Friday, January 4, 2008

TMP 9: UPB: Optional and Objective

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

I concluded my last post by saying that I needed to think about why Stefan would think he can critique ends. I think I'm going to hold off on that, though, since I really don't think he's said anything that could possibly justify that view, and it's possible that I'm either reading too much into what he's said, or he's said some things carelessly that aren't central to his argument. Accordingly, I'm going to keep reading to see if the issue of proper ends becomes important.

Stefan begins this section on page 43 with a puzzling statement. He writes, "...we must remember that morality is clearly optional. Every man is subject to gravity and requires food to live, but no man has to act morally. If I rape, steal or kill, no thunderbolt strikes me down. Moral rules, like the scientific method or biological classifications, are merely ways of rationally organizing facts and principles relative to objective reality." There are three things that confuse me about this point. First, the necessity of eating and the necessity of gravity are fundamentally different. You can't elect to stop being subject to gravity. If the distinction is between things that are necessary consequences of existence (like being subject to gravity) and things that are optional (like morality), then eating needs to fall in the "optional" category. But Stefan puts it in the "necessary" category. Why?

This leads to the second point. It's true that no thunderbolt strikes you down when you rape, steal or kill. But it's also true that no thunderbolt strikes you down when you don't eat. The reason Stefan thinks that one must eat is clear in his statement that every man "requires food to live." People don't require food; they require food to live. The necessity of food arises from the end that's implied: if you want to live, then you require food.

The third point of confusion should be obvious. If we want to say that food is necessary because it is necessary for the achievement of some end, then why wouldn't we want to say the same thing about morality? Further, if we couldn't say the same thing about morality, then what right would we have to call morality "preferable"? In the context of this book, for something to be preferable means that it is required. If eating is preferable, then "required" must extend beyond pure necessity (like gravity) to things which could be done, but which shouldn't be done. So far, Stefan has adequately justified only one reason for saying that something shouldn't be done: if a particular means doesn't bring about the desired end, then that means should not be used. Accordingly, if you want to live, then you should not use any means which bring it about that you do not live: namely, starving to death. Applying this framework to the idea of morality, we can see that if morality is to be called "preferable," then we must say that one should pursue morality, as it is necessary to the achievement of one's ends.

Why, then, does Stefan say that morality is optional, where eating is not? I see absolutely no reason to make any distinction here. If morality is universally preferable, then it seems like it is universally preferable in the same way that eating is universally preferable. If one does not eat, then one cannot achieve her ends. Thus, eating is preferable. If one does not act according to morality, then one cannot achieve her ends. Thus, morality is preferable. That's what "preferable" has seemingly meant throughout the entire book.

The only way that the distinction could make any sense is if Stefan critiques ends. He could say that "not eating, and therefore dying" is a proper end in some cases, where "not acting according to morality, and therefore being immoral" is somehow bad. This way, we might be able to say that someone who was achieving her personal ends through immorality (possibly even making avoidance of morality a preferable behavior in her eyes) would be pursuing the wrong ends, and the right ends would be incompatible with immorality. If Stefan were willing to say this, then the distinction might be able to survive. But Stefan hasn't said this yet, and I don't see any way that he could without ruining his argument. Accordingly, I have to believe that this statement is simply a mistake.

Moving on, Stefan writes, "...the first test of any scientific theory is universality. Just as a theory of physics must apply to all matter, a moral theory that claims to describe the preferable actions of all mankind must apply to all mankind" ("all" is underlined in the text, but this blog program apparently doesn't believe in underlines, so underline removed). I can't see why Stefan would even bother to "test" the universality of the principle of universally preferable behavior. But I think that Stefan might be hinting at a misleading conclusion. The concept of universally preferable behavior simply refers to behavior which is required for all individuals to achieve some ends (either their own ends or "proper" ends of some sort). Any ends which don't have behaviors which are universally required of all mankind simply aren't covered by universally preferable behavior. This isn't a problem for those ends, or for the means which can be used to achieve them. If Stefan is going to make some sort of point about how all people should act according to some particular moral statement, he's going to need to show how that moral statement must be followed in order to achieve some desired end, and that no other behavior could possibly work. So yes, universally preferable behavior is universal, but non-universal behavior is in no way impacted by this fact, as long as it is capable of bringing about the desired end.

Stefan's next step, on page 44, goes as follows: "...since moral theories apply to mankind, and mankind is organic, the degree of empirical consistency required for moral theories is less than that required for inorganic theories. All rocks, for instance, must fall down, but not all horses have to be born with only one head. Biology includes three forms of "randomness," which are environment, genetic mutation, and free will. For example, poodles are generally friendly, but if beaten for years, will likely become aggressive. Horses are defined as having only one head, but occasionally, a two-headed mutant is born. Similarly, human beings generally prefer eating to starving - except anorexics. These exceptions do not bring down the entire science of biology. Thus, since moral theories describe mankind, they cannot be subjected to exactly the same requirements for consistency as theories describing inorganic matter."

