Freedom of Belief, Semantics of the ‘Ought’, and Writing Philosophy: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Chrisman

What follows is an interview piece of Dr. Matthew Chrisman of University of  Edinburgh. The interview was held after Dr. Chrisman delivered a talk before members of the University of Warwick Philosophy Society. The talk concerned various approaches towards and formulations of the idea of freedom.

Dr. Chrisman highlighted a central example of his presentation: Orwell’s 1984 in which the protagonist, Winston, was subjected to severe torture and propaganda making him believe absurd claims such as ‘2+2=5’. Dr. Chrisman sparked an interest in freedom of belief, and precisely what such a doxastic status entailed. Particularly, how it is possible to differentiate between freedom-diminishing influences on belief, à la propaganda and torment, from freedom-enhancing influences, à la education and open discourse. 

Choosing to forgo traditional approaches to characterizing this dichotomy, such as describing a 3rd person objective metaphysics of belief or abducing a 1st person transcendental metaphysics, Dr. Chrisman attempted to diagnose the distinction in terms of ‘freedom’ as used in politics and political philosophy. 

Running through three major philosophical theories of freedom- i.e. freedom as ability for self-control, as capacity for rational self-determination, and finally as a recognized right for self-realization, Dr. Chrisman settled on the latter as a holistic understanding of doxastic freedom. This conception involves two major threads: freedom is the right to be what one chooses- to be a self and a particular self. Further, this right is recognized by others, not only putatively by other agents, but also through institutions and political action. 

Here is where Dr. Chrisman answers the distinction: freedom-diminishing influences are such because they not only limit our capacity to be a certain self, but also destroy our recognized authority to believe what we believe, whereas freedom-enhancing influences allow a greater fashion and potential to exercise this authority qua being recognized as free to believe in a society.

The below interview discusses both thoughts we had after the presentation, and some of Dr. Chrisman’s previous work.

Roman Melnikov; Editor-in-Chief.

Roman: One of the questions I have is on the paradigm that you use from the political stance, and I was wondering if you have any reason for judging a politically perspectived analysis of freedom to be in some way more beneficial or more plausible than some of the more metaphysical judgements.

Dr. Chrisman: This pertains to the methodology that I used to write the paper and think about these issues. I don’t want to say the metaphysical approaches are wrong, they’re just answering a different question than the one I want to answer. They would be wrong if one thought that the concept of freedom of belief only mattered metaphysically. I think we are in part interested in that concept because of moral/political considerations, not just metaphysical ones. People are often motivated by reading novels such as 1984 to think ‘what is it to be controlled by propaganda?’ but then they latch onto these metaphysics of mind accounts of what freedom is, and that’s had the effect of ignoring this broader conceptual technology that we have for thinking about freedom as a political ideal rather than a metaphysical condition of our minds. In the end, I think we need to think of freedom as a political ideal, and this ideal includes recognising someone as having certain conditions on their minds. So there is a way that the metaphysics comes into the politics, but we need the politics to make sense of freedom of belief, or to make sense of why we care about it.

Roman: From a personal standpoint I tend to agree with you, and this is a very sound account of freedom not only as self-actualization but as recognized self-actualization, and I just want to highlight that recognizant term. Could you elaborate more on the kind of structures or constellations that are included in this recognition. Is it merely a social recognition, a social acknowledgement, a normative attitude to authority, or a normative status?

Dr. Chrisman: As I spoke about very briefly in the talk, there are various interpersonal attitudes we can have towards one other than can constitute recognizing somebody else as having various rights; that can be us ceding to them the authority to do certain things or think certain things or choose certain things, but if that’s all that recognition is then it’s probably too thin or anaemic to really explain what values we want to promote and protect in our social and political structures. So that’s why I like this thought from Axel Honneth that recognition needs to be institutionalized, so we need institutions that are designed around facilitating mutual respect and recognition- those are going to be institutions like our educational institutions, or the way that news organisations operate, and there could be very subtle differences between news organisations that operate along norms that are designed to facilitate mutual recognition and news organisations that are merely propaganda machines. I have not yet devoted very much thought to this in particular, but that’s where I think we want to find the material for distinguishing those: in what does it take to create an institution that facilitates mutual respect.

Roman: I happen to agree that the recognizant institutions have to be present as actual institutions, they have to be present as functions in society because just having a normative attitude to oneself isn’t simply constitutive of recognition.

Dr. Chrisman: And even if there is recognition between you and Joseph, that you’ve recognised Joseph’s right to self-realise as a philosopher, that doesn’t yet really make Joseph a philosopher or facilitate his freedom to be a philosopher. We need the idea of philosopher to be institutionalised in a broader social structure such as a university. Arguably that only happened a few hundred years ago, but it did, and now the opportunity to self-realise as a philosopher is available where it wasn’t before. So that’s where it needs to go to a higher level than 1-1 interpersonal relations.

Roman: That culminates in the main question I had from the talk: In analysing doxastic freedom as this sort of recognisant self-actualisation, is there any positive commitment that it produces to the self in terms of having duties of seeking out education, broadening and increasing one’s potential for self-actualisation? Is there positive commitment that is entailed by these, and if so are there going to be these logically necessary institutions coming from this positive aspect of this doxastic freedom?

