Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On Desert and the Glass Ceiling

Update at the bottom

So I've been thinking a little about Hayek's point that there's nothing about an overall state of affairs which arises from the decentralized actions of individuals in a market economy which could coherently be an "injustice." As I had said, I agree with Hayek, and I've been accordingly trying to think of a way to understand the concept of distributive justice in other terms. But on page 49 of his book, Elements of Justice, David Schmidtz raises an interesting point in discussing the idea of "desert":
...there is something slightly misleading, or at best incomplete, in assessing a society by asking whether people get what they deserve. If desert matters, then often a better question is, do people do something to deserve what they get? Do opportunities go to people who will do something to be worthy of them?

It seems to me that while there's something very intuitive about this point, there's a tension to be acknowledged. To flesh out Schmidtz's point, he offers on page 46 that "A person who receives opportunity X at t1 can be deserving at t2 because of what she did when given a chance." The idea here, then, seems to be that if a person does justice to the opportunity that she's given in the period between t1 and t2, then she proves that she deserved it at t1.

But while I think that the above may be a necessary condition for desert, I'm not sure if it's sufficient. What I have in mind is the interview where a man and a woman are being considered for a job. We might imagine that both would, if given the chance, do justice to the opportunity they were given: both are fully competent to do the job, and both would work hard at it. We might further say that both would likely succeed. But let's say that the woman candidate was better qualified for the job than the man, and it was simply a matter of prejudice on the part of the prospective employer which led him to choose the man. Even though the man would end up doing justice to the opportunity, I still think there's a sense in which we can say that he didn't really deserve the job, and that the woman did.

I wouldn't want to say that the man in the above example is entirely undeserving of the job. For his part, he did everything that we would have wanted him to do. But there is, I think, a sense in which he will have gotten something that he didn't deserve, even if he did everything he could to do justice to the opportunity he got. I definitely need to think about this some more, but it's a start.


Incidentally, Schmidtz makes more or less the same point in the next chapter in discussing whether a person who does not deserve an opportunity can still do justice to it. Sorry, Dr. Schmidtz! This seems to be a common theme...

The one thing that I think can be preserved from this post is the idea that something needs to be said about the person who is deprived of an opportunity that she did deserve because someone else got an opportunity he didn't deserve, even though the latter did justice to the opportunity once he got it, and therefore has "done all anyone could ask," to put it as Schmidtz does on page 52. Something...but I'm not sure what.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Check Out My New Article on the FEE Website!

My article on pluralism in education has been posted on FEE's website. Take a look if you get a chance!

Just a personal note: This was my first experience having one of my articles edited, in this case by Sheldon Richman, and it was really interesting to see the kinds of changes he made. You'll notice that my usual wishy-washy style is absent in the article: pretty much all of the "I think"s, "It seems to me"s and "perhaps"es have been removed. The result is, I think, more direct and to the point. But I think that some of the softness that I try to infuse into my writing is gone, with the result that I sound a little more like Bastiat than I'm used to. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, but it's certainly something I'll have to get used to!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Political Double Standard and John Locke: A Reply to Jad

Jad strikes again, this time advancing the allegation that philosophers have had the tendency to embrace a double standard between ordinary citizens and their rulers, where no such double standard seems to be justifiable. The basic idea here is that people are, in the relevant ethical respects, equal -- that there is no "natural" basis for thinking that one individual should have the authority to rule over another. Jad seems to be under the impression that the mainstream of philosophy has rejected this view, instead taking on the position that our rulers should be considered to have a different moral standing from ordinary individuals.

There are a few things that seem necessary to say about this, but I think that the most important is that this is not actually a view which dominates mainstream philosophy. I would tend to trace the rejection of this sort of view to John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, published in 1690 (though Locke himself seems to attribute the idea to Richard Hooker, whose work I haven't read). In Section 4 of the second treatise, Of Civil Government, Locke writes:
To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.

A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

So in other words, unless someone is specifically appointed as ruler by God Himself, people have what can be called "equality of authority." This concept of equality is, I think, central to the classical liberal tradition, and is still embodied today in some form or another in the ideas of many schools of political thought we see today. Most obviously influenced by this idea are the liberals and libertarians, though even some brands of egalitarianism and socialism would be able to accommodate it.

Does that mean, then, that philosophers are somehow inconsistent in not universally proclaiming the ethical necessity of anarchism? Some people certainly think so. There are a few ways of thinking about how this might not be the case, but all are controversial. I obviously won't be able to cover all of the reasons why someone might argue in favor of a practical double standard for government officials while still embracing the Lockean notion of equality of authority, but I think I can address a few without getting in too far over my head.

In this post, I'll consider the answer Locke himself offers, with the full understanding that I won't be able to really do justice to it. In another post, I'll try to discuss David Hume's objections to Locke and Robert Nozick's attempt to rebuild the Lockean framework in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (when I have time, perhaps tomorrow but no guarantees). Hopefully in the near future, I'll be able to discuss a few other kinds of views [note to self: other flavors of contractarianism (Hobbes, Rawls), utilitarianism, and voluntarism/anarcho-capitalism] (if only to see if I can explain them all!). So here goes Locke...I'll block quote a lot, so if you read straight through, you should get the meat of Locke's argument as he advanced it. But if you're pressed for time, I try to summarize the main points outside of the quotations.

