Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Universally Preferable Behavior and the Maxim Description Problem

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

So now that I'm no longer going to be communicating with Stefan directly, I'm not sure if there are any real prospect of my actually understanding his book. Still, I think it might be worthwhile, if anyone's interested, to lay out a bit of criticism of some of the main themes that I actually found objectionable, and not just confusing. This post won't represent an attempt to completely tackle that task. Rather I'll focus on one idea which comes up several times in Stefan's book, and which represents a significant problem for any theory taking the form that Stefan's does.

A cursory examination of Stefan's book reveals that he's working in a distinctly Kantian framework, in the sense that he takes morality to be based on maxims which are evaluated for moral goodness or badness by universalizing them and determining whether they come into contradiction with themselves (Kant introduces this framework in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals).

Now, I have a long track record of being accused of misrepresenting Stefan's positions, and I'm very comfortable with the assumption that I'll be accused of doing this here in describing his methodology. Nevertheless, I believe that the proof is on the paper, and I will take great care to establish beyond what I think is a reasonable doubt that this is the approach that Stefan is using. I apologize in advance if this is tedious.

Stefan writes, on page 43:
...the first test of any scientific theory is universality. Just as a theory of physics must apply to all matter, a moral theory that claims to describe the preferable actions of mankind must apply to all mankind. No moral theory can be valid if it argues that a certain action is right in Syria, but wrong in San Francisco. It cannot say that Person A must do X, but Person B must never do X. It cannot say that what was wrong yesterday is right today - or vice versa. If it does, it is false and must be refined or discarded.

Then, on page 44, he writes:
If I say that gravity affects matter, it must affect all matter. If even one pebble proves immune to gravity, my theory is in trouble. If I propose a moral theory that argues that people should not murder, it must be applicable to all people. If certain people (such as soldiers) are exempt from that rule, then I have to either prove that soldiers are not people, or accept that my moral theory is false. There is no other possibility. On the other hand, if I propose a moral theory that argues that all people should murder, then I have saved certain soldiers, but condemned to evil all those not currently murdering someone (including those being murdered!) - which is surely incorrect.

If, to save the virtue of the soldiers, I alter my theory to argue that it is moral for people to murder if someone else tells them to (a political leader, say), then I must deal with the problem of universality. If Politician A can order a soldier to murder an Iraqi, then the Iraqi must also be able to order the soldier to murder Politician A, and the soldier can also order Politician A to murder the Iraqi. The application of this theory results in a general and amoral paralysis, and thus is proven invalid.

It seems clear that Stefan is using a maxim-based approach here which is more or less identical to the one used by Kant. That approach states moral precepts in the following form: "In all circumstances C, I will do X," universalizes them, and searches for problems. It's worth pointing out that Kant discusses two different ways in which a universal law can come into contradiction with itself: it can be impossible to conceive of a world in which it is followed, or such a world could not be desired by any rational person. Stefan does not explicitly assent to this distinction, but I think that there is evidence that Stefan would accept both sorts of "contradictions" as sufficient reason for rejecting a maxim.

On page 66, Stefan writes:
Raping someone is a positive action that must be initiated, executed, and then completed. If "rape" is a moral good, then "not raping" must be a moral evil - thus it is impossible for two men in a single room to both be moral at the same time, since only one of them can be a rapist at any given moment - and he can only be a rapist if the other man becomes his victim.

He continues:
...two men in a room must be considered to be in the same situation. If only one of them can be good, because goodness is defined as rape, and only one of them can rape at any time, then we have a logical contradiction that cannot be resolved.

I take this to be pretty good evidence that Stefan accepts Kant's first sort of contradiction as a reason for rejecting a maxim. The maxim, "I will always rape," cannot be adopted as a universal law; it would be impossible to conceive of a world in which it was. Stefan also seems to accept that Kant's second sort of contradiction, that a reasonable person would be unable to will the universal adoption of the rule, would be problematic for a maxim. On page 80, Stefan writes:
...if stealing is good, then goodness becomes a state achievable only in the instant that Doug steals Bob's lighter. In that instant, only Doug can be moral, and Bob cannot be. After that, goodness becomes impossible to achieve for either party, unless Doug keeps giving Bob's lighter back and then snatching it away again.

