Friday, January 4, 2008

TMP 10: UPB: The Practice

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

It's funny how things have slowed down. Stefan's writing style hasn't really changed since the beginning of the book; it's still enthusiastic and fast-paced. But I think I'm starting to realize why more philosophers (including myself!) don't write this way. You simply can't state your ideas clearly enough if you're running all over the place and not explaining every part of your argument thoroughly before moving on. But then again, that's "not clearly enough" in the sense that it's difficult to rigorously analyze Stefan's argument because of all the things you have to keep in mind. If I were a non-philosopher casually reading this book, I'm sure there wouldn't be any problem.

Anyway, Stefan's next section made me a little uncomfortable. It doesn't seem like Stefan is using it to actually advance his moral theory, but rather to explain how moral theories in general are supposed to work. Still, there are some questionable ideas littered in it, and I wonder if they'll be leaned on later. And by "some," I mean that I don't think Stefan writes more than a few unobjectionable things in this section.

On page 44, Stefan 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." The proper analogy here would be, "If even one person proves immune to morality, my theory is in trouble." And Stefan need not worry about this, because he has defined morality as something along the lines of "What behaviors are necessary for all people to enact if they want to achieve their ends (or "proper" ends, I'm still not sure)." No one can possibly be immune to morality, so defined, because such an immunity would entail the following assertion: "There exists an individual who can achieve her ends (or "proper" ends) without doing what is necessary to achieve her ends (or "proper" ends)." Clearly this is false, because it contradicts itself. If an individual could achieve the ends without using the means in question, then the behavior wouldn't be preferable (never mind universally preferable). If the behavior were preferable, then the individual wouldn't be able to achieve the ends. So far, so good.

Stefan doesn't proceed this way. What he offers instead is a claim which is technically true, but sort of irrelevant. He writes, "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." In saying this, Stefan is correct. But I think Stefan means to imply that soldiers are not exempt from the rule, which does not follow. What does follow is that if soldiers are exempt, then the moral theory is false. If someone can show that a soldier can achieve his ends (or "proper" ends) by murdering, then it is not true that all people should avoid murder. And that's fine, but it doesn't get Stefan anywhere.

Stefan then writes, "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." Of course, the negation of "All people should not murder" is not "All people should murder." It is rather, "Avoidance of murder is not a universally preferable behavior." But Stefan's example is still not wrong, because it would be difficult to see how one could argue that murdering is necessary for achieving everyone's ends (or "proper" ends).

Stefan's next point is slightly more worrisome, but not irreparably so. Stefan writes, "If, to save the virtue of 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." Stefan doesn't actually show that such a moral code wouldn't work. One can imagine that it would be difficult to imagine how such a moral code would be necessary for everyone to achieve any coherent ends, never mind their own or the proper ones. But as a moral theory, its structure isn't bad.

Another question arises from the double standard being used; is there a fundamental difference between the soldier and the politician that could justify making a unilateral allowance for the politician's orders, while still prohibiting the Iraqi and the soldier from making similar orders? An example which comes to mind is that of a Zen master, armed with a stick, whacking one of his students for an indiscretion. In the context of the Zen school, it's perfectly acceptable for the master to whack the student, though it would be unacceptable for the student to whack another student, or to whack the master. I'm not sure that anything similar could be said about the politician and the soldier, but it's not logically impossible that something like it couldn't be fabricated without failing the universality test.

Finally, if after all of this, we still don't want to accept the moral claim that "It is moral for people to murder if someone else tells them to," it doesn't follow that murder is wrong, or that people should not murder. It only follows that the particular theory in question is wrong.

The next step, I think, is the first obvious candidate for "This is the statement that deals the fatal blow to Stefan's argument, and he never recovers from it" (I'm not saying that Stefan doesn't recover, because I haven't read the whole book; rather, I'm predicting that if I reject Stefan's argument, I will be able to look back at this statement as the turning point). Stefan writes, "I also cannot logically argue that it is wrong for some people to murder, but right for other people to murder. Since all human beings share common physical properties and requirements, proposing one rule for one person and the opposite rule for another is invalid - it is like proposing a physics theory that says that some rocks fall down, while others fall up. Not only is it illogical, it contradicts an observable fact of reality, which is that human beings as a species share common characteristics, and so cannot be subjected to opposing rules."

