A Ku Indeed!

Bell V: Mill vs Ayer

Posted in Bell Reading Group, China by Chris on December 28, 2008

A week or so ago I was talking to a friend of mine about Bell’s book and some of its arguments. At some point I suggested that some of the claims made, or the way in which the arguments were put, reminded me of a disagreement that John Stuart Mill and A.J. Ayer had over the status of mathematics. Surprisingly, when I got to pg. 128 in the book, Mill’s epistemology is given a positive mention. No surprise there!

The difference between Mill and Ayer can be put simply. How far the disagreement between them can be applied to Bell’s discussion is a different question. The difference for Ayer and Mill concern the nature of mathematical propostions such as “5 + 7 = 12” and how to understand them.

For Mill, the origin of our belief in the truth of such propositions is empirical (a posteriori). We see five oranges next to seven oranges and see this as twelve oranges. So, for Mill, such propositions are not about the relationship between concepts, but rather about the relationship between — or behavior of — oranges (objects). But Mill goes further: he also thinks that the justification of such propositions is also empirical. So, if I want to know whether the proposition is true, I see if it keeps holding up in experience. When five oranges sit next to seven oranges, there are twelve oranges.

Given that Mill thinks that justification is also empirical, he thinks that the truth of the mathematical proposition is always open to falsification. One day, he thinks, seven oranges and five oranges might total eleven oranges. As a result, Mill denies that mathematics is an a priori field.

Ayer agrees that the origin of such propositions is a posteriori (he is an empiricist, after all). But he denies that the justification of mathematics is also empirical, and so here he differs from the more radical empiricism of Mill. For Ayer, learning the mathematical proposition starts with seven and five oranges equalling twelve oranges. But after this, I can glean from the empirical propsition the propostion that “7 + 5 = 12”. This proposition is not empirical, and so its justification can be carried out a priori.

So Mill is a radical empiricist, whereas Ayer is a moderate one.

On pg. 128, “Demo” argues:

In a way you’re more of a liberal than I am. Liberals from JS Mill onward believe that he validity of beliefs can’t be assured a priori, and that it’s important to keep open the possibility of changing decisions already made should better arguments come to light.

Now we know from EMW that Bell thinks that the origin of normative claims is empirical, because these claims are generated in local empirical circumstances. But now we see (Demo’s claim is approved by Lo) that he also thinks that the justification of such claims is also empirical.

So Bell is a radical empiricist of sorts, in the tradition of Mill.

But there are different reasons for being a “Millian.”

Option 1: Mill doesn’t beleive that the objects of mathematical propositions exist. To claim that “All triangles equal 180 internal degrees” isn’t true as a statement about metaphysics because there are no such perfect triangles in the world and he doesn’t believe that imagistic concepts related to triangles can exist either. This doesn’t mean that mathematical propositions are bogus – they are useful generalizations about the real world. It’s just that perfect triangles don’t exist. So by this option, the validity of beliefs cannot be justified a priori because the objects of such propositions don’t exist.

Option 2: the objects corresponding to such propositions do exist, but we simply have no epistemic access to them. Argument and discussion might bring us closer, but we never actually access them.

What about Bell on human rights and norms?

My question is which, of option 1 or 2, does Bell embrace when it comes to normative claims? Does he think that norms are empirically justified because there are no “objects” or “moral facts” that correspond to a priori statements about norms? Or does he think that such things do exist, but the best we can hope for epistemically are the kinds of propositions that mutual argument and dialogue allow us to access?

Of course, there are a lot of interesting themes running in this thread, so feel free to comment on any of them. One large question: should we adopt an “Ayer” like approach to norms and rights? Or a “Millian” one?


6 Responses

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  1. Phil Hand said, on December 29, 2008 at 6:28 am

    I’m certain I can’t distinguish between your options (1) and (2). As someone without faith, it is not possible for me to comprehend what the difference might be between something that doesn’t exist, and something that doesn’t exist in this universe.

    But I think your second question is misformed as well. In terms of *approach*, both the Ayer and Mill views would lead to identical behaviour. A’s and M’s both think that looking at the world empirically is the only way to work out what norms are. Therefore they would both spend their time looking at the world. The difference would lie not in their approach, but in the beliefs they arrive at. A’s would believe after looking at the world that the norms they have been trying to work out are in fact X, Y and Z; though as good empiricists they would keep an open mind, and if later observations proved they had been wrong about X, they would honorably admit fault and change it to W. They would then believe in W in the same way they had believed in X.

    M’s would look at the world and construct working hypotheses P, Q and R about norms; they would continue their observations, and when later observations showed P to be incorrect, they would adjust it to S. There would be no change in beliefs necessary during the adjustment process.

    Of course, that’s all very idealised. In reality, A’s beliefs would lead them to denial and fighting and torture as beliefs are wont to do. But that’s not a logical necessity. The approach of an honest A should still be the same as the approach of an honest M.

  2. Chris said, on December 29, 2008 at 7:35 am

    Hi Phil –

    On (1) and (2): it could be that either morality is entirely a matter of our own continuing agreements and re-negotiations (option 1) or it could be that morality is more than just this (because we can get things wrong with respect to the moral facts in the world), but the best access we have is through agreement and negotiation (option 2).

