Wednesday, June 02, 2004

More Than Words For Snow #5 - Implicit Categorisation

This ones' going to be a quickie... I just want to get the basic idea down, and I'm not worrying too much about expression...

This post is about how language can be used to obfuscate reasoning by implicitly categorising something as something it isn't.

An an example of implicit categorisation I came across prompted me to write this post. I was reading Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton -- which is not a bad book, BTW -- and specifically, the chapter on morals/ethics, and the part where he outlines neo-Aristotelian Virtue Theory. What this theory is, and my opinion of it, aren't important for this post and I won't be going into them -- I just want to comment on the way Warburton talks about the theory.

The text that's relevant to the example is this. Following the section outlining the basic details of Virtue Theory, is a section titled 'Criticism of Virtue Theory', in which he says "A major difficulty with virtue theory is establishing which patterns of behaviour, desire, and feeling are to count as virtues" and in elaboration of this says "the danger is that virtue theorists simply redefine their prejudices and preferred ways of life as virtues, and the activities they dislike as vices".

If we start considering that text, we can see that "establishing which patterns of behaviour, desire, and feeling are to count as virtues" (which I'll refer to as the "establishment problem") is "a major difficulty" and that this is a "criticism of virtue theory". As I will explain in a moment, when he refers to the establishment problem as a major difficulty, he implies that it is an inherent problem with the theory -- he categorises it as an inherent problem with the theory.

This is unfortunate, because the establishment problem is not an inherent problem with the theory. This ought to be apparent if we consider this for a moment. If virtue theory says that moral behaviour is based on virtuous behaviour, then we have the difficulty of determining what is virtuous. We need to determine how to turn its basic principles and tenants to more concrete courses of action. But this problem isn't particular to Virtue Theory.

It's a problem common to all moral frameworks - we have to determine how to interpret their basic principles and tenants. And regardless of the theory we can do this well or we can do this poorly. It might be argued that this is harder to do (perhaps too hard) in some theories than it is in others, but I do not see why this applies to Virtue Theory (and Warburton does not seem to argue that this is the case).

Thus if this issue of interpretation -- the establishment problem -- is common to all moral frameworks, and is only a problem when it is poorly done, then it should be clear that it is an problem that is independent of any particular moral framework, or, in other words, not an inherent problem with any particular moral theory.

If the establishment theory is not an inherent problem for Virtue Theory, then it can not be rightly described as a "major problem" for it. I've claimed that Warburton implicitly classified it as a major problem, and I want to now explain why I think his text does this. He didn't explicitly say it was -- or wasn't -- an inherent problem, but because he left the issue open and described it as a "major problem" in the section "criticism of virtue theory", the only way we can sensibly interpret his meaning is if we assume that it is an inherent problem.

In fact, there's a second example of implicit categorisation in that passage. By describing the establishment problem as a "major problem" under the heading of "Criticism of virtue theory", and by not elaborating on the what a major problem means in so far as it is a criticism, it is implied that is a major problem that can be counted as a criticism of virtue theory. For it is not necessarily the case that a major problem with a theory has to be a criticism of the theory. For example -- and to take an example that fits in with the theme of morals -- there are major problems -- difficulties -- involved with trying to be a good person, but this doesn't mean these problems constitute a criticism of trying to be a good person.

I'm now going to try getting closer to the heart of this issue of implicit categorisation. In effect a "subject" (the establishment problem) is something that could be interpreted in a number of ways, and is being referred to as a particular type of thing. However, rather than explicitly calling it that type of thing, it is implicitly being referred to as that type of thing. The reference is implicit because the there is no explicit link from the referrer to the referent, and that there is no explicit statement about the nature of the link between the two, that is, of what the referrer is saying about the referent.

The link and the meaning of the link are implicit because they are derived from the following: 1) the referrer being the heading of the section 'criticism of virtue theory' and 2) the referent (the establishment problem) residing within that section and saying something negative about the theory, which leads us to think that we have grounds for critcising the theory (this is the meaning of the link).

We are drawn into this implicit categorisation because this categorisation is the only sensible way to interpret the writing. For if we were to categorise it differently to the implicit categorisation, it would mean that the point the writing was making would be wrong, and there is no apparent reason why it is wrong -- it seems like a fair and adequate point being made. This is, of course, a warning about the dangers of not looking any beyond what things apparently seem to be, and about the importance of considering what things say not what you think they mean -- but those are other stories.

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