Locke's theory can be described as a "social contract" theory, in which individuals are considered as they would exist outside of political society, and then an attempt is made to understand how the institution of government could be legitimately formed out of the state of nature by a sort of social agreement. In section 6 of his second treatise, Of Civil Government, Locke starts with the idea that individuals have natural rights (he says that they're from God, but I think they conform somewhat with what people seem to generally think):
The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions...

In section 7, he contends that these rights are, in some sense, enforceable. He claims that because everyone is, in a state of nature, equally authorized to act on behalf of the standards of justice:
And that all men may be restrained from invading others rights, and from doing hurt to one another, and the law of nature be observed, which willeth the peace and preservation of all mankind, the execution of the law of nature is, in that state, put into every man's hands, whereby every one has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree, as may hinder its violation: for the law of nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world 'be in vain, if there were no body that in the state of nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders. And if any one in the state of nature may punish another for any evil he has done, every one may do so: for in that state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another, what any may do in prosecution of that law, every one must needs have a right to do.

So at this point, Locke is still taking the position that people should be equal in enforcing justice. However, he thinks that this state of affairs would be relatively unsatisfactory, because people would be unable to settle disputes peacefully, and conflicts would predictably ensue. In section 20, Locke writes:
...where an appeal to the law, and constituted judges, lies open, but the remedy is denied by a manifest perverting of justice, and a barefaced wresting of the laws to protect or indemnify the violence or injuries of some men, or party of men, there it is hard to imagine any thing but a state of war: for wherever violence is used, and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer justice, it is still violence and injury, however coloured with the name, pretences, or forms of law, the end whereof being to protect and redress the innocent, by an unbiassed application of it, to all who are under it; wherever that is not bona fide done, war is made upon the sufferers, who having no appeal on earth to right them, they are left to the only remedy in such cases, an appeal to heaven.

Accordingly, then, Locke believes that it would make sense for people to want to enter into civil society, so that disputes don't have to result in violence. In section 20, he writes:
To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders) is one great reason of men's putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature: for where there is an authority, a power on earth, from which relief can be had by appeal, there the continuance of the state of war is excluded, and the controversy is decided by that power.

In section 87, then, Locke points out that the equality of authority to enforce the law must be sacrificed by the individual in entering political society:
Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it. But because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve the property, and in order thereunto, punish the offences of all those of that society; there, and there only is political society, where every one of the members hath quitted this natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it. And thus all private judgment of every particular member being excluded, the community comes to be umpire, by settled standing rules, indifferent, and the same to all parties; and by men having authority from the community, for the execution of those rules, decides all the differences that may happen between any members of that society concerning any matter of right; and punishes those offences which any member hath committed against the society, with such penalties as the law has established: whereby it is easy to discern, who are, and who are not, in political society together. Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them, and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another: but those who have no such common appeal, I mean on earth, are still in the state of nature, each being, where there is no other, judge for himself, and executioner; which is, as I have before shewed it, the perfect state of nature.

So the idea here is that government officials do not naturally have unequal authority, but when we voluntarily enter into civil society, we give up our right to enforce the law of nature, instead turning over that power to an impartial judge: the community. In section 88, Locke writes:
But though every man who has entered into civil society, and is become a member of any commonwealth, has thereby quitted his power to punish offences, against the law of nature, in prosecution of his own private judgment, yet with the judgment of offences, which he has given up to the legislative in all cases, where he can appeal to the magistrate, he has given a right to the common-wealth to employ his force, for the execution of the judgments of the common-wealth, whenever he shall be called to it; which indeed are his own judgments, they being made by himself, or his representative. And herein we have the original of the legislative and executive power of civil society, which is to judge by standing laws, how far offences are to be punished, when committed within the common-wealth; and also to determine, by occasional judgments founded on the present circumstances of the fact, how far injuries from without are to be vindicated; and in both these to employ all the force of all the members, when there shall be need.

But Locke sees two clear problems with this account of the legitimacy of government. The first is that we don't literally consent to be governed, and so it seems odd to say that government is legitimated by the fact that we do. The second is that our agreement with our government would seem to need to be contingent on certain conditions in order to justify a government's maintenance of power; if a government were not honestly enforcing the natural law, and were instead doing things that we never consented to, it would seem that the agreement would be broken.

Locke addresses the first point in chapter 8 of the treatise, contending that so long as one remained within the territory of the political community of which you were a part, you could be taken to be tacitly consenting to the rule of that community's government. In section 119, Locke writes:
Every man being, as has been shewed, naturally free, and nothing being able to put him into subjection to any earthly power, but only his own consent; it is to be considered, what shall be understood to be a sufficient declaration of a man's consent, to make him subject to the laws of any government. There is a common distinction of an express and a tacit consent, which will concern our present case. No body doubts but an express consent, of any man entering into any society, makes him a perfect member of that society, a subject of that government. The difficulty is, what ought to be looked upon as a tacit consent, and how far it binds, i.e. how far any one shall be looked on to have consented, and thereby submitted to any government, where he has made no expressions of it at all. And to this I say, that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his possession be of land, to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway; and in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government.

