Tuesday, January 29, 2008

TMP 16: Lifeboat Scenarios

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

Not having written this post yet, but having read the section on which it will be based, I have a feeling that this is the Gettysburg of the project. I don't think there's any way to interpret what Stefan says here in any way that wouldn't lead us to reject his argument completely. It's almost as if he doesn't understand the implications of what he's said thus far in the book.

But before I get into those problems, I want to address something I just noticed. I initially started my post by writing the following:
The problems begin right away when on page 55, Stefan starts the section with the words, "The fact that UPB only validates logically consistent moral theories..." Without even letting Stefan finish the sentence, two glaring issues should be obvious. First, logically inconsistent moral theories are necessarily invalid, and therefore cannot be validated by anything. To say that something only validates logically consistent theories doesn't tell us anything about anything. Everything that validates theories only validates logically consistent moral theories.

Second, Stefan has defined morality as a set of "rules" which identify universally preferable behavior. In other words, if something is morally right, it is universally preferable, and if it is morally wrong, then avoidance of it is universally preferable. Accordingly, it means precisely nothing that universally preferable behavior "validates" morality. So "The fact that UPB only validates logically consistent moral theories" can not possibly tell us anything about anything, except maybe the principle of non-contradiction. Moral theories are universally preferable behavior.

But suddenly I noticed something. On page 40, Stefan indeed wrote, "...morals are a set of rules claiming to accurately and consistently identify universally preferable human behaviours..." But on page 48, Stefan wrote, "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..." I'm wondering if perhaps I had misinterpreted Stefan earlier, and whether that misinterpretation could be important. Perhaps somehow Stefan thinks that moral theories identify universally preferable behavior, but are somehow external to that framework. That is, a moral theory could, as part of its nature, identify universally preferable behaviors in the process of justifying or denying the use of violence. But it would do so in the way that normal ethical theories do that (by using normative concepts).

To be clear, if I'm misinterpreting Stefan, it's because he misspoke when he said that Ethics is a subset of UPB. A normative system of ethics cannot be a subset of a framework which positively identifies actions which are required for achieving particular ends. Stefan would need a theory of axiology (what sorts of things have moral standing or moral significance?) which he hasn't offered, as well as a set of moral principles (what does it mean to have moral standing or moral significance?) which he also hasn't offered, in order to justify normative views. But if he were talking about morality as a normative system which operates separately from the concept of universally preferable behavior, it would clear up a lot of my confusion about why Stefan seems to think universally preferable behavior suggests any particular moral theories.

This reinterpretation of Stefan's view also responds to the second part of my original objection, that Stefan's claim about moral theories being validated by universally preferable behavior is meaningless because moral theories are the same thing as universally preferable behavior. According to my suggested revision, a moral theory wouldn't be the same thing as universally preferable behavior.

Of course, Stefan's point still doesn't say anything, because obviously only consistent moral theories can be validated (note that Stefan doesn't say that moral theories can be proven sound by reference to universally preferable behavior; I'm not sure if this is intentional, but if it is, then it's clear that Stefan has acknowledged that moral theories don't follow from the concept of universally preferable behavior).

So let's move on to the rest of Stefan's opening statement. He writes, "The fact that UPB only validates logically consistent moral theories does not mean that there can be no conceivable circumstances under which we may choose to act against the tenets of such a theory." This conclusion is not technically problematic, but could be very misleading. Stefan has indeed said (on page 33), that "...when I talk about universal preferences, I am talking about what people should prefer, not what they always do prefer." So it's true that people might choose to act against a moral theory, because they prefer something they shouldn't prefer.

But what might be misleading is that someone might interpret this statement to be saying that sometimes we should act in a way that goes against a moral theory. So far as moral theories identify universally preferable behaviors (as Stefan said on page 40), a sound moral theory must always identify behaviors which we never should avoid doing. A moral theory cannot say "X is a universally preferable behavior" and also "Person A should do ~X (~ is philosophical notation for "not" or "the negation of")." To do so would be inconsistent. And as Stefan has correctly acknowledged, only consistent moral theories are valid.