I wonder whether I actually need to write why this is false, but I've come too far not to. Stefan's theory of morality is based on the concept of what is necessary for people. In this context, saying that something is "wrong" for some individual means that it is incompatible with a given end, and to say that it is "right" is to say that it is necessary for the attainment of the end, and to say that it's "neither right nor wrong" is to say that the individual could achieve the end either by using the means in question, or by using some other means. As far as people can have different ends, it is clear that what is right for one person can very well be wrong for another person. And as far as some people can use some means for achieving certain ends, whereas other people wouldn't be able to use those means, it's also possible for a means to be right for one person and wrong for another.

Stefan denies the possibility of both of these when he says "...all human beings share common physical properties and requirements..." But this is so obviously not true that it's almost impossible to see why Stefan would say it. All human beings do not share common physical properties and requirements. I am 6'1" tall and 160 lbs. My sister comes up to about my shoulders, and weighs a whole lot less than I do. My roommate is a little taller, and maybe a little heavier. I like spicy food, but my roommate can handle spicier, whereas my sister can't handle spicy food at all. If I am to be happy, I need to be around people who like to have abstract philosophical discussions. My roommate has some stomach for them; my sister has no patience for them at all. So what the crap is Stefan talking about? I have no idea.

[The preceding point might have been made too quickly, so I'll try to summarize. Stefan says that all humans have common physical properties, requirements, and more generally, common characteristics. He claims that as a result of this fact, what is right or wrong for one person must be right or wrong for everyone. My contention is that in a wide variety of ways, humans don't all have common characteristics, and that therefore, Stefan can't justify saying that the same things are right and wrong for everyone. In retrospect, however, I should point out that the only justification that Stefan has given us for calling something "right" or "wrong" is whether or not it's preferable. If Stefan wants to say that a right action is right for all people, and the same for wrong actions, then he can coherently do so by saying that something is only right if it is universally preferable, and wrong if it is universally preferable that it be avoided. But if we do this, we have to remember that Stefan hasn't given us a good reason to think of universal preferability as being related to morality as we commonly think of it. So we face the very real risk that we're simply redefining "right" and "wrong" to refer to things that don't have anything to do with right and wrong as we commonly think of them.]

Stefan's next step is less worrisome, because it doesn't imply that Stefan is going to wrong for the rest of the book, but still extremely worrisome, because it's obviously wrong. On the beginning of page 45, he writes, "...if my moral theory "proves" that the same man should not murder one day, but should murder the next day (say, when he steps out onto the Iraqi desert), then my position is even more ludicrous." Again, huh? Why is that a problem? Stefan offers the following explanation: "Since valid theories require logical consistency, a moral theory cannot be valid if it is both true and false at the same time." But the moral theory just mentioned doesn't say that anything is true and false at the same time. It says that something is true at one time, and false at another. Take the following examples:

1) "It is light outside now, but it will be dark in several hours."
2) "I am not hungry now, and eating would make me feel sick, so I shouldn't eat. In a few hours, I will be hungry again, and eating will make me feel good, so I should eat in a few hours."
3) "I am in America right now, and am surrounded by civilians. If I killed one, it would certainly be detrimental to my pursuit of my ends. But tomorrow, I'll be in Iraq, surrounded by people trying to kill me. If I kill them, I'll be acting perfectly consistently with my ends. Therefore, I should not murder today, but I should do so tomorrow."

There's no problem here at all.

Stefan's next example is an entertaining one, because it reminds me a lot of Objectivist writing. Amusingly, if Stefan had comprehended this Objectivist literature, he would know why he shouldn't have written what he did. [NOTE: I am not an Objectivist in any sense of the word; I keep talking about Objectivism because of the obvious parallels with what Stefan is trying to do here, and because Objectivists have, on rare occasions, said some really smart things which are original to their movement, and deserve to be recognized as such.] The first part of the point isn't very interesting, because it basically fails to recall that Stefan defined morality as necessary behavior, and therefore any moral theory which would define stealing as preferable, even though no one would choose to do it, would suppose everyone to be too stupid to choose the necessary means. If this were the case, mankind would be doomed, and that would be that; not a philosophical issue. [I realize I didn't actually include the passage I'm talking about here...oops! Stefan writes, "Since moral theories require logical consistency, a moral theory cannot be valid if it is both true and false at the same time. A moral theory that approves of stealing, for instance, faces an insurmountable logical problem. No moral theory should, if it is universally applied, directly eliminate behaviour it defines as moral while simultaneously creating behaviour it defines as immoral. If everyone should steal, then no one will steal - which means that the moral theory can never be practiced. And why will no one steal? Well, because a man will only steal if he can keep the property he is stealing. He's not going to bother stealing a wallet if someone else is going to immediately steal that wallet from him."]

