Friday, January 4, 2008

TMP 8: From Moral Rules: A Definition, to UPB: Five Proofs

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

So it seems like all I had to do was move on to the next section for Stefan's clearest statement of the point from the previous section. On page 40, Stefan writes, "Simply put, morals are a set of rules claiming to accurately and consistently identify universally preferable human behaviours, just as physics is a set of rules claiming to accurately and consistently identify the universal behaviour of matter." When I read this, I couldn't help but laugh. First, the previous section was almost entirely pointless; this statement was entirely good enough. [The rest of this paragraph was removed for being too stupid and pointless to be read by anyone.]

Moving on, Stefan offers a bunch of syllogistic "proofs" "of" universally preferable behavior, which I'll address in turn. Let me first point out that given how Stefan has defined universally preferable behavior, this is both entirely unnecessary and impossible to do. A universally preferable behavior, as Stefan has defined it, is nothing besides the only possible means for achieving some ends (or perhaps, as I discussed in an earlier post, for achieving the best ends). Whether such behavior exists is not a logical matter.

I take it to be impossible that one could not come up with some behavior which is necessary to achieving any given end (it is universally preferable that people who want to go to the book store do not chop themselves to pieces with a butcher knife, it is universally preferable that people who want to eat ice cream not Krazy Glue their mouths closed first, etc). If you wanted to arrive at a positive statement of universally preferable behavior (that is, a statement about what people should do, rather than just what they should avoid doing), then it's a matter of objective fact whether or not such a single behavior exists. In the example of the piccolo player and the upright bass player (from an earlier post), there was no single choice of instrument that was required. But if the end was to eat with a fork, picking the fork up might be universally preferable, as would opening your mouth. This doesn't seem like a philosophical issue in any way.

Further, I have no idea how you could prove the existence of a universally preferable behavior without being guilty of trivially begging the question. Take the following example:

1) A UPB is the required means for achieving an end.
2) The only way for anyone to achieve end X is to do Y.
3) Therefore, Y is a universally preferable behavior.

It's obvious that we beg the question with (2), but more significantly, who cares? If someone accepts (2), which shouldn't be that controversial in practice, then our job is done.

But let's move on to the proofs Stefan offers. The first proof makes precisely no sense if you interpret the idea of a "valid concept" in the way that I arrived at in my last post, but I think that Stefan really is just committing a category error here.

[I feel like I should probably include the "proofs" themselves. Stefan writes:
"1. The proposition is: the concept "universally preferable behaviour" must be valid.
2. Arguing against the validity of universally preferable behaviour demonstrates universally preferable behaviour.
3. Therefore no argument against the validity of universally preferable behaviour can be valid."]

It seems like (1) should be stated, "The proposition is: the concept of "universally preferable behavior" must be non-contradictory and coherent, and there must exist at least one instance of a universally preferable behavior." Given the discussion of the "premises" involved in arguing in a previous post, the rest of the proof crumbles. A person can coherently and consistently believe that establishing the truth is not preferable for all people while simultaneously believing that it is preferable for her to engage in a particular round of truth-establishing. Further, engaging in an argument, as I've shown, doesn't automatically establish any belief about the preferability of establishing the truth. So this proof doesn't end up by accomplishing very much.

In passing, I'll point out that while setting up his second proof on page 40, Stefan writes, "There are...preferences for logic, truth and evidence, which are...binding upon others...insofar as we all accept that an illogical proposition must be false or invalid." It's unclear why this sort of thing would be called a "preference," given that Stefan apparently thinks we have no choice in the matter. [That was said confusingly; I think what I intended to say was that if an illogical proposition must be false or invalid, then how does it represent a "binding preference" that this be true?] Perhaps this goes back to the issue I raised a while ago about Stefan's assertion that we prefer whatever we do; I said that when we don't actively choose to do something, we aren't expressing a preference, and here's a perfect example.

But right after he says this, Stefan slips in a doozy: "Those preferences which can be considered binding upon others can be termed "universal preferences" or "moral rules."" And then he just keeps talking as if he never said anything! What the eff! Recall that earlier on the same page, Stefan wrote that moral rules are universal preferences, and here he continues to use the terms as synonyms. But to this point, he has been using the word "preferable" to mean something along the lines of "required for the achievement of some end." A universally preferable behavior has seemed to be either a behavior that's preferable for the achievement of some end for all people trying to achieve that end, or this plus some claim about what ends people ought to be pursuing (see past posts on this confusion). He's introduced something about being binding on others, but I don't see what he means by this. I mean, I can guess that Stefan's going for something along the lines of "treat others as you want to be treated," or "My acting on preference X would only make sense if I believed that other people shared my preference," but the exact form of this view isn't clear yet.