Dr. Chrisman: That’s a really interesting question. I was initially sceptical of this. There is this idea in political philosophy that sometimes goes under the label ‘perfectionism’ which focuses on the positive conditions for autonomy, according to these it’s partly the role of our political organisations (especially the state) to facilitate people becoming better in various human ways, and one of those ways might be becoming better knowers, so that would be a political philosophy that suggests the answer to your question would be yes. But I’ve always been a little sceptical of perfectionist views for some of the standard reasons that liberals object to those views. So I’m inclined to think that’s not quite right; look, if what you’re really interested in is the current fate of Britney Spears then that’s fine, you can pursue knowledge on that, we can recognise you as a knower about this topic, that’s all it takes to be recognised as an epistemic knower, and we don’t need to think there are higher/lower or more/less important kinds of knowledge (that’s my gut reaction to this kind of questions).

Although I do think there’s a way in which we provide methods for thinking and basic conceptual technology to people who get education. You might think it’s really hard to think, even about the current state of Britney Spears, without having various concepts, such as thinking of yourself in relation to the evidence you have in various ways that require basic epistemic skills. And that’s what mandatory education should do, give us that. Maybe education should be mandatory insofar as it provides the necessary resources for any epistemic self-realisation whatsoever. What you exercise this freedom of epistemic self-realisation to do is, I would think, more up to you than the perfectionist political philosophers would allow.

Roman: That’s a very rational reaction, and kind of anticipated on my behalf because it is uncomfortable to think about positive and objective bearings actualised as necessary institutions, but we are sort of led down the path where we think that if these institutions have this shape that you’re describing, that they don’t promote a single epistemic content but they provide a form by which epistemic content can be then self-determined, it is a more palatable thing think about.

Dr. Chrisman: I mean, you have to be concerned about how you draw that line between the formal and the substantive, and I think that’s always the point in these sorts of discussion that you want to press to see whether that line can be held firm, which I suspect often it can’t be.

Roman: That completes the questions I had particularly about the talk. Now I’d like to discuss some of your other work. I know that you’re interested in the intersection between semantics and ethics, and your book discusses the semantic of ‘ought’ and its implications for moral descriptivism and moral expressivism. I was wondering if you could tell us more about why you think that issues in semantics have direct bearing and provide insight into issues in ethics.

Dr. Chrisman: There’s a long and short version of this story, so I’ll tell you the short version. I got into professional philosophy thinking about various theories of what was right/wrong, good/bad, what we ought to do, and wondering about what their objective basis was. I became quite convinced that we don’t find the fact that we ought to do something out in nature with the empirical methods we use to investigate reality. That left me in a quandary since, on the one hand, some philosophers think that those facts are supernatural or non-natural, that they somehow don’t fit with the facts we can discover through empirical methods. These philosophers have to figure out, or tell a plausible story, about how we do discover them. On the other hand, other philosophers think that that normative language is subtly mistaken or erroneous, it doesn’t really track reality even though it tries to track reality. This is labelled ‘error theory’ in contemporary metaethics, but I think it traces back to Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic and Nietzsche. All of these different thinkers (the older ones in somewhat more radical ways) think that our moral practice embodies some kind of pernicious error about how to live, and they would therefore be critical of morality. However, I thought ‘well I don’t like that either’. So I didn’t know where to go between this error theory and this non/supernaturalism about ethics, and that got me thinking about the meaning of ‘ought’ statements, and the standard alternative between those two options is to endorse some kind of expressivism. 

So the expressivist idea is that in making an ought claim, or any moral claim, we are expressing our attitudes or valuations about things rather than trying to describe or represent reality. But I became convinced that that theory was not linguistically appropriate- that it didn’t match up to the linguistic evidence. So that made me start thinking more about linguistics, and in particular semantics of modal verbs. So one thought I really like is that quite independent of your metaethics the word ought is a modal word, so its like ‘but’ ‘may’ ‘might’ ‘could’, and all of those are typically treated by linguists not as referring to properties in reality, but as providing linguistic mechanisms with which we can think about other counterfactual possibilities and reason about other ways things could have been, or ways things have to be, rather than just the way things are. Accordingly I think that all of that language plays a different conceptual role in our thinking than either descriptive language or expressive language. So that’s where I felt the theory of the meaning of ought which was neither descriptivist nor expressivist but as I now say, inferentialist, which focuses on the inferential role of ought judgements conceived as modal judgements. 

Roman: I found that particularly insightful, that on inspection we don’t necessarily need to endorse an expressivist attitude if we denounce a descriptivist one, because as you said there’s no need to commit ourselves to these stringent truth conditions or correspondence theories of truth. We can have an interesting meta-normative or meta-semantic analysis of modal verbs like ought and have an understanding not exactly correspondent to actuality.

Joseph: A quick clarificatory question. You said that something that made you move away from expressivism was that it didn’t match up with the linguistic evidence of our use of moral terms. Could you clarify what you mean by ‘linguistic evidence’ and perhaps provide an example of a piece of linguistic evidence that doesn’t fit with the theory.