He continues, in section 120:
To understand this the better, it is fit to consider, that every man, when he at first incorporates himself into any commonwealth, he, by his uniting himself thereunto, annexed also, and submits to the community, those possessions, which he has, or shall acquire, that do not already belong to any other government: for it would be a direct contradiction, for any one to enter into society with others for the securing and regulating of property; and yet to suppose his land, whose property is to be regulated by the laws of the society, should be exempt from the jurisdiction of that government, to which he himself, the proprietor of the land, is a subject. By the same act therefore, whereby any one unites his person, which was before free, to any common-wealth, by the same he unites his possessions, which were before free, to it also; and they become, both of them, person and possession, subject to the government and dominion of that common-wealth, as long as it hath a being. VVhoever therefore, from thenceforth, by inheritance, purchase, permission, or otherways, enjoys any part of the land, so annexed to, and under the government of that common-wealth, must take it with the condition it is under; that is, of submitting to the government of the common-wealth, under whose jurisdiction it is, as far forth as any subject of it.

The second point, that our agreement with our government is conditional, is addressed in chapter 19. Locke points out that our agreement with our government is contingent on the government holding up its part of that agreement. If the government begins to overstep the boundaries of the agreement, fails to follow the appropriate procedures for operating, alters the process by which new rules and political appointments are determined, surrenders its power to a foreign government, or fails to uphold the law, then the right to resist and dissolve it belongs to the people. In section 212, Locke writes:
The constitution of the legislative is the first and fundamental act of society, whereby provision is made for the continuation of their union, under the direction of persons, and bonds of laws, made by persons authorized thereunto, by the consent and appointment of the people, without which no one man, or number of men, amongst them, can have authority of making laws that shall be binding to the rest. When any one, or more, shall take upon them to make laws, whom the people have not appointed so to do, they make laws without authority, which the people are not therefore bound to obey; by which means they come again to be out of subjection, and may constitute to themselves a new legislative, as they think best, being in full liberty to resist the force of those, who without authority would impose any thing upon them.

He continues in section 214:
...when such a single person, or prince, sets up his own arbitrary will in place of the laws, which are the will of the society, declared by the legislative, then the legislative is changed: for that being in effect the legislative, whose rules and laws are put in execution, and required to be obeyed; when other laws are set up, and other rules pretended, and inforced, than what the legislative, constituted by the society, have enacted, it is plain that the legislative is changed. Whoever introduces new laws, not being thereunto authorized by the fundamental appointment of the society, or subverts the old, disowns and overturns the power by which they were made, and so sets up a new legislative.

And in section 215:
When the prince hinders the legislative from assembling in its due time, or from acting freely, pursuant to those ends for which it was constituted, the legislative is altered: for it is not a certain number of men, no, nor their meeting, unless they have also freedom of debating, and leisure of perfecting, what is for the good of the society, wherein the legislative consists: when these are taken away or altered, so as to deprive the society of the due exercise of their power, the legislative is truly altered; for it is not names that constitute governments, but the use and exercise of those powers that were intended to accompany them; so that he, who takes away the freedom, or hinders the acting of the legislative in its due seasons, in effect takes away the legislative, and puts an end to the government.

And in section 216:
When, by the arbitrary power of the prince, the electors, or ways of election, are altered, without the consent, and contrary to the common interest of the people, there also the legislative is altered: for, if others than those whom the society hath authorized thereunto, do chuse, or in another way than what the society hath prescribed, those chosen are not the legislative appointed by the people.

And in section 217:
The delivery also of the people into the subjection of a foreign power, either by the prince, or by the legislative, is certainly a change of the legislative, and so a dissolution of the government: for the end why people entered into society being to be preserved one intire, free, independent society, to be governed by its own laws; this is lost, whenever they are given up into the power of another.

And in section 219:
When he who has the supreme executive power neglects and abandons that charge, so that the laws already made can no longer be put in execution; this is demonstratively to reduce all to anarchy, and so effectively to dissolve the government. For laws not being made for themselves, but to be, by their execution, the bonds of the society to keep every part of the body politic in its due place and function. When that totally ceases, the government visibly ceases, and the people become a confused multitude without order or connection. Where there is no longer the administration of justice for the securing of men′s rights, nor any remaining power within the community to direct the force, or provide for the necessities of the public, there certainly is no government left.

So basically, Locke's argument boils down to this:

We are naturally free to do our own thing, and have no legitimate authority over anyone else. In the state of nature, we do have rights, and are justified in using force to deal with those who violate those rights. But in a world where we don't have a common authority to appeal to in order to enforce justice, the possibility of conflict would be significant. Accordingly, it makes sense for us to join together and to appoint ourselves a representative, or set of representatives, for the settling of our disputes and the enforcement of what's right. Once we enter into this agreement, we are bound to honor it so long as we continue to live on the land which we have committed to the compact. However, if the government is not legitimately performing its designated duties, then the agreement by which it and its agents gained their authority is broken, and we return to a state of nature, where everyone has equal authority to enforce justice.

