Tuesday, January 29, 2008

TMP 18: Universality and Exceptions

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

This section almost made me angry, but I just had the most delicious Cuban rice and beans, and nothing can bring me down right now. So, as calmly as I can, I'll attempt to show why this section is preposterous.

On page 57, Stefan writes, "Using the above "lifeboat scenarios," the conclusion is often drawn that "the good" is simply that which is "good" for an individual man's life. It's important to note that this isn't the only conclusion that can be drawn, nor is it even the most commonly drawn conclusion. Other conclusions include the idea that "the good" is "that which is preferred by the agent" (which is not the same, since people aren't completely self-interested), or that it's "that which produces the most happiness," or "that which corresponds to general rules which, if universally followed, produce the most happiness," or "that which is preferred by the agent, but doesn't violate the rights of others" (where these rights are construed in a way that doesn't prohibit the standard reaction to the lifeboat situation). Also included is the conclusion, "Our perceptions about lifeboat situations are unfounded."

So when Stefan offers his "syllogism" later on the page, in which he "concludes" (through a clearly invalid argument) that "Thus what is good for the individual is the ultimate moral standard," we can replace his conclusion with "Thus ____________" (where the blank is filled with one of the above views), and be on exactly the same ground (this is why philosophers prefer valid arguments).

Stefan's next step is to critique this "what is good for the individual is the ultimate moral standard" point of view. He writes, "This kind of "biological hedonism" may be a description of the "drive to survive," but it is only correct insofar as it describes what people actually do, not what they should do." But obviously, the alleged "biological hedonist" would object, saying that in this case, what people actually do is what they should do, because biological hedonism is true. Stefan offers absolutely no argument against this.

Instead, he offers an absolutely maddening critique, writing that this kind of position "...also introduces a completely unscientific subjectivism to the question of morality. For instance, if it is morally permissible to steal food when you are starving, how much food can you steal? How hungry do you have to be? Can you steal food that is not nutritious? How nutritious does the food have to be in order to justify stealing it? How long after stealing one meal are you allowed to steal another meal? Are you allowed to steal meals rather than look for work or appeal to charity?"

The reason this critique is so maddening is that Stefan just finished saying that we need to make room for gray areas, and that people who obsess over specifics are obviously wrong. Basically, his argument is, "Because we can't draw a non-arbitrary line between when it's permissible to steal and when it isn't, and clearly it's not always permissible to steal, it follows that it's never permissible to steal." But he literally just finished a section that had the sole purpose of making the point that "People who insist on non-arbitrary distinctions are ridiculous." And by "just finished," I mean that this section started on the same page as the one in which he made that point.

Then, as if he hadn't done enough to ensure that I would wake up with bad-philosophy-nightmares tonight, he concludes by saying, "As we can see, the introduction of "what is good for man in the abstract - or what most people do - is what is universally preferable" destroys the very concept of morality as a logically consistent theory, and substitutes mere biological drives as justifications for behaviour. It is an explanation of behaviour, not a proposed moral theory."

But by Stefan's own assertion, moral theories are supposed to "identify" universally preferable behavior. This controversy isn't about morality, but rather about what is universally preferable. If what's preferable for people to do is that which is good for them personally, then by Stefan's own argument, any moral theory which did not accept this would be wrong. Stefan is just blatantly contradicting himself here. Basically, he's objecting to a particular theory of the good by appealing to a moral theory which identifies behaviors which the theory of the good does not consider universally preferable. Given the relationship Stefan's drawn between moral theories and universally preferable behavior, this objection is inexcusably misguided. It's like objecting to the alignment of real roads because you have a badly drawn map. "My map clearly shows that these roads aren't aligned this way, so how could they be?" Since in Stefan's framework, moral theories identify universally preferable behavior, it's not possible to object to a characterization of universally preferable behavior on the basis of a moral theory. The entailment goes in the opposite direction.

Stefan seems to more or less wrap up in the next section, so I'll put that into a new post and offer some preliminary closing thoughts on Stefan's argument.

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"Rational philosophy is on the march. It will f--- up all of your sh-- and leave you without any teeth."