to disagree about slavery.

Bobcat said...

Hi Ben,

I agree with much of what Eric said. However, in response to your response to Eric you wrote:

"(5) As Ryan has been emphasizing so nicely over at the comment thread in his comic (linked to from the original post), if it is indeed the case that "reasonable, well-informed and intelligent people" can disagree about the morality of late-term abortion, then this alone should demonstrate the deep inflammatory absurdity of comparing Tiller to Dahmer."

I don't think this is nearly as straightforward as you think. I think it's reasonable for people to believe in natural law theory, and that it's reasonable for people to believe in utilitarianism, but from the perspective of a natural law theorist, many utilitarian positions are grossly immoral, and from the position of a utilitarian, the same is true about natural law theory. Consequently, it wouldn't strike me as unreasonable to hold the following position:

(a) utilitarianism is a reasonable position
(b) many utilitarian conclusions are grossly immoral
(c) people who advocate grossly immoral utilitarian conclusions should be opposed with the utmost rhetorical vehemence.

"I'd take that point a step further and say that, if true, it *also* renders absurd the claim that late-term abortions could be the moral equivalent of killing newborns, and thus the claim that doctors who perform late-term abortions deserve the same punishment as those who kill newborns."

If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying the following: (i) it's perfectly appropriate to compare someone who kills a newborn to Jeffrey Dahmer; (ii) it's completely inappropriate to compare someone who aborts a late-term fetus to Jeffrey Dahmer; (iii) the best explanation of the discrepancy between (i) and (ii) is that killing newborns is almost always, if not always, deeply wrong but aborting late-term fetuses is often permissible.

But if this is your reasoning--and I feel I must be missing something--then I think it's flawed. The thing is, the above reasoning seems just to beg the question. Someone who's very against late-term abortions will simply disagree with (ii). If you point out that the vast majority of people don't, then the anti-third-term-abortion person will just shrug and say, "well, perhaps attitudes were the same with regard to slavery at some point."

"Presumably, there is *not* room for "reasonable, well-informed and intelligent people" to disagree about whether it's OK to kill newborns, and no one who was caught killing newborns could be even partially excused on the grounds that they were acting on a reasonable view, held reasonably."

Well, Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer both support killing newborns in some circumstances--roughly the same circumstances in which many people defend third term abortions. Given this, do you think calling McMahan and Singer unreasonable is the right call?

Ben said...


Re: (2), at this point you're just stamping your foot and insisting on your position on the central bone of contention in this argument, and that anyone who disagrees with you must be acting in bad faith. You're neglecting the repeated actual arguments that I've made (and that Ryan, Shipley and Leiter have all made) about why we don't take Feser's statements seriously.

Suffice to say, he's yet to produce anything close to a remotely plausible argument that, given this claim that despite Tiller having forfeited his right to life, being worse than Dahmer, etc., opposition to his murder makes even a little bit of sense, follows in any way from NL theory. He's just asserted it, and he's consistently gone out of his way to dodge and refuse to engage with the obvious analogies that have been raised over and over again by his critics, even when he's voluminously replied to every other trivial detail of everything that any of them says, right down to his juvenile obsession with word counts.

If he'd responded to Shipley's hypotheticals, and said, 'yes, yes, under those circumstances, I would oppose vigilante action,' and he'd responded to Ryan's repeated pointed questions to him by saying 'yes, absolutely, if Dahmer were still on the loose, torturing, killing and eating people, and the government refused to stop him, and in fact protected him, then I'd condemn the actions of the vigilante who brought him down,' then I'd concede that he at least had a consistent position within which his condemnation of the murder fit with his claim that Tiller was worse than Dahmer. But he hasn't done that. Instead, he's systematically dodged the question, leading me to think that his token "condemnation" doesn't deserve to be taken very seriously at all.