So that's one way of thinking of government authority which allegedly doesn't commit us to thinking that there's any unreasonable double standard between government officials and ordinary people. As long as we think of government officials as our legitimately appointed representatives who we have entrusted to enforce justice, and a part of that agreement is that we surrender our own right to do that, then there's nothing particularly unreasonable going on.

However, as you might imagine, there are a number or problems with this point of view, which I'll have to discuss another time. Nevertheless, I think it's important to realize just how influential Locke was in the history of political philosophy. I can't imagine that there are any political philosophers out there who aren't familiar with this argument, and that alone suggests that perhaps your concerns about philosophers upholding an unreasonable double standard are misplaced. I honestly can't think of a single school of political philosophy that would want to outright characterize itself as taking the stance that governments do not gain their moral authority from the consent of the governed.

Of course, exactly what is meant by "the consent of the governed" ends up being the focal issue. As we saw here, explicit and ongoing consent is not always thought to be required (pacifists and some anarcho-capitalists disagree with this). If I get the chance to explain some of the other kinds of viewpoints out there, you'll hopefully be able to see how different ways of thinking about this consent and its moral relevance have played into different ways of thinking about the government.

But the main point, I guess, in all of this is that we as philosophers are not guilty of holding the really obviously problematic view that government officials, simply by putting on different outfits and going to work at different places, are magically imbued with special moral standing. Insofar as government officials are granted different status in ethical theories, it arises from their roles as government officials. As I wrote in objection to Stefan's book:
Another question arises from the double standard being used; is there a fundamental difference between the soldier and the politician that could justify making a unilateral allowance for the politician's orders, while still prohibiting the Iraqi and the soldier from making similar orders? An example which comes to mind is that of a Zen master, armed with a stick, whacking one of his students for an indiscretion. In the context of the Zen school, it's perfectly acceptable for the master to whack the student, though it would be unacceptable for the student to whack another student, or to whack the master. I'm not sure that anything similar could be said about the politician and the soldier, but it's not logically impossible that something like it couldn't be fabricated without failing the universality test.

If, as Locke and others have suggested, we have ceded to government officials the right to enforce different standards with respect to their own agents than they do among non-government agents, then the difference in treatment would not arise from the mere fact that they are government officials, but rather from the agreement by which they gained their status.

Hopefully that helps!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

On Moral Absolutes and the Axiology of UPB: A Reply to Jad

I want to thank Jad for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully! Anyone reading this post should check out his earlier post, to which this is a response. And Jad, I wish you the best of luck with your new blog! I have a few things to say about Jad's response, and hopefully we can work towards clearing up some of the confusion we've been trying to slog through together.

I first wanted to discuss the idea that theft is not, by definition, always wrong, contrary to what Jad suggested in his comments. In moral philosophy we draw a distinction between things that are wrong and things that are prima facie wrong (or "wrong at first glace"). Basically the application of the idea is this: As we've already discussed, the concept of theft comes from a moral framework which recognizes that people can have a moral claim to certain property holdings. Within this framework, to steal something is, by the nature of the system we're considering, prima facie wrong: that is, it's wrong at first glance. To put that another way, a system which recognizes rights to property is, I think necessarily, built on the idea that it's wrong to steal capriciously, or under circumstances which could be thought of as more or less "normal."

But a number of perspectives on property rights stop short of saying that it's never permissible to steal. For example (and this example is undoubtedly a complete bastardization of medical fact; I'm sure it couldn't actually happen this way), let's say you felt chest pains while walking down the street, and knew (somehow) that you were starting to have a heart attack. You happened to be passing by the open window of a house where some aspirin was sitting on the table, but no one was home. Now, let's say (probably falsely--I don't know) that if you took the aspirin, it would increase your chances of surviving the heart attack significantly. Would it be wrong to steal it? I don't think that the answer is clearly yes, or that by saying no we would be denying any form of property rights. We would just need to say that property rights aren't absolute like that; they don't tell us what we always must do or must refrain from doing.

If we accept the moral legitimacy of property rights of some form, then we would say that you're normally prohibited from stealing; to do so would be prima facie wrong. But in some circumstances, like where your life is in danger, the normal rules might not apply. That's not necessarily because the rules are bad ones, but rather because the rules were never meant to apply in all situations and contexts.

That's a big part of ethics that Stefan seems to completely ignore, and I noted it as my second objection to his book. He seems to believe that ethical rules need to be rigid and absolute in order to be legitimate. But not only does this not need to be the case; it's generally acknowledged to not be the case. I think that most people, including those in the philosophical community, don't think that you should be obligated to let yourself die in order to avoid taking someone else's asprin. So it seems like we would want to be skeptical of a system which would tell us that property rights commit us to saying that it would be wrong to do that, or otherwise that we must accept the position that it would be morally obligatory to constantly go around looking for aspirin to steal. But that's precisely the sort of thing Stefan needs to say in order to make his system work, and look at all the trouble he had trying to twist himself into plausible positions on "lifeboat scenarios." The reality is: rigid and absolute rules don't usually work, and when they do, it's because they've defined themselves in circles.

