Friday, December 28, 2007

TMP 1: From the Beginning to Part I

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

The first thing that strikes me about this book is that it's written with so much enthusiasm that one can't help but feel excited about it. And better still, it's written with the kind of enthusiasm that doesn't come across as pretentious and arrogant, which is an accomplishment in itself. But possibly the best part about the book so far is that it isn't written with the kind of reckless abandon that characterizes some of the other attempts at doing what Stefan is doing. He actually takes into account some of the most obvious objections to his points, and structures his arguments to respond to them. How refreshing in the work of a non-academic philosopher!

So far I have two objections to what I've read. The first is that Stefan bites off more than he can chew with his forays into metaphysics. I really don't think that this is going to create serious problems for his overall argument, but it will create problems with his ability to appeal to legitimate philosophers. For example, on page 14, he writes, "No sane man experiences God directly. In his daily life, he fully accepts that that which cannot be perceived does not exist. No reasonable man flinches every time he takes a step, fearing an invisible wall that might be barring his way. The greatest abstractions of science support his approach." To be honest, I'm very surprised to see Stefan write this, because I know that he has a background in the history of philosophy, and so I would expect him to know why this is a really bad thing for him to be saying.

My point is not to try and nitpick. It's clear that Stefan isn't trying to write a book about metaphysics. I guess I'm just trying to suggest that maybe Stefan should stick to the task at hand, and reign in some of his tangents. Not because they detract from the strength of his argument as much as because an academic philosopher would have trouble taking the rest of the book seriously after reading them. And I think that would be a shame, because I don't think these metaphysical ideas are going to end up being very important to the main argument.

The second objection I have is to Stefan's discussion of the "null zone." I fear that unlike the metaphysical difficulties I just discussed, the fundamental problem with this discussion is going to have major implications for Stefan's argument later on. Unfortunately, Stefan reasons from "small truths" to "great truths" in a manner similar to scientific induction, but fails to acknowledge one of the most serious problems faced by inductive reasoning, so that his conclusion is easily discarded.

The problem is this: When inducing a general principle from a set of observations, it is critical that the principle extend no further than to those phenomena which are substantively similar to the members of the observation set. We will call this problem by one of its common names: the fallacy of hasty generalization. Stefan belies ignorance of this problem when, on page 13, he writes, "The idea that the world is immobile is an incorrect assumption that contradicts the direct evidence of our sense, which is that everything falls." I was hoping that Stefan didn't mean "fall" in the typical sense of the word, which means to move in the same direction as gravity is pulling, but in light of his later mistake, I'm not so sure. Clearly we do not usually say that a helium balloon falls when it is dropped, nor does a suspended object. But Stefan could defend himself if he meant "Moved in accordance with the influence of all external and internal forces," or "Followed its natural course of movement, as conceived of in terms of space-time," or something similar.

However, the fallacy of hasty generalization is not confined to this one instance. On page 14, for example, Stefan writes, "If a private man is paid to murder another man, we call him a "gun for hire," and condemn him as a hit man. If, however, this man puts on a green costume with certain ribbons and commits the same act, we hail him as a hero and reward him with a pension. The little truth (I should not murder) is perfectly consistent with the great truth (murder is wrong) - yet in the middle there lies a "null zone," where murder magically becomes "virtuous.""

There are at least two ways to demonstrate that this reasoning is faulty. First, we can attack part of his claim. Stefan writes that a soldier commits the same act as a hit man, but it is clear that if a soldier did what a hit man does, he would be guilty of immorality. That is, if a soldier murdered an innocent civilian who had not threatened him in any way, then we would likely condemn him as a murderer. It is only when a soldier commits murder in a particular sort of way that we laud him as a hero. And incidentally, most civilians would be lauded as equally heroic if they murdered in the same way that a soldier does. The American Revolutionary War provides a fine example of this.

The second route to exposing the problem with Stefan's logic focuses directly on his hasty generalization. Stefan starts with the set of observations that it would never be acceptable for a civilian to murder another civilian, and reasons that therefore, it would be wrong for a soldier to murder another soldier. But this doesn't follow. The same argument could be made to say that in all of our observations of rocks being dropped, we heard the thump of a rock on the ground, so therefore we should hear the same thump when we drop a balloon. The fallacy should be obvious.

None of this should be taken to suggest that Stefan is wrong in saying that soldiers are murderers. Perhaps they are. But Stefan relies on inconsistency in people's thinking in order to show that this is the case, and there is no such inconsistency. Rather, I can think of two factors which could be at play. First, people could consider soldiers to be substantively different than civilians. Second, people could consider the act of murder in war to be substantively different than the kind of murder that is objectionable. I do not wish to suggest that the first possibility is false, but I would contend that the second possibility is true. By putting on a uniform, one acknowledges that he is a soldier, and is willing to murder anyone else wearing a uniform of the opposing side. As long as this is clear, then it seems uncontroversial to say that there is a substantive difference between the act of a hit man and the act of a soldier.