Re (3): There was nothing like the passage you quote in his original post, when he was frothing at the mouth about how the freshly-murdered Dr. Tiller was an evil demonic serial killer who deserved to die. The statement you're quoting from is from his response to me, which came several days after he'd originally been called out and very publicly shamed for his original blood-thirsty rant (not by me).

Again, the issue is not whether he made these explicit statements, which no one in this argument has ever denied. It's whether, given the tone, the grotesque timing, the overwhelmingly clear intent of everything else he had to say and most especially his complete failure to bite the huge and bizarre bullets he would have to bite to render his claimed position minimally consistent, they should be taken seriously.

But, of course, I've never heard of this "principle of charity" of which you speak. Please explain it to me.

Ben said...


Not going to get too deep into this right now, but I do want to briefly note that I never said, and certainly didn't mean to suggest, anything like (i). I'd have to know a lot more about someone's to think it was reasonable to call them as bad as Dahmer than that they'd killed a newborn.

There are two separate points here, which I may have sloppily run together:

(1) If you think that there's room for intelligent, well-informed people to reasonable disagree about the morality of late-term abortion, that seems to commit you to accepting that, even if late-term abortion is wrong, there's a large disanalogy between someone like Dahmer and a doctor who performs late-term abortions, since the latter is sincerely trying to do the right thing, acting on reasonably held view about a subject where there's plenty of room for reasonable disagreement, and the former was not. Now, it doesn't follow that (on the assumption that late-term abortion is morally wrong) the late-term abortionist is totally morally off the hook because of this, but it does seem at least somewhat morally exculpatory.

This was Ryan's point, which I just wanted to briefly gesture at to extend it to:

(2) For the same reason, if you think late-term abortion is wrong but think well-informed, intelligent people can reasonably disagree about, it seems strange to say that people who perform them are morally culpable *to the exact same degree as* and deserve *just as much punishment as* those who commit crimes about which no such reasonable disagreement exists, like killing newborns.

The Singer point is interesting, and I have to admit that I wasn't thinking of the sort of extreme cases in which Singer thinks it's morally acceptable to euthanize, e.g., babies born without forebrains. When Eric mentioned killing newborns, I assumed he was talking about the straightforward cases in which someone kills babies who are fully conscious, etc.

Bobcat said...

Thanks for your reply, Ben.

I think the Dahmer case is more complicated than you either of us has been noting. There are a lot of issues to hand, for instance: Did Dahmer have any empathy for anyone at any time in his life? If so, did he intentionally overcome it? If not, then is he evil? Moreover, which is more evil--someone born without empathy or someone who overcomes it?

Second, re: Tiller: a lot depends on the facts at hand, too. For instance, did making money play any role in his calculations? (Given the danger involved, I doubt it.) Did a culpable thirst for being regarded as a hero play a large role in what he did? If so, is this a bad thing, at least when it serves as a motivation for engaging in an activity some of which was very probably very bad?

For me, the issue with Tiller is: how many of the 60,000 late-term fetuses would have been able to live lives of several score years, even if they lived those lives as severely retarded people? I take it that murdering a severely retarded baby is extremely immoral, so I think murdering a severely retarded late-term fetus is as well. On the other hand, if literally every single fetus he destroyed were going to live but a few days or would have killed the mother, then that makes a big difference.

J said...

While I object to Feser's views on abortion and his O'Reillyish sentimentality, I don't think there are logical grounds to do so. That was my point: logic does not entail any specific ideological or ethical viewpoints, even of the usual liberal sort (ie pointing out hypocrisy, etc). And for a supposed Nietzschean, Herr Leiter often sounds fairly moralistic himself. For that matter, one could understand some rage against an abortionist: say the bio-mother wants to abort and bio-father doesn't. They are married, and mama's is in good health, as is the fetus. Were Mama to head down to Doc Tiller's Aborto-Mart and just off the little puppy because she thought it was going to be too much of a hassle (don't laugh--that happens_ bio-dad would probably be rather pissed off.

Perspectivism, man.