In light of this fact, how can we interpret Stefan's next paragraph? He writes: "For instance, if we accept the universal validity of property rights, smashing a window and jumping into someone's apartment without permission would be a violation of his property rights. However, if we were hanging off a flagpole outside an apartment window, and about to fall to our deaths, few of us would decline to kick in the window and jump to safety for the sake of obeying an abstract principle." This is sort of a shocking paragraph, in light of Stefan's apparent respect for the concept of property rights, because he seems to be unknowingly declaring it to be problematic! Watch:

1) To adopt an ethical system including property rights entails acceptance of the claim that it is universally preferable to avoid smashing someone's window and jumping into her apartment.
2) If a behavior X is universally preferable, it means that no one should do ~X.
3) If someone should smash someone else's window and jump into her apartment, then it must not be the case that no one should smash someone else's window and jump into her apartment.
4) If it is not the case that no one should smash someone else's window and jump into her apartment, then avoiding smashing someone else's window and jumping into her apartment is not universally preferable.
5) If avoiding smashing someone else's window and jumping into her apartment is not universally preferable, then adopting an ethical system including property rights entails acceptance of a false claim.

Accordingly, the integrity of the concept of property rights (in a moral system which, by Stefan's definition, identifies universally preferable behavior, and according to a system of property rights which matches Stefan's characterization), it must be the case that no one should ever smash someone's window and jump into her apartment. But Stefan seems to be suggesting that we would all do so if put in the right situation. So what's going on here? Is Stefan saying that we'd all do it, but that we all shouldn't do it?

Another clue can be found in the fourth paragraph of the section, where Stefan writes, "This is not to say that breaking the window to save your life is not wrong. It is, but it is a wrong that almost all of us would choose to commit rather than die. If I were on the verge of starving to death, I would steal an apple. This does not mean that it is right for me to steal the apple - it just means that I would do it..." This statement brings us all the way back to the beginning.

In TMP 4, I first expressed concern over an example Stefan offered where he seemed to imply that a hunger striker and suicide victim were "bad ends." And in TMP 6, I had this to say:What sorts of ends could be identified as being preferable for all people? Can we evaluate whether ends are preferable? Economists typically take ends as given, and don't attempt to say anything about what is best for people. Psychologists can evaluate ends on some level, but usually have to operate from the presupposition that people want to obtain some sort of happiness or wellbeing. This is relatively uncontroversial for most people, but it's unclear what one might say to someone who rejected that what's best is to be happy or well off (where wellbeing is not synonymous with welfare/preference satisfaction). Religious thinkers are typically the source of ideas about the proper ends of mankind; following much the same line of thinking as Stefan's account of preferable behavior, it doesn't matter what you do prefer, but rather what you should prefer. Economists and psychologists can only talk about what you should prefer given some presupposition about your ends. If Stefan wants to make statements about universally preferable behavior, then he'll have to either say that all individuals do hold certain ends, which would validate the economic/psychological style of presupposing ends, or he'll have to make some sort of statement about what ends people should prefer, more in the style of religious thought (this isn't to say that only religious people use this style; Ayn Rand is a perfect example of someone who used it without any explicitly religious claims).

It seems like my suspicions were warranted. In his discussion of right and wrong, Stefan now seems to be talking about "proper" ends, instead of the ends people actually have. So, for example, I value my own life, and in order to preserve it, it might be necessary for me to smash a window and climb into an apartment without permission. But Stefan seems to think that it's "wrong" for me to do this. I don't think that it's controversial to suggest that he means that it's "immoral" or "unethical" for me to do it, which would entail that it's "universally preferable" for me not to do it. But so far as we take "preferable" to mean "required for the achievement of certain ends," we seem to have a problem.

If the "certain" ends are my ends, then it's preferable for me to smash the window and climb in. And if it's preferable for me to do so (and as Stefan suggests, most people would want to do it, so under this interpretation of "preferable," it would be preferable for most people to do so as well), then it wouldn't make sense to say that it's "universally preferable behavior" to avoid smashing in the window. Accordingly, any theory of morality claiming that avoiding smashing the window is universally preferable would be making a false claim, and would be proven unsound. And it seems that Stefan thinks the doctrine of property rights makes such a claim (of course, it doesn't need to, but Stefan doesn't acknowledge that).

If the doctrine of property rights is not proven false by the fact that my ends require me to smash in the window, then it must be the case that the "certain" ends served by universally preferable behavior aren't my own ends, but rather some other sorts of ends ("proper" ends, perhaps we would say). Accordingly, it could be perfectly consistent with my own ends to smash the window, but still preferable that I not smash the window, because not smashing the window is required for attaining these other ends. Only under this kind of interpretation of "preferable" behavior could we say that my behavior is "wrong," even though my own ends require that I do what I'm doing.

But if this is what we're going with, then why would I care about what's preferable? What reason could I possibly have for giving precedence to ends which are not my own over ends that are my own? Religion says this kind of thing all the time, but Stefan has no God to lean on. I really want to see what he's going to say about this.

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