    In practice, there could wind up to be no difference — you are right. But for some (those who think that morality could be verified by something independent of human agreements), a large distinction still. For some people, moral facts exist, period — and they are independent of us. What a human right might be, say, isn’t solely dependent on what we decide it should be via argument and negotiation.

    This is in part the issue with Bell for some, I think. It could be that some cultural practice X leads to the same behavior that a person who believes in human rights would engage in. For Bell, that’s fine and good enough. For others, it would not be, because it’s the language that is important (of human rights) because it itself expresses something that is true about the world, whereas the other does not grab onto that truth.

    Perhaps someone might argue it this way as well: people who follow culture X’s practices, because they simply do what “negotiation and argument” leads them to, are only coincidentally (at the moment) engaging in “human rights practices”. There’s nothing to keep them “there” — as a result, they can easily veer off into another direction and towards different practices. The people who believe in human rights have determined these to be true a priori (say), and so there could not be any data in the world that would allow them to renegotiate those beliefs, and thus they’d remain in those practices.

    In this instance, “believing the right things” would be important because it would reliably get you to the right behaviors.

  3. Phil Hand said, on December 29, 2008 at 8:15 am

    The level of abstraction is doing my head in, so I’ll try to introduce an example to work with. Let me know if I’ve got this wrong.

    Imagine a native American group with fairly restrictive practices and no conception of rights, but which did have a weekly powwow ceremony in which anyone was allowed to say anything they think important with impunity. And then there’s some dancing and bonding – the powwow has multiple social functions. But for the rights enthusiast it’s important because it maintains an avenue for free speech.

    Later, for reasons not directly related to free speech, the tradition of the powwow is altered or ended, so this avenue for free speech is lost.

    The dilemma for our rights worker, then, would be: do I (a) try to persuade these guys that free speech is important; or do I (b) simply try to get them to bring back the powwow?

    My personal answer would be (a), based on the principle of political respect for the group: it would be immoral to try to manipulate them towards a particular goal without telling them what that goal is.

  4. Chris said, on December 30, 2008 at 10:52 pm


    I think Bell would take (b). But it need not be manipulative, does it? One could have a conversation about the shared practices between the powwow and free speech rights. This might lead to greater understanding on the part of both parties of the other party’s local situation, history, concerns, and so on, such that this convergence could come into existence (which would be, after all, interesting!). It might also be the case that such a route will lead each side to come to make revisions to its own set of practices/beliefs based on this new information.

    Perhaps Bell would argue that to go further than this, in taking on (a) as a goal, is immoral in that it robs them of their self-determination?

  5. Phil Hand said, on December 30, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    I think we’re interpreting my (a) and (b) slightly differently. When you say “conversation about the shared practices between the powwow and free speech rights”, this definitely falls under (a) for me. My conception of (b) is where our rights worker uses non-rights arguments (e.g. tradition, or the other functions of the powwow) to try to restore the powwow practice and freedom of speech *without informing the group of her real intentions*.

    I think part of the problem for me with what I think Bell is saying is that I think he is deceitful – to the extent that he proposes we aim for rights-like practices by taking relevant bits out of local traditions. My impression is he suggests this because locals for one reason or another won’t accept foreign traditions, so we give them what they want (local traditional justification) in order to get what we want.

    If Bell is not suggesting that, but is suggesting a much more open process of dialogue between cultures, then (1) I completely agree, and (2) I think this dialogue already exists, and (3) the purpose of his book becomes very narrow – merely admonishing a few rights workers whose practice is not very good.

    If Bell really would say, as you suggest, that dialogue robs natives of their self-determination, then I would say that’s almost comically patronising. I think the Chinese are big enough and tough enough to deal with a bit of dialogue without losing their sense of self.

  6. Chris said, on January 3, 2009 at 7:38 am


    I can understand where the worry about deceit comes in. Essentially, the human rights worker is concerned with securing (say) the “right to free speech”. So they then use cultural contexts to argue for the securing of “free speech _practices_” and not “free speech rights.” So it seems as if the HR activist is being Machiavellian in a way. I think when it comes to “strategy” that’s what he is saying.

    But my guess from reading him is that he thinks that on another level, something more than mere strategizing should take place, namely the open dialogue between the two traditions. But the dialogue itself will need to work, I think, in a way that attempts to “translate” one’s language into the language of the other. I think he believes that only through such a way of trying to understand one’s own traditions through the cultural framework of the other can one truly have respect for the other tradition in a way that actually makes dialogue possible.

    I think that Bell thinks that this is not patronizing at all. As a matter of fact, what is patronizing is dismissing the culture of the other and simply trying to “convince” them of one’s own framework. So, to say “hey, forget your traditions: just listen up and try to make sense of my human rights talk” is very insulting, he would think. And to try to force them (using whatever means) to take on this sort of language or thinking without trying to “graft it” into their own language (through the method above) would to be to _attempt_ to rob them of self-determination, and to try to get them to live in a way that is not authentic.

    It may well be that the Chinese are big enough to withstand such efforts, but still I think Bell would say that “such efforts” are demeaning, even if they do not succeed in their ends.

    Also, I think Bell would suggest that proceeding in such a way is not “a dialogue”.

    Lastly, on the narrowness of the book: I’m not sure if you are right, only because I don’t know much about the best practices of HR activists. My experience comes from talking to academics who are interested in human rights, whether from the liberal or conservative side. When I think of _them_, the target of the book seems perfectly aimed!

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