Eric said...

"You're neglecting the repeated actual arguments that I've made (and that Ryan, Shipley and Leiter have all made) about why we don't take Feser's statements seriously."

First, Professor Leiter hasn't presented a single argument. He's posted to and linked to the arguments of others, but he hasn't actually presented an argument himself. He's supplied a host of adjectives, but no arguments. (Is this rather blatant 'oversight' on your part evidence that you are not being sincere, and are merely kissing up to Professor Leiter? Given your hermeneutical methodology, this conclusion is beginning to seem more and more tenable...)

"Suffice to say, he's yet to produce anything close to a remotely plausible argument that, given this claim that despite Tiller having forfeited his right to life, being worse than Dahmer, etc., opposition to his murder makes even a little bit of sense, follows in any way from NL theory."

Feser: "It does follow from (1) and (2) that (3) Tiller lost his right to life. But it does not follow that any private individual may take his life. On the contrary, classical natural law theory holds that (4) the right to punish and deter evildoers belongs to lawful governmental authorities alone, and not to private individuals. So if we hold – as I do – that (5) the governmental authorities who have jurisdiction in this case are lawful ones, then it follows that (6) neither Tiller’s murderer nor any other private individual had the moral right to kill Tiller. That the lawful governmental authorities were, because of bad laws and bad court decisions, etc., not doing their job – which need not require executing Tiller in any case but only imprisoning him – does not entail that any private individual can usurp their authority.

"But what if a pro-lifer concluded that the governmental authorities in question were no longer lawful or legitimate ones, or, even if generally lawful, were nevertheless so extraordinarily derelict in their duty in the grave matter of abortion that drastic action was called for? Would that not justify vigilantism? It would not. For in that case, as John Zmirak has pointed out in an article I linked to earlier, the would-be vigilante, in opposing the existing governmental authorities, would in effect be putting himself into a state of war with them, denying as he implicitly would be that they have maintained their moral right to govern, or at least their right to stop him and people like him from carrying out acts of vigilantism. But in that case (as Zmirak notes) the just war criteria elaborated by natural law theory kick in. And since (a) those criteria include the requirements that any just war can only be undertaken if there is a reasonable chance of success and if the war will not do greater harm than good, and (b) it is obvious that neither of those criteria are met by any would-be vigilante action, it follows that such action is ruled out, and on moral, not just pragmatic, grounds.

"Hence vigilante action of the sort Tiller’s murderer carried out simply cannot be morally justified from the point of view of natural law theory."

Now, you may of course disagree with Professor Feser here, and find his argument less than compelling, but he has minimally presented a 'remotely plausible argument.'

Brian Leiter said...

The meaning of Feser's blog post was obvious (as Mr. Burgis noted originally). I'm grateful to various folks, like Mr. Burgis and Mr. Shipley, as well as some who posted on the original thread, for making it all explicit, but it's hard not to feel it's a waste of time, given the intransigence of Feser & co. There is a standard waste-of-time game people like to play in the blogosphere: they say something obviously stupid, or outrageous, or senseless, and then feign great indignation when someone dismisses their stupidity or bigotry, and shift attention to the great importance of examining the arguments carefully, charitably, etc. I used to fall for this trap when I first started blogging, but I long ago gave up: it's not worth the time. All of us who are intellectually mature and have some judgment decide all the time what's worth engaging with, and what's not worth the time. I imagine even Mr. Burgis may regret his stylish intervention in this matter, given the dogmatic stupidity of so many of the replies it has engendered. Someone who wants to believe that Feser isn't an apologist for murder is welcome to do so. The rest of us can read, both on and between the lines.

Ben said...