But your other question, which I think is important, is how we can decide what kinds of circumstances are morally significant, and which ones are simply irrelevant to determining what would be right or wrong. You suggest that the mere fact that someone has an FBI badge shouldn't matter in determining what's right and wrong in a certain scenario, and I don't want to dispute that outright (though there are important reasons why that might be problematic, and we can discuss those later if you want to). What I do want to point out is that you've now moved into the realm of axiology (that is, the study of value, or more specifically for our purposes, the study of what kinds of things have moral weight and why). Once we enter into this area of thinking, consensus among philosophers breaks down extremely quickly, and so I'm not particularly eager to critique Stefan's views through an axiological alternative of my own (of course, we can discuss my own views on the grounding principles of ethics later if you want). But I will note that Stefan doesn't actually provide a rigorous axiology in his book (this was my final objection in the other post), except to say that we should come to an understanding of ethical principles through the scientific method.

That brings us to Jad's final line of questioning, which concerns whether the scientific method is useful in determining what moral code is the correct one. Jad writes: it not reasonable to begin with a system isomorphic to the scientific method? I find it appealing on every level (I know that's not relevant to its validity). The amount of human suffering that is let pass by ethical systems which weigh intangible concepts (usually concepts that favor the powerful and the aggressive) is staggering. Is it only coincidental that an ethical framework grounded in reason and evidence favors instead voluntary relationships and non-aggression? Is it coincidental that civil society, as a matter of course, follows the single maxim of a framework so grounded? Is it coincidence that the only violators are those that interact with strangers by killing or threatening to imprison/kill them?

But there's a problem with this line of reasoning that I think Jad picked up on a little bit when he noted that "...the validity of the statement isn't determined by the appeal of the outcome." The problem can be understood in two parts: First, there is no such thing as "The scientific method." Science is done through testing hypotheses, through clarifying the meanings of concepts and exploring their entailments, through abstracting from data sets, and probably through a number of other means I'm leaving out. With each approach to science, there is undoubtedly a different idea of what it would mean to try to learn about morality through the scientific method, and evaluating the possibilities available through each method would require that we at least specify which one we're talking about. So simply saying that morality might be aided by the scientific method doesn't mean anything. You need to point to a kind of scientific inquiry you're hoping to use, and look for some way that it could be used to learn about morality.

But the second problem with the line of reasoning is that you need to figure out what sort of thing you're looking for in reality which would lead you to some conclusion about morality. Jad is absolutely right to point out that the examples he cited are outcomes, but further, they're not outcomes of morality, as such, but rather of individuals performing certain actions. So in order to learn anything about morality, he'd need to postulate some connection between morality and real world events which is not already clearly defined.

The idea he seems to be leaning on is that an acceptible moral framework should lead individuals to do things which will produce beneficial outcomes. This idea is not new to moral philosophy, and is most closely tied to utilitarian and consequentialist schools of thought. But it need not be solely those schools which can lay claim to those notions. Most moral philosophers these days acknowledge that there must be some place for consequences in our evaluation of a moral theory; if a moral theory leads to horrible social outcomes, that might very well be seen as evidence for rejecting it, or at least for accepting an alternative view with equal plausibility (see, for example, Schmidtz in Elements of Justice). So if consequences are a factor by which we judge moral theories, and we can predict what consequences we will likely observe if we follow this moral theory or the other one, then we can compare them somehow and perhaps move towards a better understanding of what our position ought to end up being. In that sense, various approaches to science might prove very useful.

But Stefan cuts himself off from this avenue of reasoning when he seems to repeatedly argue that consequences don't have anything to do with what's right. Perhaps things that are right happen to produce good consequences, but part of his position seems to be that if this were not the case, it wouldn't matter in determining the correct moral framework. So hence my confusion about Stefan's invocation of the scientific method as the sole hint to his axiology. Most of the evidence I would expect someone to use in favor of their theory won't work for Stefan, because he's thrown it out. He can't appeal to what people generally think or what consequences would be produced through acceptance of his view. And he's seemingly ruled out the idea that morality is a social or psychological phenomenon by attempting to prove a realist ethics. So I guess I'm just not sure what he wants science to tell us.

Hopefully some of that is helpful. As always, keep the questions coming!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Why Does It Make Sense for Ethical Statements to Make Reference to Circumstances?: A Reply to Jad

I received a comment on my previous post from someone named Jad asking a few questions about my treatment of some of Stefan Molyneux's metaethical claims in his book, Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, and I thought it might be helpful to both Jad and myself to quickly walk through some of the fundamental ideas that seemed to be confusing him. This post will respond to his first question:
I understand, as you say, it is "emphatically not" a requirement that an ethical/moral structure (sorry about the loose terms) make the same claim about what people should do independent of circumstances. Can this not be pointed to as the major failure of the philosophy of ethics?

There are a number of ways to approach this question, and I'm not sure if I can think of a coherent route which would follow any tight linear pattern (I've said it before, and I'll say it again now: I'm no metaethicist; these won't be my most graceful arguments!). So I apologize for just throwing a bunch of ideas out there in a somewhat haphazard manner (I'll try to preserve some sense of coherence!), but hopefully once they're all out there, it'll make sense why I think what I do about this issue.