Of course, it seems patently ridiculous to imagine that the ideal moral state is for one man to keep giving another back the property he has stolen, and then immediately stealing it again. Thus logic seems to validate our instinctual understanding of the foolishness of this as a moral ideal...

Stefan goes on to argue that a maxim advocating the practice of stealing would be contradictory for the reason discussed above (it would be impossible to conceive of a world in which everyone consistently advocated theft), but his statements here suggest that Kant's second variety of contradiction would also provide some grounds for rejecting a maxim.

It might have been noticed that I set up the phrasing of a maxim to explicitly include circumstances, and yet in many of the examples above, Stefan did not make any mention of circumstances. I would point out that in any situation in which circumstances are not explicitly set out, it is not unreasonable to think that the maxim could simply apply to all circumstances. Further, there are examples in which Stefan does make reference to circumstances as potentially providing basis for making moral distinctions. For example, returning to the soldier example on page 44, Stefan suggests that we could alter a moral theory to say that "...it is moral for people to murder if someone else tells them to (a political leader, say)..." Here we would need to make use of the maxim structure outlined earlier: "In circumstances in which another person tells me to murder, I will murder."

There is further reason to believe that circumstances should be relevant in the exposition of a moral theory: It could be that in some circumstances, an otherwise impermissible action would be perfectly acceptable. For example, it is generally impermissible to kill another person. But if that person is attacking you, then it seems that it would be acceptable to use lethal force in self-defense. The maxim, "I will kill people" seems obviously problematic; this is not so with the circumstance-dependent maxim, "In circumstances in which I am being attacked and can save myself only by killing my attacker, I will kill my attacker."

But none of this seems particularly problematic for Stefan's theory. So far, I haven't really done anything but clarify how I think the theory is supposed to work. So what's my problem? The objection is one that has been commonly raised against Kant; I'll call it the Maxim Description Problem (there's probably an "official" name for it somewhere, but I don't know what it is). The problem is this: Our evaluation of an action will depend on the maxim on which we are acting when we perform it. But any individual action can be justified by a number of different possible maxims. Accordingly, we could reach the conclusion that an act is permissible or impermissible depending on the maxim that is being used to justify it.

To invoke a classic example, we might imagine that a person has come to your door and is asking where your friend is. Unbeknownst to the person at the door, you know that the reason that she is asking is because she is a murderer who wants to kill your friend. You know where your friend is, and know that if you tell the murderer his location, she will certainly kill him. You also know that if you lie, nothing bad will happen to you, and that your friend will be able to escape with his life. What should you do?

On one hand, you can consider the maxim, "Whenever I can promote the outcomes I desire by lying, I will do so." We can imagine that if everyone adopted this maxim, no one would ever accept anyone's word for anything, and there would never be any occasion to lie in the first place. Such a maxim would simply make no sense as a universal law. On the other hand, as Christine Korsgaard points out in her essay, "The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil," it would not be absurd for everyone to adopt a maxim by which they would lie in order to keep a murderer from her victim. Here we might imagine the maxim to be "Whenever I can prevent someone from murdering a person by lying, and I know that no other negative consequences will occur on account of my actions, I will lie."

This brings into focus an important problem, however. The fact that a particular maxim is unacceptable for justifying a particular action does not mean that there is no acceptable maxim which could justify it. So it could be that an action is morally permissible, even if we can show how a number of maxims which could justify it are unacceptable. This becomes a problem for Stefan in a number of different places in his book, where he seems to try to argue that certain actions are morally impermissible by rejecting particular maxims on which they could be based.

For instance, returning to the soldier example, Stefan wrote:
If, to save the virtue of the soldiers, I alter my theory to argue that it is moral for people to murder if someone else tells them to (a political leader, say), then I must deal with the problem of universality. If Politician A can order a soldier to murder an Iraqi, then the Iraqi must also be able to order the soldier to murder Politician A, and the soldier can also order Politician A to murder the Iraqi. The application of this theory results in a general and amoral paralysis, and thus is proven invalid.