Given moral realism (or even Blackburnish moral quasi-realism), and orthodox assumptions about the philosophy of logic, then yes, moral inconsistency is a big problem. Maybe not if you assume the right sort of moral anti-realism, but you haven't given me much of an argument for moral anti-realism, except for gestures at the dicredited verificationist theory of meaning, the irrelevant point that various professionals don't need to make use of moral terms in the course of their investigations (since you included "logicians," that seems flatly wrong, unless you don't count people who work on deontic logic), or repeatedly presenting a false dichotomy between "Plato or theology" on the one hand, and anti-realism on the other hand, ignoring the rest of the vast menu of meta-ethical theories.

I'm not convinced.

Ben said...


The idea that I'm pretending to find the obvious reading of Feser's ugly little rant obvious because I'm "kissing up to" Brian Leiter is bizarre. What on earth do you think I'd have to gain from that?

In any case, this is getting repetitive (mostly because no matter how many times it's repeated, you and the rest of Feser's defenders refuse to engage with, or even acknowledge the existence of, the main argument), but briefly:

(1) Leiter did indeed present an argument. Go back and read the updates on his original post, where he quotes Shipley's hypotheticals and draws the obvious conclusion from Feser's refusal to bite those bullets (and thus render his position minimally consistent.) If argument is needed (and I agree with Leiter's comment, above, that the issue really seems to get down to whether charitable interpretation requires us to ignore obvious intent), I'd say that this argument is an excellent one.

(2) "Now, you may of course disagree with Professor Feser here, and find his argument less than compelling, but he has minimally presented a 'remotely plausible argument.'"

No, he hasn't.

The key phrase is "remotely plausible."

To make it remotely plausible, he'd have to at least have a minimally consistent position. He doesn't.

Even in classical natural law theory, Feser's point (4)--"the right to punish and deter evildoers belongs to lawful governmental authorities alone, and not to private individuals"--doesn't apply to all governmental authorities regardless of context and circumstances, a point that Feser acknowledges. The question then, is, what are the exceptions?

For his position to be minimally consistent, he'd have to bite Shipley's (and, most especially, *Ryan's*) bullets.

So, again, if Jeffrey Dahmer were still free, and he were operating completely openly, with the full knowledge and protection of the government, merrily torturing, killing and eating people, and a vigilante took matters into his own hands, shooting Dahmer, would you condemn his actions?

Feser has been presented with these and similar questions many, many times, in my posts, in Leiter's posts, in the comment threads on W4 and his own blog and so on. He has consistently and conspicuously refused to engage with them, much less answer them in the affirmative.

Ben said...

Dr. Leiter,

"The rest of us can read, both on and between the lines."


By analogy, on the other end of the political spectrum, I went to an anti-war protest in Ann Abor once--I think early-ish 2004--where a few very cranky people were intent on hijacking the event for the issue which they wanted to talk about, which was not Iraq but Israel/Palestine.

Now, as far as the issue itself, fair enough. I support Palestinian statehood as much as the next guy. But I was extremely bothered by the fact that one of them was waving around a sign that said "Israel--Stop Crucifying the Palestinians!"

Now, if it had said "Israel--Stop Opressing the Palestinians!" or even "Israel--Stop Killing the Palestinians!", then I wouldn't have had much objection to the content of the slogan, whatever I thought about the context-appropriateness of bringing it up.

But...crucifying? Really? I've talked to some of these people, and they'd deny being anti-Semitic until their throats were hoarse, but taking the principle of charitable interpretation to the breaking point by taking them at their word when they denied the anti-Semitic intent of bringing up crucifixtion imagery amounts to checking in one's brain at the door.

Similarly, when a doctor who's been heroically serving an extremely hostile area in the face of extreme danger and constant threats and harassment has just been murdered, when his blood has barely had time to dry on the floor of his church, and Feser starts ranting and raving about how the victim was an evil monster, worse than Dahmer, who was in "obesiance to Moloch" and how he had forfeited his right to live, let's not pretend to miss the point.

J said...