This, I think, is the most important statement Stefan has made so far. A year ago I had a conversation with Stefan and some of the other folks on the Freedomain Radio message board, where I responded to a similar statement that Stefan had made in one of his podcasts, and I think that what I said then has a lot of bearing now. But I think that I might be in a better position to discuss this idea now that I've had the opportunity to work with the concept of universally preferable behavior. I'll try my best to avoid repeating things I said in that conversation unless they're relevant to the task at hand.

What needs to be pointed out is that morality is being framed here as a preferable behavior, which means that it is, at least in some sense, required. So if a behavior is universally preferable, then it must be preferable for all people to do it. If it is not preferable for someone to do it, then the claim "universally preferable" is meaningless. The correct term would be "generally preferable," and nothing whatsoever could be said about any of the cases in which the behavior was not preferable. So, for example, we might say "It is generally preferable that people take in nutrients," but we couldn't say "Therefore, it is preferable that this anorexic take in nutrients," because the anorexic wouldn't be part of the "general" group. Stefan seems to be with me so far.

But this might become problematic for Stefan if one can make legitimate distinctions between people to retain universality. "It is universally preferable for people who want to live (more than other competing alternatives) to take in nutrients" would acknowledge the hunger striker from the past post, and make clear to the anorexic that she should rethink her actions to fit in with her ends. The reason that this could be problematic is that one could just as easily make distinctions that would produce a moral theory that no one would recognize as being moral in any way: "It is generally preferable that people not murder other people" could give way to "It is universally preferable that people not murder other people if they don't want very badly to do so, or if they care about what others will think." A cold, calculating assassin might act perfectly in accordance with her ends if she murdered her enemies, even taking into account the unforeseen consequences of her actions. [NOTE TO OBJECTIVISTS: it's not logically impossible that this could happen. If it were impossible in reality, and morality were required in order to achieve everyone's actual ultimate ends, and not just what we think their ends ought to be, then I would need to concede this point. But Stefan hasn't argued this way, and I don't think the Objectivist position qualifies as philosophical so far as it provides no way to prove its claim without appealing to empirical claims which it can't satisfactorily explain, and which most people don't consider to be true.]

If it functioned in this way, and Stefan didn't want to criticize the assassin's ends as being somehow "bad" ends, the morality promised by universally preferable behavior would be scarcely recognizable as morality, conforming more to the concept of prudence. We would be required to say that something is only immoral if it is inconsistent with people's actual ends, which would mean that immorality wouldn't be "wrong," but rather "imprudent." That is, we wouldn't say, "It's wrong to murder," but rather we would say, "You shouldn't murder, because if you knew what was good for you, you'd prefer not to murder." Such a claim could always be countered with, "I do know what's good for me, and I do prefer to murder," and as far as I'm aware of, a response to that question requires either an Objectivist-style "That isn't true, because it's simply a fact that you won't be happy if you murder," or an end-critiquing, "That isn't true, because what you think is good for you is actually evil." As I said above, the first kind of response isn't philosophical because there's no way to know that fact without appeal to empirical evidence that no one has. And the second kind of response seems like it would require Stefan to start over completely.

So I'm really not sure where Stefan's going to go from here, but things are looking a little grim. I will keep reading, though my being in California might slow my progress considerably. It'll be really interesting to see if Stefan can save his theory in the sections that follow!


Anonymous said...

I hope the Santa Anna's help clear away the chaff from the grain, if there is any in the book to be had!

I enjoyed this section. Its very interesting to 'watch someone work', and especially when they seem to see things that I have not.

I don't know how long the book is, but it seems in this post like you are moving towards some conclusions.

My understanding of UPB is as you recharacterized some of Stef's statements early in this post. "If you want to say something is moral, then you have to meet these criteria" would be how to use it. Interesting that this hasn't been made explicit. I may have read Stef's earlier articles and podcasts incorrectly.

Clearly there is some 'end' in mind beyond just redefining what makes a statement a sound moral statement. I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes in the book. How many more sections?

Danny Shahar said...

It looks like Stefan's moral theory is mostly laid out in Part I. At the end of Part I, I'll try to compose my thoughts a little more clearly, and I'll present my case to Stefan. After that, I'm not sure how I'll want to proceed. This project has taken a lot more effort than I thought it would; I didn't imagine that I would take exception to so many of the things Stefan has said. If after talking to Stefan, there's still hope for his argument, I'll proceed to the rest of the book (though I'll need to work more slowly, as I have to get some work done on my thesis).

But I think the best idea would be to set a landmark at the end of the first Part, which is, for all intents an purposes, 15 pages away (Stefan includes a few pages introducing the rest of the book, but his main argument seems to be pretty much finished by page 58.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update on plans. I'll make popcorn ;)

mcmikemn said...

I agree with Smack: this post seems to be nearing a conclusion. I especially like the first 6 paragraphs as they do a nice job os summarizing Stef's position and your counterpoints (well, I don't know Stef's position, but this sounds like a summarization of it), and does so in simple terms with good examples. It sounds right to me that Stef's universally preferred behavior is only universal for a specific goal. Like you said that Stef said: "if a particular means doesn't bring about the desired end, then that means should not be used." This says nothing of the universality of the means, though.

The rest of this post starts to get a little complex for me. I'll keep reading for now, but I think I may be leaving my level of understanding.

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