Sunday, December 30, 2007

TMP 3: From Ethics to Preferences

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

Stefan was kind enough to send me a new link to his book, and so I'm back in business. I'm getting the impression that I'm starting into the meat of the book, and so I'm going to probably end up doing a lot of summarizing so that I can seek clarification of Stefan's ideas in my own mind. Hopefully these analyses will prove helpful for people who might get hung up on some of the points in this section, because they do come at you rather quickly.

On page 30, it seems like the word "eating" should be "nutrient intake." Otherwise, Stefan's point would be obviously false. That is, if we desire survival, and it is preferable to eat, then it is just as preferable to drink smoothies or swallow nutrient pills or inject oneself with an IV. If "preferable" means "required," as Stefan insists on page 32, then it's clear that eating is not preferable. You do not need to ever eat anything in order to survive. If Stefan said that "nutrient intake" is preferable, though, the problem would vanish (if we bio-engineered ourselves full of chlorophyll, that might even be too loosely stated).

In light of that recognition, it's clear that no particular means need be "preferable;" so long as the chosen means is capable of achieving the desired end, it would be acceptable. Accordingly, we can identify Stefan's point as a negative one. As stated, it doesn't entail anything about what means must be chosen, but it does imply something about means which should not be chosen. If I want to achieve the end of surviving, then I should not choose a means which negates one or more of the necessary conditions for survival. That is, I shouldn't starve myself. Doing so would directly cause the negation of my desired end.

This, of course, seems to require qualification which Stefan doesn't immediately provide (though I'm sure he'll address it later). Individual ends can conflict with other ends, and often we are forced to incur opportunity costs when we make choices. That is, I might want to go scuba diving, but doing so would make me too tired to go dancing later in the night. I might still want to go scuba diving, but I'll incur the cost of missing out on dancing later. So clearly, we would want to make an exception for cases like these. Even if I want to go dancing, it might still be the case that I should go scuba diving (which will make it impossible for me to go dancing), because I want to go scuba diving more. I get a counterbalancing benefit which outweighs the cost of making my night of dancing impossible.

People might say that in a case like this, I don't want to go dancing at all. But I don't think this is right. I think I do want to go dancing, but I am willing to sacrifice the opportunity to go dancing in order to achieve something I want more, which is the opportunity to go scuba diving. To be clear, I'm not criticizing Stefan's account by pointing this all out; I'm sure he'll point it out later, and if he doesn't for some reason, I'm sure it's because he forgot, or didn't think it necessary.

Moving on, I recoiled at Stefan's use of the word "universally," because it seems to imply that the same means can be used by everyone to achieve a particular end, or at least that a means which could only be used by some people and not by others could not be considered "universally preferable," but rather just "plain-old preferable."

An illustration might help. I have average-sized hands, with which I am able to play my guitar. However, I doubt I would be able to play a piccolo (a very small flute) with any degree of proficiency, and I know from experience that an upright string bass is a little too big for me to handle. If I wanted to master a musical instrument, it would be imprudent for me to choose a piccolo or an upright bass for my endeavor. But I might imagine someone with such tiny hands that the only instrument he could play would be the piccolo, or someone with such giant hands that the only instrument she could play would be the upright bass. So it would appear that between us, there would be no instrument which would be universally preferable for our ends.

Stefan could respond in two ways. The first would be to say that not all sets of alternatives have universally preferable options. That would be perfectly alright with me.

But more effectively, I think, he could respond that the universally preferable behavior would be to choose an instrument which correspond to the player's capacities. Accordingly, no particular means would be universally preferable (in my case, I could play the piano instead of the guitar, so in fact no instrument would even be preferable for me to choose), but the general principle would be.

This, I think, illustrates the point I made above about Stefan's principle being a negative one. It doesn't seem to directly entail anything about what we should do, but rather points out what we should not do. The statement "All people should choose an instrument which corresponds to their capacities" doesn't tell us anything about what instrument we should choose, but it does make very specific prescriptions about instruments which we should not choose. Seeing that an instrument corresponds to my capacities is not sufficient for me to choose it (both a guitar and a piano could fulfill this criterion). But seeing an instrument which does not correspond to my capacities is sufficient for me to avoid choosing it.

This interpretation is reinforced by the examples Stefan gives on page 32, which all correspond to the sorts of ideas I've discussed here. "The scientific method" is not a specific way of doing things; arsenic is something that one should not choose as a means for living; no particular theory is necessitated by adherence to internal consistency and empirical verifiability. And similarly, Stefan would want to say that truth about the world cannot be found in any way besides the scientific method, eating arsenic can not bring about life, and no theory can function in the absence of internal consistency and empirical verifiability (these claims are controversial, but it's still perfectly clear what Stefan is trying to say).

I think that's good for now. If I'm wrong about this part, I'd really like to know, because it seems like this is going to be an important building block for the rest of the book.


Brandon said...

I think that this representation of Stefan's viewpoint of UPB is a very useful restatement. One of Stefan's major views is that to be free is to have no unchosen positive obligations. I think that turning UPB into proscriptions against certain types of actions makes it much more consistent with that type of freedom. Universally Poor Behavior is a set of unchosen negative obligations which govern the ability of the human organism to flourish in the real world.

Danny Shahar said...

Sorry I didn't see this sooner, Brandon. I'm not sure where the term "Universally Poor Behavior" comes from, but conceivably it means behavior which it is universally preferable to avoid?

I'm really not sure about the concept of an "obligation" in the framework of Universally Preferable Behavior. We generally think of an obligation as something that it would be "wrong" to default on. But Stefan needs to establish that there are "proper" ends in order to arrive at the notion that it is "wrong" to behave in a "Universally Poor" manner.

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