Rather than address this extremely important and pivotal statement, Stefan goes on to provide another bad proof for universally preferable behavior, this time begging the question. On page 41, Stefan writes, "...everything that lives is...subject to certain requirements, and thus, if it is alive, must have followed universally preferred behaviours." In light of my discussion of Stefan's use of the word "universal" a few posts ago, it's obvious why this is not necessarily the case (if we take "universally preferable behavior" in the positive sense, where a particular active behavior is required, and not just the avoidance of some behavior). If there were certain means which could be used by some individuals, and not others, then an individual could certainly be alive by following preferable behaviors and never following any universally preferable behaviors. So premise (1) is false, which makes (3) not necessarily true (and probably not true), and the rest falls apart from there.

[Sorry, the proof goes like this:
"1. All organisms require universally preferred behaviour to live.
2. Man is a living organism.
3. Therefore all living men are alive due to the practice of universally preferred behaviour.
4. Therefore any argument against universally preferable behaviour requires an acceptance and practice of universally preferred behaviour.
5. Therefore no argument against the existence of universally preferable behaviour can be valid."

I just want to reiterate that the reason I reject this argument is that I take "universally preferable behavior" to refer to a specific behavior here, and not just a general category of behaviors. I use this interpretation because otherwise, the point is worthless. That is, if "Whatever it takes to survive" is universally preferable, then yes, of course all living things employ universally preferable behavior, and yes, anyone denying that would be wrong. But so what?]

In setting up for his next proof, Stefan writes, "Every sane human being believes in moral rules of some kind. There is some disagreement about what constitutes moral rules, but everyone is certain that moral rules are valid - just as many scientists disagree, but not all scientists accept the validity of the scientific method itself." This is perhaps the most catastrophically imprudent thing Stefan has written so far. Just as a Berkeleyan idealist would say that all scientists are terribly mistaken, a moral skeptic would say that these "sane" human beings are simply wrong in their beliefs. It initially struck me as odd to see this kind of argument coming from an atheist, but then I remembered that Stefan viewed theism as being the result of human actions, whereas the belief in moral rules seems like a part of our innate programming. The point is, the fact that people believe in moral rules doesn't prove that there are moral rules, just like scientists' acceptance of the scientific method doesn't prove that scientific knowledge is achievable.

Stefan's third proof only vaguely follows the aforementioned statements, but it's again obviously guilty of begging the question.

[The proof goes:
"1. For a scientific theory to be valid, it must be supported by empirical observation.
2. If the concept of "universally preferable behaviour" is valid, then mankind should believe in universally preferable behaviour.
3. All men believe in universally preferable behaviour.
4. Therefore empirical evidence exists to support the validity of universally preferable behaviour - and the existence of such evidence opposes the proposition that universally preferable behaviour is not valid."]

Stefan takes mankind's belief in universally preferable behavior to be evidence for its existence, which is controversial f0r all of the reasons discussed above, as his second premise. As his third premise, he claims that "All men believe in universally preferable behaviour," which is obviously false, but could easily be restated to make sense. It doesn't end up mattering, because beliefs can't be used as evidence for this sort of thing. That would be exactly like saying that at a certain time in the world's history, all people probably believed in supernatural forces that could affect their lives, and therefore such forces probably existed. The argument isn't convincing in the slightest.

Setting up for his fourth proof on page 42, Stefan writes, "Since human beings have an almost-infinite number of choices to make in life, to say that there are no principles of universally preferable behaviour would be to say that all choices are equal (i.e. subjective)." Let me pause and clarify what it means to say that the subjectivity of value implies that all choices are equal. Value, as Stefan said earlier, is a relationship between a conscious valuer and some object of value, in this case, a set of alternative courses of action. Outside of this relationship (and similar relationships between the object and other conscious valuers), the courses of action have no value. Accordingly, they are equally valueless. Within the relationship, however, it's clear that the alternatives are not equal as long as the valuer is not indifferent between them. This seems to be perfectly fine.

But Stefan argues that all choices are not equal, seemingly on the basis of what conscious valuers prefer. He writes, "...all choices are not equal, either logically or through empirical observation." As I hope that I have shown above, in the sense that choices can be sensibly thought of as equal (that is, as equally valueless if we divorce the choice from its relationship with any consciousness), choices are equal. If we don't divorce ourselves from the valuing relationship, though, then of course choices aren't equal. And how could we empirically observe choices without observing their relationships with the choosers?

Then Stefan writes, "For instance, if food is available, almost all human beings prefer to eat every day. When cold, almost all human beings seek warmth. Almost all parents choose to feed, shelter and educate their children. There are many examples of common choices among humankind, which indicate that universally preferable behaviour abounds and is part of human nature." But in Stefan's earlier example of the hunger striker, we said that unless we wanted to say that the striker's ends were somehow bad (which I don't see any justification for doing), it would be preferable for him to avoid taking in nutrients. How could eating be universally preferable if it were preferable for some people to not eat (again, unless we said that it isn't preferable, since their ends are wrong, and the best ends would require them to take in nutrients)?