Au contraire: you haven't presented an argument FOR moral realism, of any sort. What philosopher or thinker upholds moral realism anyway? Obviously the Quinean naturalists do not; nor do Darwinians. Rawls is not a moral realist either: he's a contractualist (and his Original Position not really a necessary argument either). There may be some moral realists--they tend to be theologians, like Feser.

Ergo, I think the default ethics position tends to be anti-realism. And indeed, that was my point re Hume on fact-value, which alas I do not think you quite understand. There are no actual contradictions implied with inconsistent acts, or hypocrisy (the anti-porn crusader who buys porn, etc). Actions/agency/events, etc aren't statements, or truth functional.

Ben said...


At this point, you're repeating the same flatly incorrect claims after they've been pointed out to you over and over again. There are lots of kinds of moral realism besides the non-naturalist sort you fixate on, and many, many, many moral realists who aren't theists. Do some research.

...and, no, I haven't made an argument for moral realism. Then again, I haven't been advocating it or even talking about it, except in response to you. You keep on bringing it up.

Eric said...

Ben, let's say, for the sake of argument, that you're right about the logical implications of Professor Feser's argument. Would that get you to, 'Feser is a doctor-killing enthusiast'? I don't think so. Take the following proposition:

(1) If S concludes P, and P implies Q, then S accepts/condones/intends Q.

This is, after all, the form of your line of reasoning against Feser. If Feser believes Tiller was worse than Dahmer, and if this implies people like Tiller should be murdered, then Feser accepts/condones/intends the murder of people like Tiller.

Now, (1) strikes me as patently false. There are sundry counterexamples to it. Einstein's arguments for General Relativity implied an expanding universe -- an implication Einstein famously rejected. Or, you describe yourself as a cigar aficionado. Presumably, as an aficionado, you enjoy discussing your interest in cigars with others. However, as we all know, an implication of cigar smoking is an increased likelihood of developing various forms of cancer. So, can we conclude that you're a 'death-by-cancer enthusiast' from your love of cigars?

A second obvious problem with (1) is that it moves from a logical antecedent, where P implies Q, to a psychological consequent, where S accepts/condones/intends Q. This alone is reason to reject it. However, there are independent reasons as well, e.g. it ignores much that we know about people, such as the possibility of cognitive dissonance.

In short, it seems to me that even if we grant your premises concerning the implications of Professor Feser's argument, your conclusion concerning his intentions doesn't follow. You'd have to do a bit more work to justify your conclusion, and, given its nature (i.e. labelling someone a 'doctor-killing enthusiast'), not only are you morally obligated to do that work, you're morally obligated to set the standards of justification rather high.

(I don't know enough about natural law to question your premises concerning the implications of Professor Feser's argument; however, from the little I do know, and from the little you've said about it, I gather that you don't know much about it either.)

Bobcat said...

To respond to what you take the main argument to be:

I think Feser can say that no one can reasonably defend Dahmer's actions, and that any government that did so would show itself to be illegitimate, and in such a case a citizen could rightfully take the law into his own hands. In the case of Tiller's actions, one can reasonably defend Tiller's actions, even if they are as objectively bad as Dahmer's, and so as a result one isn't permitted to take justice into one's own hands to stop it.

Ben said...


No. As discussed in the post, he's a doctor-killing enthusiast on even the most generous reading of what he said, never mind the obvious one. The point is not that his position is inconsistent if he's not saying what I take him to be, but that this is an inconsistency he's not aware of or that he mistakenly thinks that he has a way around. It's that this has been pointed out to him, many times, and he's consistently dodged the issue, which seems like pretty good further evidence for the already obvious fact that the supremely unconvincing token disclaimer that, in combination with the grotesquely obvious point of everything else he said, generated the inconsistency, was never meant to be taken seriously.

