Saturday, October 04, 2008

Variations on Moore's Paradox

[When I first got the idea for this post while reading Max Kölbel's Truth Without Objectivity, I went to the internet looking for similar ideas that might help me frame the discussion. I'd like to thank Michael Cholbi and his commenters for their thoughts here.]

Moore's paradox is that an assertion of "It's raining, but I don't believe it is." is or appears to be contradictory, even though it could be the case that both of the conjuncts--(a) it's raining, and (b) I don't believe it is raining--could both be true at the same time.

In this post, I wish to examine a few variations on the Moore paradoxical sentence, such as the following:

  1. It is raining, but I don't believe it.
  2. Charity is good, but I don't (morally) esteem/laud it.
  3. Licorice is tasty, but I don't like it.
Initially, we might be inclined to think one or another of these as more absurd or more paradoxical than the others, but I think this is a mistake. The intuition may be a result of our natural instinct to interpret using the principle of charity, reading 'good' or 'tasty' with inverted commas rather than as sincere assertions. A person uttering 2, while implicitly denouncing the notion of a universal morality, has not expressed anything absurd or paradoxical. With a little struggle, though, I think we can read 'raining' with inverted commas, too, yielding a similar non-paradoxical expression for that sentence.

What I think is important is that we can (if we so choose) interpret each of these sentences as sincere assertions with full commitments to the objectivity of the notions of truth, goodness, and tastyness, and they thereby become just as paradoxical as Moore's original, (under the assumption that the speaker is committed to believing true things, esteeming good things, and liking tasty things).

But now compare the above Moore-paradoxical sentences to the following scenario:
An individual who experiences red-green colorblindness in both eyes asserts "The petals of this red rose are colored differently from it's leaves, but I don't see it that way."
This sentence is very much like a Moore-paradoxical sentence, but we can interpret it in such a way that it's asserter isn't expressing anything absurd or paradoxical, but instead is acknowledging that he has a condition that makes him a poor judge of colors.

Before I continue, I need to re-familiarize my audience with three diagnoses in the psychological literature, one of which will be significantly tweaked to meet my needs:

First, there is schizophrenia. We are probably all familiar with this diagnosis, given to individuals who 'hear' voices, often voices that tell them to do dangerous things to themselves and other people. Unfortunately, their voices are only 'in their head'. (My inverted commas are meant to indicate that I wish to avoid objections from nitpicky philosophers on the details. A general picture is all I wish to convey of these conditions.) For an example of such an individual, see John Nash.

Second, there is Stockholm syndrome. Individuals with this condition are captives who harbor some (however minor) empathy for or loyalty to their captor(s). They have difficulty fully denouncing the immoral actions of their captors. Patty Hearst is sometimes considered to have had this condition.

Finally, there is Schizoid personality disorder. This condition is "characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency towards a solitary lifestyle, secretiveness, and emotional coldness." For the purposes of this post, I wish to distinguish two types of individuals who meet the generally-recognized diagnostic criteria. The first group, which I will not focus on here, includes those who have these isolative tendencies and are just fine with that. They just want to be alone. The group that will help to illustrate my point here, though, is the group that has a preference for solitude and social distance, but also has a second-order preference that he not have those first-order preferences. These are people who acknowledge the pleasant nature of social interaction, but cannot benefit much from such interaction due to experiences of frustration, agitation, depression or similar resulting from these encounters (however enjoyable they may actually be). Wittgenstein might be a candidate for having this type of SPD.

Now let's put together the Moore-paradoxical sentences above, with these conditions, and we get the following:
  1. There aren't people talking to me, but I believe there are. (Said by the schizophrenic person.)
  2. Keeping me captive was completely wrong, but I can't fully denounce his doing so. (Said by the person with Stockholm syndrome.)
  3. The company of others is fun, but I don't enjoy it. (Said by the person with type-2 SPD.)
  1. I erringly believe that the voices are real.
  2. I erringly laud the actions of my captor.
  3. I erringly dislike the company of others.
What I think we need to see is that we can identify a literal reading of these sentences that is not paradoxical, but only when the asserter is acknowledging (A) that there is a standard of judgment, while also acknowledging (B) that his assertions are accountable to that standard (i.e., he takes himself to be committed to, for example, believing true things, esteeming good things, and liking tasty things), and (C) that he is not a capable judge within that standard.

In the face of these moral and aesthetic versions of Moore's paradox, those who would identify an epistemic component as the cause for the paradox have some more explaining to do.


  1. One thing that I find interesting about this is that the factual and aesthetic versions seem (to my intuition) to sound dramatically more paradoxical than the moral version. My suspicion is that this is because we (at least, philosophers) generally presume full objectivity with respect to epistemic standards (that something is true means it is to be believed) and full subjectivity with respect to aesthetic standards ("Licorice is tasty" means "I like licorice"), but there seems to be no general presumption either way for moral standards (there is no meaning convention generally adopted for English speakers).

  2. "Genocide is heinous, but it doesn't bother me." feels a little more paradoxical than the example I used in the original post.