First of all, I would want to point out that there are some actions which are, by necessity, always immoral. Murder is the example I always use (there may be more like it; I can't think of any at the moment..."violating" someone seems like it might work), because it seems automatically true that murder is wrong. But there is a reason for this. Murder actually means "wrongful killing." So it's wrong because if it weren't, it wouldn't be murder. The idea I want to highlight is that there are certain ways of describing our actions which are inherently value-laden. And by using these terms, we can often create the impression that we have come up with a coherent moral theory when we have really only applied our terms. So "murder" is automatically always wrong, but perhaps "killing" - what murder is when separated from any normative content - is not.

"Theft," to pull from Objectivist literature (for example, see this piece), is a word which only makes sense in the context of an institution of property rights. And even under the weakest sense of what it means to have a right to something, it must at least be prima facie wrong to steal (prima facie means "at first glance"). So it is no surprise that we generally agree that stealing is wrong (though many people might think that stealing is not always wrong, just like they would think that it's not always wrong to do something to someone else which they have a right against; see here, for example).

But when we separate out the normative content, "stealing" becomes simply "taking." And taking is not always wrong. I may permissibly take my towel to the beach, or take a drink of water at a public water fountain. And I don't think that's just because I'm playing word games and switching meanings: taking is not wrong by itself. Where taking becomes wrong is when we take something that we should not take - something that is either rightfully someone else's, or that is for some reason worthy of not being disturbed or removed from its original environment. But here the problem isn't simply the taking: it's the fact that the object I'm taking belongs right where it is. And to say that it "belongs" there requires that we come up with some exogenous conception of where stuff belongs (property rights being an example of this).

That seems like a reasonable lead-in to my second point. Once we are committed to describing our actions in value free terms, it seems to me that we need to make reference to circumstances in order to determine the moral character of our actions. For example, take the act of "killing a person." If I'm sitting in a coffee shop, and I see a stranger walk in and order a coffee, it seems like it would be wrong of me to kill her. But if I'm sitting in that same coffee shop, and I see that same stranger walk in, except now she's pointing a gun at me and (seemingly) getting ready to pull the trigger, we might not judge me so harshly if I were to kill her [Note: I won't get into the question of mens rea here, but I beseech my audience to give me the benefit of the doubt here. For any philosophers reading this: you know what I'm trying to say, darn it]. The thing that I did is pretty much the same in both situations, but the difference in circumstances explain why we think of the scenarios as being morally distinct.

This basic idea is captured by the principle of Formal Equality, which basically says that in order to justify treating two different scenarios as being ethically different from each other, we must find a morally relevant difference between them. In the above example, our intuition seems to tell us that the stranger's aggressive action in the latter scenario constitutes a morally relevant difference from the first scenario, even though my action was the same. If that's true, then it must be the case that other factors besides my actual action itself can qualify as morally significant. And another way of saying that seems to be that we can evaluate different scenarios as different not only when the actor chose a different course of action in one as opposed to the other, but also when the situation in which the actor acted changed in a morally significant way. And that's basically the same as saying that circumstances can be morally relevant, and our ethical rules do not have to tell us what actions are right or wrong without any reference to circumstances.

And I don't think this should be disconcerting. It just seems like an inherent part of playing the game. Any theory of morality which made no reference to circumstances would seem like it would end up being overly rigid and extremely implausible.

Is that a weakness for ethical philosophy? I guess that depends on what you're looking for out of ethical philosophy. If you want a list of actions that you always must perform, or must never perform, with no normative content smuggled in through definitions, then I'm not sure you're going to find any luck. So yea, it would be a weakness if that's what you wanted. But personally, I'd be really suspicious of any theory that proposed to tell me anything like that. Ethical philosophy doesn't seem like it's meant to command us about what to do; rather, it should help us determine what to consider when deciding how to act, and what kinds of things we should care about. And so far as that's the goal of ethics, I see no problem with making reference to circumstances. In fact, so far as ethics should help us in making decisions, and so far as we face different decisions in different circumstances, I wouldn't want an ethical theory that didn't make reference to circumstances!

So hopefully that's helpful, if perhaps not as analytically rigorous as it might be. I'll get to your other questions later.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Universally Preferable Behavior: An Overview of a Critique of Stefan Molyneux's Theory

[Part of The Molyneux Project]

[If you came here looking for the final critique, click here for the real final critique]

So it appears that people are still keeping tabs on my Molyneux Project, which makes me feel sort of bad about not finishing it. To be honest, there's a reason that I didn't complete the project, and I feel like that should be put out into the open for the benefit of whoever still cares. Basically, the main problem is that I can't figure out any way to make Stefan's theory into a coherent ethical framework without directly contradicting some core things that Stefan says. And unfortunately, Stefan has basically broken off communication between himself and me, which makes it impossible for me to determine whether or not I've misinterpreted some of his arguments. But perhaps more tellingly, prior to the cessation of our contact, the conversations that I had with Stefan suggested to me that I had not misinterpreted him, but rather that he had simply built a theory that couldn't stand up to scrutiny.

Unfortunately, explaining exactly what's wrong with Stefan's theory in a charitable and fair way would require me to pour through the book again to build up each problematic facet of Stefan's arguments directly from the text, so that I could critique him on his own terms. But to be perfectly honest, I really don't feel like doing that, and I'm somewhat skeptical that I ever will. As one might gather from looking through my notes, the book is presented in a manner that makes it rather difficult to isolate individual themes and to lay out specific features of the theory's structure. So it would take quite a bit of effort to show conclusively that this theme or the other one is actually a core component of the theory. Further, the problems with Stefan's theory, as I understand it, are so foundational that I'm not sure I would really learn anything from the exercise, except maybe how to construct clear arguments from extremely convoluted texts.