This is fine, but as I've noted before, it does not prove that soldiers are wrong in killing people (murder is a bad word to use here, because the definition of the word "murder" is "wrongful killing," and therefore it is conceptually impossible for murder to be permissible). It only proves that soldiers' killing people cannot be justified by the maxim in question. It is logically possible that there is some other maxim which would justify soldiers' actions.

And indeed, such a maxim is not too difficult to come up with. One example would be the maxim, "Whenever I have declared myself to be a combatant of a particular group in a universally recognized manner, and I can kill a recognized combatant of another group who has not surrendered in a universally recognized manner, I will do so." That maxim could be adopted as a universal law without any contradiction that I can think of. But if this is the case, then how is the maxim-based approach supposed to serve as a moral guide? It might seem like any time we come across an action that cannot be justified by a particular maxim, the most we would be able to say is that we simply aren't sure if it's permissible or not. In order to effectively put Stefan's methodology to work, we need a way to determine what the right maxim is.

This problem is brought into focus by another factor in the equation, known as the Principle of Formal Equality. This principle states that in order to treat two things as ethically different, there must be a ethically significant difference between them. We have already seen evidence that Stefan accepts this principle, when he wrote:
Just as a theory of physics must apply to all matter, a moral theory that claims to describe the preferable actions of mankind must apply to all mankind. No moral theory can be valid if it argues that a certain action is right in Syria, but wrong in San Francisco. It cannot say that Person A must do X, but Person B must never do X. It cannot say that what was wrong yesterday is right today - or vice versa. If it does, it is false and must be refined or discarded.

The implication here is that being located in Syria as opposed to San Francisco cannot represent an ethically significant difference between two scenarios; being Person A instead of Person B is not a morally relevant way to distinguish a circumstance; taking place today instead of tomorrow cannot matter to an ethical theory. For example, notice that the maxim, "Whenever it is May 6, 2008, and I am Danny Shahar, and I can steal a pen from the University Book Store without anyone ever noticing, I will do so," could be adopted as a universal law without coming into any sort of contradiction with anything. But surely that doesn't mean that it would be okay for me to steal the pen. The Principle of Formal Equality helps us explain why: the maxim I've offered is unacceptable because it only works because of distinctions that aren't morally relevant in any way.

However, as we have seen, maxims can coherently contain certain distinctions which allow them to apply only to actions which occur in specific circumstances. So, for example, I am justified in killing in self-defense when I'm being attacked, even though there are other scenarios in which I'm not justified in killing people. What is needed, then, is an account of what kinds of features of a set of circumstances are morally relevant. If we had such an account, we could conceivably come up with a proper description of the set of circumstances in which your action was taking place, and then determine whether the maxim based on that set of circumstances could be acceptably adopted as universal law.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, Stefan doesn't provide any such account. And perhaps more unfortunately, no one else has either. Until someone does, it seems like any maxim-based approach to ethics is going to be hampered by the Maxim Description Problem. Annnnddd...that's part of the reason why I take a rights-based approach to ethics! [Added later: turns out rights-based approaches to ethics aren't that great either :-P]

So that's one problem with Stefan's view. When I get a chance, I'll try to touch on some more problems in future posts. But for now, I hope this was helpful!

34 comments:

Stewart said...

You're a curious one, Danny. You have put a pretty hefty amount of effort into writing and conversing with others about Stefan's little book. And throughout the process you've repeated that you aren't trying to argue with him, or disprove him, but rather to simply understand what he's written.

I'm having a little trouble believing that, though. What I mean is not that you are lying, but that your motive is totally unclear to me. If someone referred me to a self-published philosophy book which was difficult to understand, and whose author was so plainly evasive, I don't think I would spend a lot of time on it as a subject of serious investigation. Admittedly, I have invested some of my own time on doing exactly that, but I will freely admit to having something of an emotional involvement in that.

Did you have high expectations going into this? That would explain your continuous effort, for sure, but your earliest writings on the subject just don't evoke in me a sense of optimism when I read them. What am I missing?

Danny Shahar said...

Well here's the thing. I'm a libertarian, and I have a serious interest in the progress and integrity of the libertarian movement. And the fact of the matter is that Stefan Molyneux is a very important part of the libertarian movement, whether or not he deserves to be. Unfortunately, because Stefan is so far outside the mainstream of academia, he can pretty much say whatever he wants and not be taken to task for it. So you have this odd situation where one of the people that influences a huge proportion of the libertarian movement's members is not a part of the conversation that the rest of the libertarian movement is having.