Stefan sets himself up for the same problem when, on page 19, he suggests that taxation is wrong because theft is wrong. Incidentally, I'm not sure I can think of a reason why taxation might be justified, and so I can't think of a distinction that would establish the innocence of taxation without begging the question. That is, I would have to rely on some premise that would be no less controversial than the justice of taxation. For example, I couldn't argue that "Taxation is different from theft because government agents represent the interests of the people who they are taxing," because in a non-voluntarist state, it is not clear that the government is justified in ruling over the people who it would be taxing. If anything, this illustrates an important point about the problem with induction to which Stefan has fallen victim: A fallacious line of reasoning does not automatically lead to a false conclusion, it is simply invalid as an argument in favor of the conclusion. So perhaps a soldier is a murderer, and a tax agent a thief, but these conclusions are not entailed by Stefan's argument.

Aside from these objections, I enjoyed the beginning portion of the book. It was fun to read, and well laid out. I must admit, though, that I'm somewhat apprehensive about the chapters to come; I really do hope that the hasty generalization discussed above doesn't ruin the whole book!


Anonymous said...

I don't think you're right about the perception of soldiers. Consider that a war is necessary for soldiers to murder and be considered heroes. And starting a war generally requires invasion or bullying the other guys into invading.

The killing done by a solider is more likened to me going over to my neighbor's house, waving a gun around, maybe even shooting his dog, then claiming "self-defense" when he retaliates and I kill him in his home.

Or me threatening my neighbor's safety or livelihood until he comes over to my property to confront me, whereupon I kill him, again in "self-defense."

The thing with war and other geo-political events is that the antecedents are often occluded and difficult to suss out, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

Anonymous said...

Additionally, why would changing clothes simply be adequate warning for murderous intent?

If me and my friends put on eyeshadow, and called it our "warpaint" would it justify our killing people who wore berets? Does the number of people going along with the process matter? What if there were thousands of us? What if it was only me?

What if we warned everyone first that our wearing eyeshadow gave us the right to kill people in berets, would that make it right?

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks for the comments! I think you're right to point out that I didn't completely flesh out the conditions that would need to be met in order for a soldier's actions to be legitimate (I hesitate to use the word "murder" because the word is simply wrong by definition: murder is "wrongful killing"). I don't think there are very many situations where one could justify invading a group's property with weapons, and so it's dubious whether a soldier would ever actually be justified in killing someone. But perhaps one might imagine a situation like Darfur, in which a number of people has clearly acted in such a way as to identify themselves as combatants for a certain group, and are brutalizing and murdering innocent people. So far as we have a right to intervene to protect the rights of others when they are being clearly and grossly violated, we might imagine a group of people arming themselves and setting out to stop these combatants' unjust actions. And I think that if there were a threat posed to them by the people who they were going to stop, then they would be justified in using force if they deemed it necessary to their cause.

Are these people not soldiers? Are they "violent protectors of justice"? If in every situation where violent intervention would be justified, the interveners are not called soldiers, then it's clear that soldiers would never be justified in using violence in any manner besides those manners that would be legitimate for everyone else (self-defense being the obvious example). But that's just as clearly an artifact of the definition of what it means to be a soldier.

As for the issue of identifying oneself as a soldier, I agree that it can't simply be a matter of declaring anything at all to be a sign of "combatant-dom", and then feeling free to kill anyone with the sign. Eye shadow is a great example of why that would be an absurd position. But that's not a moral problem, it's a knowledge problem. If soldiers cannot be identified as soldiers, then it's unclear that you are justified in killing anyone. That was the problem in Vietnam. But that doesn't mean that you wouldn't be justified in killing the soldiers if you could identify them. So if someone were dressed up in a military uniform, walking down the street with a gun shouting "If I see a soldier from the other side, I will kill her," then as a soldier, who had identified herself as well, it seems reasonable to me that one would be justified in killing them first.

If any problem is raised by this, it's the question of whether a situation could exist in which an "invading force" was justified, and yet the "defending force" was also justified in defending itself against the attack. I'm not sure what to say about that one. If the answer is that there could not be such a situation, then we wouldn't need the "soldier" distinction at all in order to justify killing: the "defenders" would simply be individuals who would be obligated to submit to the invading force, and by defending themselves they would only be provoking a self-defense reaction on the part of the "invaders", who were acting in a manner that's perfectly consistent with their rights.

In any case, you're not going to come up with the answer that "killing is always wrong". The interesting thing about Stefan's theory is that it's structured in such a way that the normal way to show that killing is not always wrong (self-defense) is excluded from the discussion on account of its not being an inflicted behavior, and so cannot be subject to ethical evaluation. So it therefore becomes necessary to look for an instance in which killing would be permissible where it wasn't self-defense, and there really aren't many instances like that. It occurs to me now that one might want to exclude situations like the one discussed above, since the "defenders" could have easily avoided being subject to the invaders' legitimate use of force, and so that case might also fall outside of the realm of ethics. It might seem, then, that we can't come up with an example in which inflicting death upon someone is justified (though killing could be in cases where doing so fell outside of the realm of "inflicted behavior"). But that wouldn't be a product of any absoluteness in moral rules in general. It would only be an artifact of the particularly serious nature of killing: other inflicted behaviors (like stealing, initiating physical contact or force, trespass, destruction of property, etc.) can certainly be justified in some circumstances.

Does that make sense, or have I missed the point?

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