Since being completely charitable and fair to Stefan would require me to demonstrate conclusively that he actually argues each of the positions I attack, and because I'm not sure I want to bother doing that, it seems I'm in a rather crummy position. I promised I'd offer a critique, and I've so far failed to uphold that promise. So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to lay out my critique of Stefan's book without specifically citing any part of the text, with the full admission that I may have misunderstood certain elements of his arguments. I personally believe that what I'm going to say here is correct, but if anyone can go directly to the text and legitimately demonstrate that Stefan is not subject to the criticisms I offer here, then that will be that. I just personally don't think anyone will be able to. So without further ado...

The first major problem with Stefan's argument is that his theory is built in an extremely rigid way, such that any inflicted behavior is held to be either always morally wrong or always morally right, and yet Stefan thinks that there can be grey areas about whether or not a particular action is right or wrong. Further, it does not seem as though Stefan believes these grey areas to simply result from epistemological problems (circumstances where we cannot be sure whether something is morally wrong or morally right, but there is a truth to the matter going one way or the other); he seems to think that there really are grey areas in morality. But if you're working in a system which is explicitly black-and-white, that can't be the case. For example, if it's always morally wrong to invade others' property rights, then it's wrong to do so in the flagpole case, and anyone who "does it anyway" is immoral. Period. Otherwise, it's not always immoral. And if it's not always immoral, then Stefan's theory is wrong for other reasons. So no grey areas.

To be clear, I'm not rejecting the idea that there can be grey areas in morality. Plenty of other theories can accommodate them. But Stefan's can't, because it's built on black and white distinctions.

That brings me to the second major problem with Stefan's theory: it's built on black an white distinctions. Stefan treats morality as always being a matter of obligation. Either everyone is morally required to do certain things all the time, or they are morally prohibited from ever doing it. In designing his theory this way, Stefan leaves out an entire category of behaviors: the morally permissible. Morally permissible behaviors are those which we may engage in if we want to, but which we may choose not to engage in if we do not want to. Stefan's theory is built in such a way that the realm of the "permissible" is captured entirely within the category of "aesthetics", and the realm of the "obligatory" is captured entirely within the category of "morality." What differentiates them, Stefan seems to think, is that moral issues involve the initiation of force, coercion, or violence - they are "inflicted" - whereas aesthetic issues do not. The implication here is that if the initiation of force, coercion, or violence is involved in a particular behavior, it cannot be morally permissible: it must be obligatory for all people at all times to either do it or not do it.

It is a matter of common sense that there is no "positive" action (that is, an action you actually do, rather than an action which you avoid: murder is a "positive" action, while not murdering is a "negative" one; "not murdering" is not, one might note, an inflicted behavior at all) involving the initiation of the use of force which all people must be engaging in at all times. So if Stefan's distinction is allowed to stand, we will necessarily find that we end up advocating the non-aggression principle. It's simply a direct entailment of the distinction and our most basic intuitions about morality: we couldn't possibly all be morally required to be initiating force against each other all the time. It would be ridiculous.

So that leads to the next serious flaw in Stefan's theory: there is no good reason to believe that any action involving the initiation of force must either be morally obligatory for all people at all times or else morally prohibited for all people at all times. I don't even want to begin to try to get into the reasons Stefan offers in favor of this position - I discuss his various arguments in several places in my notes, and though those comments don't constitute thorough critiques, the amount of personal frustration that they represented makes me unwilling to refine them. I'll simply say that it is emphatically not a formal requirement of a moral theory that it make the same claim about what people should do regardless of the circumstances, nor is it a formal requirement of a moral theory that it must always either mandate or prohibit classes of actions.

My next set of objections to Stefan's theory focuses on the morality-aesthetics distinction itself. According to Stefan, moral issues are those which deal with "inflicted" behaviors, while aesthetic issues deal with "non-inflicted" behaviors. I've already pointed out that because of the way that Stefan's theory is built, it invariably ends up being the case that "inflicted" behaviors are deemed morally impermissible for all people at all times (because no positive inflicted behavior could possibly be morally required for all people at all times), and "non-inflicted" behaviors, by Stefan's strict system of delineation, are uniformly classified as morally permissible (though perhaps we might find them undesirable or negative in other ways).

But what exactly constitutes an "inflicted" behavior? Do inflicted behaviors need to be physically violent? Does blackmail count as something that's "inflicted"? Some people argue that certain kinds of verbal or expressive acts can be seriously damaging to people, often more so than some kinds of physical damage. I think this is perfectly reasonable. Does that mean that "expressive harms" (as they're often referred to in the philosophical literature) are "inflicted" behaviors? If so, then does that mean that it must either be morally obligatory for all people to verbally or expressively harm people at all times, or else it must be morally prohibited? If that's the case, then clearly it must be morally impermissible to cause harm to people through our words and expressions, no? What about offensive behavior?