Now, if Stefan's ideas are good, then ultimately I don't care. But if Stefan's ideas are flawed, and I think they very well may be, then someone should point it out. It needn't be done angrily, and Stefan's character and intelligence need not be called into question. But if Stefan is wrong, it would be a good thing if someone would sit down and hammer out an explanation of why. Just so it's out there.

Because no one has done that, I think it would be a useful way to spend some of my free time, which I likely would otherwise spend having arguments about other things anyway. I'd like to think I'm doing something that's a little valuable and important, in a time in my career when I don't have very many ways to do valuable and important things with as little effort as this requires.

The other component of this is that I'm having fun with the whole process. I admit that it's exciting for people to know who I am and to read what I write, even if they're paying far more attention to the stuff that I do for fun than the stuff I'm really serious about. It's cool to be an important player in a debate that clearly inspires so much interest, and to feel like I'm giving form to ideas that haven't been expressed publicly in a coherent, unified manner before. Is that arrogant and narcissistic? Perhaps. But hopefully not in a bad way!

Of course, I would be lying if I denied that there's also the component expressed so eloquently in this comic: http://xkcd.com/386/

LiberatingMinds said...

thanks for writing down some things I wasn't able to write down or even think clearly Stewart. I had wondered about similar stuff, although in a more primitive and confused and blurry kind of way.

I'm not sure btw how important Molyneux is in the libertarian movement. I mean, compare him to Ron Paul's influence, to the Mises Institute's influence, to Reason's, Independent Institute's etc. etc.

Now that he has been either implicitly or explicitly banned from LewRockwell.com (I believe for insulting Mises and Rothbard and Long) it will also be way harder for him to draw people to his site. To be sure, the # of visitors to FDR will continue to grow for quite some time, even if only because since there are more and more podcasts and articles and posts search engines will find him more often, but this does not mean a corresponding growth of influence.

his primary target group will remain vulnerable young people who are somewhat intelligent and independently thinking individuals but not *too* intelligent or independently thinking.

I don't know, Rand's books were noted and praised by giants like Mises and Rothbard. But not a single contemporary giant has praised Stefan's books.

LiberatingMinds said...

that's a great cartoon that you link to there Danny.

LiberatingMinds said...

as an illustration, a former FDR'er after he had turned his back on FDR or was banned once asked Jeff Tucker of the Mises Institute what he thought of Stefan Molyneux, and Tucker replied 'Stefan who?'

LiberatingMinds said...

also, Stefan is no longer taken seriously at this libertarian e-mail group that includes quite a few prominent libertarians. So if the name 'Stefan Molyneux' ever comes up among prominent libertarians and one of the people posting in that e-mail group is in the room then he will likely dismiss Stef as a wacko who is full of himself but who can't rationally discuss things.

this fucntions as a great barrier for Stef to be taken seriously by the libertarian scholarly community

LiberatingMinds said...

oh, this is what Stef writes in his new book (p.59) 'Potential academics have in my experience been irredeemably hostile to what I do because it puts them in an exquisitely tortuous position (this is particularly the case with my book “Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics”).'

i reckon he is here talking about both Danny, Stewart and me.

LiberatingMinds said...

'If you have gotten this far in this book, I can tell at least a few things about you. Obviously,
you are curious and open-minded, and largely un-offended by original arguments, as long
as they at least strive for rationality. I strongly doubt that you are in academia – or if you
are, I fully expect lengthy, obtuse and condescending attacks on my arguments to appear in
my inbox, or on your blog, within a few hours.
Potential academics have in my experience been irredeemably hostile to what I do because
it puts them in an exquisitely tortuous position (this is particularly the case with my book
“Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics”).
Wannabe academics have to believe that they are motivated by the pursuit of truth, not of
tenure. Given that they have to ingratiate themselves with their academic masters, they
must also believe that their professors are motivated by the pursuit of truth as well, not of
power, salary and tenure. We can honorably submit ourselves to a moral teacher; we
cannot honorably submit ourselves to an amoral teacher.'

all this of course far from exclude the simple possiblity that Stef's book is not well received because it simply makes no sense

Stewart said...

