Tuesday, January 1, 2008

TMP 6: Universally Preferable Behaviour

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

Stefan starts this section with the claim, "As a result of the above arguments, we can see that it is impossible to enter into any debate without accepting the premise that certain behaviours are universally preferable." Even if we ignore all of the problems that I found with Stefan's arguments in my last post, it's clear that this point can not be right. I don't need to presuppose anything about all people if I enter into a debate with a specific person. All I need to presuppose is that my particular opponent in debate is likely going to behave in some way that would justify entering into the bate.

Bringing back the ideas discussed in my last post, this would mean that if I entered an argument for the purpose of establishing truth, my choice would only make sense if the person I was arguing with also aimed to establish the truth. If I entered the debate for the purpose of practicing my arguing skills, this would no longer be necessary. And even if it were important that my opponent care about establishing the truth, my debate would be perfectly coherent if other people didn't care about establishing the truth. Further, it wouldn't need to be true that it was preferable for my opponent to want to establish the truth. I might be a jerk if I engaged someone in a debate when it would be preferable for her to avoid debating with me, but that doesn't mean that it would be incoherent for me to do it. And it especially wouldn't be necessary that it be preferable for everyone to want to establish truth. As I pointed out earlier, Stefan hasn't shown why it is universally preferable for people to want this.

Stefan then turns to a series of examples, but I'm honestly not sure what he's trying to prove. I acknowledge that we make a lot of assumptions when we act, especially when our actions involve other people. Many of these assumptions pertain to the way we expect others to act, and about the intentions and preferences we expect others to have. But the fact that I expect things of certain people does not imply anything about all people. It especially doesn't imply that I believe anything about all people.

That being said, the idea of universally preferable behavior, as Stefan defined it, isn't controversial enough to be worthy of all of this trouble. All Stefan's said about preferable behavior is that it's whatever sort of behavior is required in order for an individual to achieve her desired ends. The move to universally preferable behaviors requires at least one step, but perhaps two, depending on what Stefan wants to use the concept for. The first step is to say that some preferable behaviors would be preferable no matter who the person was. As I discussed in an earlier post (the example of the small-handed piccolo player and the large-handed upright bass player), this simply requires that the behavior in question be stated generally enough to describe the behavior of all individuals. The second step is to say that it would be preferable for all individuals to share some particular ends. The first step seems necessary to me, but the second step seems like it would be important for a theory like Stefan's. I don't foresee him advocating relativism in his book, so I would imagine that he would want to take the second step.

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).

But even if he did take the position just outlined, there doesn't seem to be any reason for his Hoppe-style argument "for" universally preferred behavior. Even with the second step, Stefan would only be making a positive statement: there are certain behaviors which are necessary for all people to achieve the ends which would be best for them to pursue. Uncovering such behaviors would be nothing more than an exercise in exploring the demands of prudence. If it would be preferable for all people to use their rationality to decide between alternatives, then it doesn't matter whether someone "believes in" universally preferable behavior. Either such behaviors exist, or they don't. Beliefs have nothing to do with it.

I'm going to pause here for now, and get to work on the next section later.


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