Friday, January 4, 2008

TMP 11: From UPB: The Framework, to Murder

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

On page 48, Stefan starts out his section on Ethics and Aesthetics by defining "ethics or morality" as "enforceable preferences."

Remember when on page 40, Stefan said that "...morals are a set of rules claiming to accurately and consistently identify universally preferable human behaviour..." and then further clarified by saying, "Those preferences which can be considered binding upon others can be termed "universal preferences," or "moral rules""? When he said that, I squirmed and yelped, but he didn't explain himself. Well now it seems that by "binding," Stefan meant "enforceable."

Stefan vaguely extends the realm of morality and ethics a little bit more, writing, "Ethics is the subset of UPB which deals with inflicted behaviour, or the use of violence. Any theory that justifies or denies the use of violence is a moral theory, and is subject to the requirements of logical consistency and empirical evidence." But notice that Stefan has introduced the words "justifies" and "denies" to his vocabulary. So far, Stefan's definition of morality has hinged on what is required in order to achieve given ends. Preferable behavior, to this point, has been behavior which brings about the ends, and "wrong" behavior is, presumably, behavior which can't. To say that someone shouldn't do something, because it will bring about the negation of the desired results, does not imply anything about the justice of doing it. "Watch your cookies while they cook, or you might burn them" does not imply "If you burn your cookies, then you have acted wickedly."

To borrow the words of one of my philosophy professors, Stefan has seemingly helped himself to some common sense which he has no right to. Stefan has so far provided absolutely no reason to call anyone's actions "unjust." He can say that a certain action is "wrong," in the sense that it would be preferable to avoid it. But he has not given us any reason to suppose that what is preferable is morally good, and what is preferable to avoid is morally evil.

Let's look at Stefan's examples. First comes "irrationality." Stefan tells the story of someone who simply refuses to listen to reason, and writes, "Clearly, your response to my position is irrational. However annoying I might find your behaviour, though, it would scarcely seem reasonable for me to vent my frustration by pulling out a gun and shooting you. I believe that it is universally preferable to use logic and evidence rather than rely on voices in our heads, but this universal preference is not reasonably enforceable in the physical sense, through violence or the threat thereof."

Notice that Stefan is no longer using the terminology that he has spent the entire book trying to get us to understand. He writes that it isn't reasonable to shoot the irrational person, but is he saying that it would be preferable not to shoot her? If so, what evidence does he give for this? If we shot her, perhaps our ends would be hampered; we would have to live with the guilt of having killed someone, and others might think badly of us. But if we were incredibly annoyed, and we knew that we could completely conceal our actions, perhaps it would not be necessary for us to let the irrational person keep living her annoying life. Unless we critique the values of the person who would shoot her, it doesn't seem logically necessary that it would be preferable not to use the gun.

By Stefan's definition of morality and ethics, this issue clearly is within the realm of morality and ethics. It deals with violence, and "inflicting" preferences on others, but it doesn't give us any reason to say that shooting the victim should be "denied" or "justified." In fact, it doesn't even give us any indication of what it would mean for something to be "just" or "evil." Perhaps Stefan will explain this later.

On page 49, Stefan moves on to the next example: lying. Stefan modifies the previously mentioned story to say that we agree beforehand to obey the rules of the debate, and then the opponent goes back on his word. Stefan claims, "In the example of "lying," although you have clearly broken your word, and wasted my time, it would not seem to be either moral or reasonable for me to pull out a gun and shoot you." This is an interesting claim because some instances of lying might not be thought of this way. Our culture is very wary of killing, but I'm sure there are plenty of cultures where people wouldn't flinch at murdering liars in certain situations (perhaps not just for breaking the rules of an argument, but my point still stands, I think).

But again, Stefan has abandoned the terminology of preferability, and substituted the language of common-sense morality. Stefan doesn't say that it would be preferable to avoid murdering liars (he could say this, though I'd object for the same reasons as outlined above), but rather says that it would be immoral and unreasonable to do so. But if it could be done by someone without destroying his ability to achieve his ends, then the machinery which has been constructed in this book doesn't help us to evaluate what's going on. Again, it's the realm of ethics and morality, as Stefan describes it, but we haven't yet been told what to think about it.

Stefan's final example is the only one which works somewhat harmoniously with what's been said so far. He writes, "If you rush at me with a knife raised, few people would argue with my right to defend myself. If shooting you were the only way that I could reasonably ensure my own safety, it would generally be considered a regrettable necessity." Again, Stefan borrows from common-sense morality by talking about a "right" to self defense. Nothing Stefan has said so far gives us any reason for discussing rights. But at least Stefan's talking about necessity again, and one could draw a somewhat reasonable claim out of this point: "There are some ends where, if some behavior is preferable for achieving one of those ends, then the actor has a right to engage in that behavior." I think this is a fine idea, but I'm not sure if Stefan would want to accept it, given the fact that he's a right-wing libertarian. In any case, I don't want to jump the gun and talk about how one could make use of the observation that certain behaviors are necessary for achieving certain ends. Next up is Stefan's discussion of "Requirements for Ethics."

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