Thanks, Danny. That makes more sense to me now. I think I share LM's uncertainly about just how influential Molyneux really is, but it's fair to say that he's grabbed some attention for himself.

... And I knew exactly what XKCD comic that was going to be before I even clicked the link :)

Danny Shahar said...

Liberating Minds, I agree that Stefan's influence is limited with regard to libertarian academia, research and policy analysis. But his podcast is among the most popular in the world, and quite a few people who are considering libertarianism go through him at one point or another. You suggest that his influence may be limited circles where individuals have less background in libertarian thought, and that may well be true. Nevertheless, I think that in terms of sheer numbers of people influenced, Stefan still qualifies as an important figure.

I'm not quite clear on what part of your latter points were quotations of Stefan or your own opinions, but I would consider myself to be within academia, and intend to pursue a career teaching philosophy at the college level. I hope I haven't been irredeemably hostile. I would point out that Stefan would be in an odd place to criticize the incentives of professors, given the way he funds his work.

LiberatingMinds said...

hey Danny, it's Conrad btw. The last post was a fragment from Stef's book, where he talks about people in academia, not my own opinion. hell, I'm working on a career in academia myself

Danny Shahar said...

Ah okay, that makes much more sense.

Steve said...

You quote Molyneux as follows:

"If 'rape' is a moral good, then 'not raping' must be a moral evil. . . ."

It is incorrect to say that an action is necessarily morally opposite to its non-action counterpart. For instance, I am not automatically a good person because I do not rape. Rather, not being a rapist is morally neutral.

Danny Shahar said...

According to Stefan's view, as I understand it, any inflicted behavior must be either morally good (in which case it is always obligatory) or morally bad (in which case it is always forbidden). By that standard, we'd either need to say that rape is obligatory or forbidden.

But we wouldn't need to say that "non-rape" is morally good, since non-rape is not an inflicted behavior. That is, rape could be forbidden without making any specific claim about the moral status of the non-rapist.

Not having reread the original post before writing this response, I wonder, was there anything specific that I said which led you to make this point?

Steve said...

Danny,

I heard about your blog on the LiberatingMinds forum, but I am not familiar with Stefan Molyneux apart from his articles on LRC and a few other sites.

The passage I quoted simply struck me as a false dichotomy.

Consider the same reasoning, but with a different activity:

"If stopping to help a motorist to change a flat tire is a moral good, then not stopping must be a moral evil. . . ."

Yet driving past a stranded motorist isn't exactly evil. It may be selfish, but not evil. It's closer to moral neutrality.

Another example: charity? Charity can be considered good, but what about those who do not contribute or who contribute but do not have enough wealth to justify helping every worthy charity case (this would include everybody with surplus wealth)?

Molyneux's example would be stronger if he cited true opposites (as you acknowledge in your response to me in your use of the adjective "inflicted"). Thus, the opposite of rape is not non-rape but the active prevention of rape (e.g., through intervention). And the opposite of helping a stranded motorist would be to actively strand him. The opposite of giving a few dollars to a starving child in Africa would be to actively harm him. I think Molyneux should have compared opposite actions; not actions vs. non-actions.

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks for the interest, Steve. I think that Stefan is relying on a logical distinction between a thing and its negation, rather than between a thing and its opposite. Often, the negation of a thing can be its opposite (dark, for example, is both the opposite and the negation of light). But as you point out, this is not always the case. Some things don't have clear "opposites;" I'm not sure that even actively preventing rape is the opposite of rape (perhaps being raped is the opposite of raping?).

Stefan's position on the flat tire example is that it is simply not within the realm of morality, as he defines it. Helping the guy change his tire is not inflicting something upon him, and neither is not helping him. So the question would be an "aesthetic" issue. Stefan would need to deny, then, that helping the guy is morally good. And in doing so, he could respond to your objection that not helping him would need to be morally bad. The same applies to charity.

Nima Mahdjour said...

Here is my stab at a coherent interpretation of this admittedly confusing book: http://www.economicsjunkie.com/universally-preferable-behaviour-a-rational-proof-of-secular-ethics/

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