Similarly, when cold, a hiker might forge on to the top of the mountain, rather than seeking warmth. Perhaps the hiker would prefer cold to warmth ceteris paribus, but for something to be required, and therefore preferable (according to Stefan's definition), it must be the case that the hiker cannot achieve her ends without seeking warmth. Even if we were in the business of critiquing ends (which Stefan has not yet justified), it still seems a little odd that we would want to say that the hiker is pursuing the wrong ends, or pursuing the right ends incorrectly (that is, her preferences do not match with what is preferable) if she does not seek warmth when she is cold.

The parent one is hard because it's an emotional example; if someone didn't choose to feed, shelter, or educate his children, we as members of Western society would likely take exception on an intuitive level. It wouldn't help to point to individuals who throw their babies into dumpsters; these people are seen as monsters from the start, and it doesn't prove that an explanation of morality is correct to show that it would recognize them as such. Perhaps we might feel sympathy for the poor farmer who doesn't send his children to school, but even the farmer must educate his children in some way. I would propose ignoring this example in order to avoid difficult issues arising from our intuitive reactions to issues surrounding children.

But even if we ignore the objections voiced above, it's not clear how these examples relate to Stefan's statement that moral rules are binding on others. How does eating when hungry, or seeking warmth when cold, have anything to do with other people? I can't see how this makes sense.

The preceding discussion should be sufficient to reject Stefan's fourth proof as based on weak premises.

[The proof goes:
"1. Choices are almost infinite.
2. Most human beings make very similar choices.
3. Therefore not all choices can be equal.
4. Therefore universally preferable choices must be valid."]

Namely, statement 3, "Therefore not all choices can be equal" doesn't have anything to do with anything, especially not universally preferable behavior, and the conclusion (statement 4), "Therefore universally preferable choices must be valid" doesn't follow from anything I can figure out.

In passing, I'll comment that Stefan would really benefit from stating his "proofs" in a legitimate form. For example, the proper way to have written the fourth proof is as follows:

1) If choices are almost infinite and most human beings make very similar choices, the all choices cannot be equal.
2) If all choices are not equal, then universally preferable choices must be valid.
3) Choices are almost infinite.
4) Most human beings make very similar choices.
5) Therefore, not all choices can be equal.
6) Therefore, universally preferable choices must be valid.

I take exception to (1) simply because the non-equality of choices is uncontroversial in the way Stefan is talking, and so it's not clear why Stefan is trying to "prove" it, and because the [consequent] doesn't have any clear relationship with the [antecedent]. I take exception with (2), because I have no idea how it makes any sense whatsoever. At best, it begs the question.

Stefan's final argument fares no better.

[The proof goes:
"1. Organisms succeed by acting upon universally preferable behaviour.
2. Man is the most successful organism.
3. Therefore man must have acted most successfully on the basis of universally preferable behaviour.
4. Man's mind is his most distinctive organ.
5. Therefore man's mind must have acted most successfully on the basis of universally preferable behaviour.
6. Therefore universally preferable behaviour must be valid."]

The very first premise, "Organisms succeed by acting upon universally preferable behavior," is the most question-begging thing I've ever read in my life. If it were true, then Stefan could simply say:

1) Organisms succeed by acting upon universally preferable behavior.
2) Therefore, universally preferable behavior must be valid.

The stuff about the mind being an organ (huh?), and man acting successfully are non sequitars. I'm not sure I agree with these points, but it doesn't even matter. If the first premise is true, then the conclusion is true, and if the first premise is false, then the conclusion is false. It's that simple.

So having reached the end of the section, I'm going to try to figure out what to make of all of this. As I said at the beginning of this post, this entire "proof" exercise was completely unnecessary, given the way that Stefan was talking about universally preferable behaviors up to this point. But I'm starting to think that Stefan has smuggled something in about critiquing ends, and I want to think about how Stefan could think that he had successfully argued for this point (as far as I'm aware, he hasn't even unsuccessfully argued for it!). So that's it for now...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, that was a breath of fresh air! You must have had a good few days off to return to such a slog with vigor.

I followed, mostly, with some eye-crossing in the middle of the post. I don't think this comment will really be that useful to you, other than to say: I see your work. I hope its worth something!

I do think you are right to suspect ends being smuggled in. We are, after all talking about oughts at some point. I can't believe Stef wasn't upfront about 'no positive oughts'. Would have saved you much writing. But I don't want to spoil the 'end'ings, because they're coming, I'm sure!

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