Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Shameless Hyperintensionalism in Ethics (And Other Areas)

A hyperintensional position in a sentence is one where substitution of necessarily co-extensional statements does not preserve truth value. So for instance, 'believes' is a hyperintensional position. Alfredo believes triangles all have three sides doesn't necessarily imply Alfredo believes that triangles all have angles adding up to 180 degrees (and vice versa). After all, I might not know this yet.

What I will call a metaphysical hyperintensional position (and which I will just call 'hyperintensional' hereafter) is, intuitively, one where the hyperintensionality doesn't arise because of some mental attitude. This can be defined more precisely, but for my purposes some examples will suffice.

For instance, the operator 'essentially' is hyperintensional, at least on one understanding of 'essentially.' To use a historical example, Socrates is essentially a rational animal; he is not essentially risible, though necessarily if something has the one property it has the other. Or to use the more contemporary example, Socrates is not essentially a member of his singleton set -- this doesn't have to do with what he is, at the most fundamental level, in himself -- even though he has the property of being so necessarily. Grounding, intrinsicality, naturalness, reduction; these all seem to be hyperintensional as well.

Many metaphysicians are skeptical of these concepts. (Though of course many are not! Which is why they are such a hot topic of discussion lately.) I think there is usually some ambiguity in what this "skepticism" amounts to, but it is often made explicit in terms of the good old, "I don't know what that means." This skepticism looms especially large among those of a certain breed of metaphysician, whose generation either made advances over extensional concepts by employing intensional ones, or learned from those who did. (On all of this, see Daniel Nolan's very enjoyable paper.)

One thing I find worth noting is that people in ethics use these concepts shamelessly, both in first-order normative ethics and in meta-ethics. Meta-ethical claims are consistently stated in terms of "in virtue of" (just witness the Euthyphro Dilemma) or "grounding." There is a consistent flow of talk about what is essential to an action (as opposed to what is just necessarily true of it), as well as the intrinsic features of an action. Ethicists seek real definitions of what's right and wrong, seek to categorize things into natural kinds, seek to reduce properties to other ones, and seek to explain less fundamental facts in terms of more fundamental principles; in general, ethicists have no qualms about using metaphysical hyperintensional concepts, while many metaphysicians claim skepticism even about their intelligibility.

Philosophers of mind initially seem to be a bit more careful in this regard, at least those working in the metaphysics of mind. Witness the debates about supervenience for instance. However, it seems many philosophers of mind are realizing that they have really been trying to raise issues that can only be adequately stated using hyperintensional language. And many times even those who are keen to phrase things in terms of supervenience will explicitly distinguish this purely modal notion from what's really doing the work (explanation, grounding, reduction, and so forth).

Many perfectly legitimate metaphysical debates themselves are best phrased in terms of hyperintensional concepts. And if we look in areas other than metaphysics, a very similar pattern seems to arise; think of philosophy of science, philosophy of math, philosophy of religion, free will and moral responsibility, etc.

One of the clearest examples though is in ethics. It might be worth it for me to demonstrate my empirical claims with specific examples (though frankly it's harder for me to think of papers in ethics which don't make any use of these concepts than those which do). I might try to do this at some point. But I think it's just worth pointing out for now: The sense I get from everything I've read in ethics over the years is that ethicists have no problem whatsoever using any of the hyperintensional notions that metaphysicians will sometimes claim to have no understanding of. Obviously that is not universally true, and some positions in ethics are in fact more "deflationary" than others. But arguably this is not the norm.

Considering that ethics is often one of the closest areas of philosophy to "real world" problems this is important, since it lends some weight toward thinking that these are not arcane, idiosyncratic notions, but would be considered completely intelligible to most people (and they are; anyone taking intro to ethics will "get" the Euthyphro Dilemma; in fact, their understanding of this problem will probably be much clearer than any problem involving modality for example). Also, if you grant a certain level of epistemic autonomy to ethics -- it doesn't need to wait on the approval of metaphysicians to be considered legitimate -- then it would be wrong to pronounce, based on an ill-defined "skepticism," that these concepts are unintelligible. The interaction between metaphysics and ethics should really be one of reflective equilibrium. And in that case, the initial reaction to hyperintensional concepts should be one of cautious approval rather than default skepticism.


Charles Pigden said...

Hallo Alfredo. Here's an example of two necessarily co-extensive properties that are not identical, hence an example of hyper-intensionality. Consider a complete Logic L. In this logic BEING A THEOREM OF L (that is being derivable by the rules from the axioms) is necessarily co-extensive with BEING L-VALID (which is given some kind of semantic interpretation). But the two properties are distinct since one has to be understood in terms of modality-plus-syntax whilst the other is a semantic property. This seems to me a better example than the ones you derive from ethics since in those cases one might argue that although the properties in question are necessarily co-extensive, the necessity there is less than logical. (It is surely conceivable that the moral properties might supervene on a different set of 'natural' properties than the properties on which they ACTUALLY supervene). [Proof: we don't have a problems understanding ethical systems with which we radically disagree. Indeed we often suspend our disbelief in, say, revenge-based ethics when enjoying s certain kinds of fiction.])

Hope this helps.

awatkins909 said...

Thanks Charles! I think that's another excellent example.