Also, what about coming to the defense of others, or using force to secure restitution for a crime committed against someone else? Do those count as inflicted behaviors? I don't see how they could not, unless someone wanted to say that the aggressor's initial immorality provides some kind of justification for violence such that we wouldn't actually be inflicting anything on the aggressor but rather carrying out the "normal" consequences for immorality. And if one did say that, then I would have to challenge them to come up with some account of what kind of violence would be objectively justified, and under what conditions, because surely it's not the case that the mere fact of someone having committed an immoral action entitles us to do anything we want to them. In any case, it seems to me that the use of force on behalf of others is very clearly an inflicted behavior (though I would say it seems like an acceptable one in certain circumstances). But if we accept this, then we must ask if for all people at all times it's morally obligatory to come to the defense of others or morally unacceptable. But neither of these alternatives seems acceptable; I wouldn't want to say that a pacifist is objectively immoral to refrain from using force, but I also wouldn't want to say that people who come to the rescue of other people are objectively immoral.

And what about damage to property? Stefan seems to think that this clearly is "inflicted", but how does that make any sense? Inflicted on what, the property? Or on the owner? Is Stefan suggesting that we take the Lockean view of property as an extension of oneself so literally that to invade one's property rights would be to actually inflict violence on someone? Not only is that a highly contentious view of the nature of property rights which many philosophers now reject, but it also leads to some pretty odd conclusions. For example, let's imagine that your grandfather died and left you some money in his will, but you didn't know that he had done so. Now imagine that I came along and took that money and started planning my life around the idea that I would continue to have it in the future. But now you find out that I have done this, and come to demand your money. On what grounds, I might ask, should you have title to the money? There are literally no grounds for you saying that the money is an extension of you as a person, since you didn't know that the money had been left for you when I took it, and by Lockean standards, it's actually me who has the justification for keeping it because I made use of it first. Of course, you might try to argue that the money belonged to your grandfather, and my taking it was like stealing from him, but your grandfather is dead; it would seem pretty odd to me to find as ardent an atheist as Stefan arguing that your grandfather could have rights to money even though as a person, he no longer exists. So have I inflicted anything upon you? It's not clear. (Also, I should note that Stefan's argument in favor of some conception of property rights is largely addressed in a past article.)

Another similar problem arises from Stefan's discussion of animal rights. He suggests that animals can't have rights the way that people can, and just sort of chalks the issue up as a grey area. But I don't think he can get out of this one so easily. If we can inflict things on animals (and I think it's clear that we can), then we must seemingly come up with some conception of when we must do so, and when we must not. Nothing in between can suffice, because morally "optional" behaviors can't be moral issues at all: they're aesthetic.

Another issue with Stefan's theory is the maxim description problem, which I discussed in another post, and won't spend time with here. It occurs to me that many of my objections to Stefan's ethics-aesthetics distinction could be challenged by attempting to rephrase maxims, but as I try to show in the other post, that won't save Stefan's theory.

And the final, most fatal problem with Stefan's position is that he never seems to offer any coherent reason that we should do what is universally preferable. That is, he never connects morality with any fact about human existence in a way that's comprehensible to me. He doesn't seem to think that it corresponds with what people want, that it has anything to do with any spiritual feature of humanity, that it's necessary for people to follow it, or that it has to do with what people think. He seems to think that we should be able to make some kinds of observations about whether or not a particular moral theory is correct, as would be evidenced by his insistence on empirical observation and his chart discussing different features of socialism and capitalism. But as far as I'm aware, there really aren't any observable consequences of morality that can't be explained in terms of psychology, economics, and sociology. So the biggest problem with Stefan's morality is simply that it has nothing to do with morality. It doesn't give us any reason to do anything, except that our doing universally preferable things is in some sense "required" (though apparently not required for anything), whatever that means. It makes a bunch of really awkward distinctions, makes some claims about how philosophical paradigms need to work that don't seem to really be based on anything substantial, and basically rigs the deck so that we arrive at something that looks a lot like the familiar Non-Aggression Principle, but with all the constituent terms redefined so as to produce a result having nothing to do with the traditional Non-Aggression Principle. But it doesn't tell us anything about the way that we ought to live or how we ought to treat each other. So in pretty much every way I can think of, the theory has nothing to do with morality.

So I hate to leave it at that, but I sort of have to. To be as charitable as I really should would require an enormous amount of time and effort, and given my basic impression of the theory (which should be clear from the above), it doesn't seem like it would be particularly worthwhile to spend my time that way. Anyway, I'd like to extend an extremely heartfelt thank you to everyone who's been supporting me (or denigrating me) in this project. It's really been an honor to be made to feel so important in my own tiny little way, and I've really appreciated all of your kind words and helpful comments. I'd also like to thank Stefan Molyneux, even though I don't feel like he's always been completely fair or kind to me in our conversations, for graciously providing me with both an electronic and a print copy of his book, Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, free of charge (though if Stefan writes a rebuttal to the above which firmly establishes his theory and addresses my objections, I will gladly send him the money I bet him), and for at least not being explicitly uncivil towards me throughout this entire project. Without his generosity, none of this would have happened, and to be honest, I'm kind of glad it did.

So I guess that's all I have to say. Again, thank you all.
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