As far as Natural Law goes, the one and only claim I've made about it is that, even in that tradition, the prohibition against vigilantism isn't absolutely universal and unqualified. That's a pretty uncontroversial point, considering that Feser's said the same thing, more than once. The question is, on *his* interpretation of NL ethics, what are the circumstances under which exceptions can be legitimately made? In Ryan's hypothetical, would he say that the prohibition stands? Pretty clearly,not, or he would have said so at some point in response to the many times Shipley, Ryan, Leiter and myself have made variations on that point, in at least a few cases in posts that he's given hyper-detailed replied to on every other point.

Ben said...


(1) If Feser thought anything of the kind, he would have said it by now instead of consistently ducking the issue.

(2) It seems terribly hard to square this suggestion with either the content or the tone of Feser's original rant about the freshly-murdered Dr. Tiller, particularly his suggestion that one of the many ways that Tiller was more evil than Dahmer was that Dahmer admitted, to himself and others, that he was evil:

"Some might think that such self-deception lessens Tiller's moral corruption, but in fact it exacerbates it. A man who knows that what he does is evil but does it anyway is corrupt; a man who has become so desensitized to the evil he does that he can no longer even perceive it as evil is even more corrupt. The sins of the former are likely to be sins of weakness; the sins of the latter, to be willful sins of malice. (Older moralists understood this. The modern cult of 'authenticity' and 'sincerity' has blinded us to it – and is itself a mark of our own grave moral corruption.)"

Eric said...

Ben, it's far more obvious that cigar smoking implies an increased likelihood of developing certain forms of cancer than it is that Feser's position implies that late-term abortionists should be murdered. I think we can agree on that, can't we? Minimally, it's surely as obvious.

Now, if this is the case, why isn't it fair, by parity of reasoning, to call you, a self-described cigar aficionado, a 'death-by cancer enthusiast'?

Aficionados rarely keep the object of their enthusiasm private; you've made it public on your blog. Presumably, you talk to other cigar aficionados, and thus keep their enthusiasm for cigars alive, fresh and in many senses acceptable. Also, presumably, you talk about your enthusiasm to those who don't share it. "You don't know what you're missing!" and the like. Now, I fail to see why, by parity of reasoning, I'm not justified in calling you a 'death-by cancer enthusiast.'

However, as I said, I'm only justified 'by parity of reasoning.' I think it would be patently ridiculous to refer to you in this way, and I would judge anyone who did as reprehensible. I assume you would agree with me here -- you're not a 'cancer enthusiast,' whatever the implications of your affection for and promotion of cigar smoking. Why not grant the same courtesy to Professor Feser? It seems to me as if you have two choices: condemn yourself to remain consistent, or stop condemning Professor Feser.

Eric said...

Bobcat: "In the case of Tiller's actions, *one can reasonably defend Tiller's actions*, even if they are as objectively bad as Dahmer's, and so as a result one isn't permitted to take justice into one's own hands to stop it."

Bobcat, this is spot on. See here:

Feser: "Consider, for example, the differences which exist on matters such as abortion and stem cell research. Some people, for perfectly good (and not necessarily religious) reasons, believe that these things are wholly wrong and that their legalization is a step thward the dehumanizing of society. Others, **also for defensible reasons**, believe just the opposite."

Ben said...


Let's say that I actually start blogging about cigars. Imagine, in fact, that I write a long, loving, evocative post about how wonderful smoking them was, not only praising them but saying that anyone who never indulged was a contemptible idiot who didn't know how to enjoy life, vaguely insinuating that they were to be suspected of Nazi sympathies (Churchill smoked them and Hitler didn't, after all) and so on like that, crazy, weird hyperbole both about the joys of cigar-smoking and the gross human deficiencies of non-smokers everywhere. But I put in a couple of sentences saying that, of course, given that it's a behavior that carries with it medical risks, I'm not trying to encourage anyone to smoke cigars.

How seriously do you suppose that disclaimer would deserve to be taken? When people described my post as promoting cigar-smoking, would they be "lying"? Would any sort of connection to promoting cigar-smoking be merely a matter of the obscure logical implications of what I'd written, implications that I should in no way assumed to endorse?