Dr. Chrisman: This gets quite tricky and complicated because expressivists have been particularly ingenious at tweaking their theories in ways that handle various bits of linguistic evidence. But I’ll mention two things that are the beginning of threads that we could pull on that I think would unravel the jumper of epistemic expressivism. 

One thing is that if you think a) ethical or normative claims mean what they do because of what they express, and they express the non-cognitive or emotive attitude, and b) descriptive claims mean what they do because they express descriptive beliefs, you face the problem of mixed claims. So you say something like ‘murder is wrong’ expresses my dislike of murder and ‘grass is green’ expresses my belief that grass is green. But now I can construct the sentence ‘murder is wrong or grass is green’ and the question is: what does that express? Expressivist do have answers to that question, but it is tricky to make it work in general rather than it just being designed for that particular case. What they need is a general recipe for dealing with sentences of arbitrary complexity (since you can always jam in something ethical and something descriptive on either side of a logical connective) and it requires quite a bit more linguistic speculation to make that work.

The other thing is that I think expressivism is often motivated by this idea that when I say ‘murder is wrong’ that I won’t murder, or if I do I’ll feel guilty, or I’ll only do so because I’m tempted in ways that outweigh my motivation to murder. The thought is that there is an internal connection between our normative/ethical judgements and our motivations to action. And if you think that could only work if those judgements themselves have that affective or emotive character then you’ll start to think that expressivism is a pretty good theory. I did at first, I thought it was right that if I judged that I ought to give money to charity and I don’t then somethings wrong (is he lying? Is he insincere? Does he understand what ought means? Is he tempted to do something other than what he thinks he ought to?). Now, that’s true in the first person case about a prospective action, but we make normative claims about things that happen in the past or that don’t have anything to do with us (we say Caesar ought not to have crossed the Rubicon or we say that the US ought not to invade Iraq), where it’s much more difficult to understand what it would mean for the individual saying that to be motivated in a particular way. So there’s less evidence that ethical judgements are linked in this internal way to our emotional and affective reactions, and so that’s what led me to want something that’s more about the way in which we reason with the claims than about the particular attitudes that we express.

Roman: Thank you very much Dr. Chrisman. I just want to ask one pan-ultimate question, it’s a forward looking question, so it’s probably a good one to wrap up this interview. As I understand from your talk, you’re currently writing a book:  could you expand on what you hope this book will achieve in being presented to the academic world?

Dr. Chrisman: Yeah … we’ll see. It’s not written yet, and in a way, I feel like the writing of a piece of philosophy is this bit of self-realisation as somebody who defends a particular view. I’m deep in the process of it right now, so we’ll see how I come out the other end. But maybe quite pragmatically I want to write something that encourages more social and political focus on our thinking about the agency of our own minds, so thinking about that in a way that’s neither first personal or third personal but interpersonal. So that’s one of the themes of the book, and I’m a very strong proponent of the idea that epistemology needs to be more social in its focus. And this is part of a broader movement towards social epistemology, and I hope to amplify and pursue that idea. 

The last thing I’ll say is that I’ve written one book that’s been published and one that’s in the publishers now, and both are very academic tomes that have an audience that is a fairly small number of specialists who know quite a bit about particular debates. I undertook to writing this book as something that would be accessible (not dumbed down) to a wider audience since I have a wider group of people that I’m interested in talking to. For example, recently I have been thinking with and talking to people through the young academy of Scotland about a charter for responsible debate, and they were all interested in what are the norms for discussion of issues that we disagree about even though we have common purpose, and we want to find a way to live together. So it was that broader audience that got me thinking about the social conditions of freedom of belief and made me want to write a book that’ll still be a philosophical book, but that’ll be abit shorter and aimed at a broader audience. 

Roman: I just want to latch onto a very particular thing that you said, because this is so important for Pharos; we as a magazine want to have both the academic standard and rigour as well as a broad audience, so I was wondering if you could comment briefly on how you’re attempting to do what you espouse, i.e. disseminate philosophy while maintaining that academic rigour.

Dr. Chrisman: Well I haven’t done it yet, and I’m a little scared of it. I find it in some ways quite easy to write the more academic tomes and difficult to write for a broader audience. The same advice I give to my undergraduate and PhD students in thinking about writing; it is to develop the capacity to think about your audience and register different types of audience. So I found it quite helpful to write a textbook aimed at 3rd or 4th year students at the same time I was writing an academic monograph that was aimed at professional philosophers. Having different audiences in mind when you write something and then knowing who your (intended) audience is can be really useful for developing something. So although the book has footnotes and citations and I interact with contemporary literature and quote historical figures, there’s ways in which I’ve tried to suppress some of that because my audience is this broader group of people who don’t necessarily care whether I’ve cited that person or whether this really is exactly Kant’s view or not, so there is a way in which you can be scholarly and rigorous. But first and foremost, thinking about who the audience is is important, and sometimes that swims in and out of focus for me in writing the book, but as I revise and revise and revise I’m going to keep that broader intellectual audience in mind. I think we can all learn from the rigour of various disciplines while still being able to access them, even if we don’t have all the background knowledge that the specialists do.

End of the Interview


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