But in the second part of Stefan's point, he writes, "Any moral theory proposing that "stealing is good" is also automatically invalid because it posits that property rights are both valid and invalid at the same time, and so fails the test of logical consistency. If I steal from you, I am saying that your property rights are invalid. However, I want to keep what I am stealing - and therefore I am saying that my property rights are valid. However, property rights cannot be both valid and invalid at the same time." As I mentioned before, this is an amusing thing to say, and here's why. To say that "stealing is good" is to borrow the term "steal" from the ethical framework of property rights, which defines stealing as a violation of rights, and therefore as "bad." If one wants to justify what we would normally call "stealing," one simply can't use the word "stealing."

What one could say is that the ethical system of property rights is wrong, and that there is no such thing as stealing. There is only taking another person's possessions without their permission. And without the framework of property rights to lean on, there's nothing obviously wrong with doing this. It wouldn't follow that all people should take others' possessions without their permission, but it might follow that all people whose ends would be satisfied by such takings should engage in them. There are Rule Utilitarian and Kantian reasons why such a moral code would be wrong, but Stefan has no right to those reasons, since he's defined morality in terms of necessity, and not in terms of utility or respect for individuality.

Stefan's next point is also objectionable. He writes, "Rape can never be moral, since any principle that approves it automatically contradicts itself. If rape is justified on the principle that "taking pleasure is always good," then such a principle fails the test of logical consistency, since the rapist may be "taking pleasure," but his victim certainly is not." But this is a hasty generalization. It's true that the principle "taking pleasure is always good" does not justify rape. But the principle "engaging in actions which could advance one's genetic code is always good" might (not all rape, but some), and it has no logical inconsistency. There are other reasons to reject it (it certainly isn't a moral rule in Stefan's sense, because I can't see why one would say that it's required), to be sure, but Stefan's argument amounts to saying, "There is no such thing as an apple, because this pencil is not an apple."

As far as Stefan's ultimate conclusion goes, these mistakes might not prove fatal. Stefan finishes the section on page 46 by writing that "...moral theories must be subjected to the rigours of logic and evidence, just as theories of physics and biology are. Any moral theory based on non-universal or self-contradictory principles is demonstrably false." This is not problematic. And if that's all Stefan wanted to prove in this section, it doesn't really matter that his examples were all really bad. As we said earlier, Stefan has defined universally preferable behavior, and therefore morality, as that which is necessary for all people to achieve their ends (or "proper" ends). That moral theories must conform to logic and evidence is uncontroversial in this light. So perhaps there's still hope. But if Stefan plans to use the kind of thinking that he demonstrated here to arrive at his conclusions, there are going to be a lot of problems.


mcmikemn said...

I can understand a lot, but I'm not very good at originating ideas. It is common for me to read or hear something and agree with it because it seems logical, but then later to read or hear something else that is logical that refutes the first thing.

This is the case here. I have not read Stef's book (and won't), but I have heard and read many of his ideas, arguments, and examples in podcasts and articles. Usually they make sense and seem logical. Sometimes (maybe as much as half the time?) I get the feeling that something isn't right, but I don't know what. I can tell that there is something illogical about his statement, but I can't figure out what it is.

And this is the reason I enjoy this post (and some others) so much. You provide the logical example that I understand and that refutes the previous seemingly logical statement I have heard. Your language, examples, and explanations are clear and simple.

Thanks again.

I realize that, by definition of my own problem, it is certainly possible that someone - including Stef - could now enter my world with a logical refutation of your statements and I might understand them and them realize a flaw in your logic that I didn't fathom before. So be it - that's who I am. But for now, your statements seem to refute his.

Danny Shahar said...

Though I'm glad you agree, I'm not completely certain exactly what it is you agree with. I would emphasize that you keep in mind your point about Stefan potentially having perfectly good responses to my arguments, and I would add that Stefan's conclusions don't necessarily depend on us accepting everything he says. I would also suggest that if you're going to draw any conclusions about Stefan's arguments, you might want to actually read the book, and not rely only on my interpretation. I'm glad to be helpful, though! Thanks for reading!

mcmikemn said...

Of course you are right: I should not draw conclusions about what Stef says without knowing what Stef says. But I'm not drawing conclusions about what you say Stef has said. I'm drawing conclusions about what I have heard Stef say elsewhere (e.g., in podcasts, videos, and articles) about the same topic. My point was merely that, in the past when I have heard Stef make some claims, I thought "this seems logical, I accept it," and now, when reading your critique, I think "this seems logical, I accept it and reject what I accepted before."

Danny Shahar said...

Well then I'm glad to know I helped!

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