Thursday, April 30, 2009

Did I Mention How Excited I Am?

I know I'm a little late in reading this, but still...I don't think I've ever been this eager to start something in my life! Check it out -- "Philosophy of Freedom: Creating a World-Class Center at the UA."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Collective Responsibility Progress Report: Part I (Methodological Individualism)


So I've recently been thinking a lot about issues relating to collective responsibility, and it occurs to me that I haven't posted very much about the issues. Accordingly, I figured that it might be worthwhile to provide something of an overview of where my thinking has gone on this issue. In what follows (including subsequent parts), I will include citations that often come from Larry May's and Stacey Hoffman's edited collection, Collective Responsibility: Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics; I will designate these with the letters "CR".

The first thing that will be necessary to deal with in any discussion of collective responsibility is methodological individualism -- the idea that all statements about collectives are in principle reducible to statements about the individuals who compose those collectives, and that if we wanted to be really precise (allowing, of course, for the idea that sometimes we don't), we would want to only use statements and terms that referred to individuals, and not groups. If methodological individualism is a plausible approach to thinking about the sorts of issues that raise questions about collective responsibility, then it would seem that talking about collective responsibility as being somehow separate from individual responsibility would be a mistake. Collective responsibility would be at best shorthand for certain (reducible) matters of individual responsibility, and at worst the fabrication of nonsensical (that is, non-reducible) attributions of responsibility to entities that don't really exist.

Accordingly, I will direct my attention towards this idea in this post, and leave discussing other issues for later posts. I will first address methodological individualism broadly, and then focus my discussion on the subject of moral responsibility. I will then address the idea of holding groups accountable for wrongs that cannot properly be distributed across the membership of the group. Finally, I will offer a few concluding thoughts about whether methodological individualism really makes sense in thinking about collective moral responsibility.


So what, then, of methodological individualism? Is it true that statements about collectives are really reducible to statements about the individuals who compose those collectives? I don't think so. In his essay, "Collective Responsibility," David E. Cooper writes (CR 37):
Very often the person who ascribes Responsibility is not willing or able to mention, explicitly, individuals. Nor, if he could, would his statements mentioning individuals be equivalent in meaning to his statement about the collective. This is because the identity of a collective does not consist in the identity of its membership. The local tennis club is the same club as it was last year, despite the fact that new members may have joined, and old ones departed. The expression 'the local tennis club' does not, except in rare circumstances, refer to a determinate set of individuals. So it is absurd to equate the meaning of a statement about a collective with the meaning of a statement about a number of individuals.

Cooper continues (CR 39):
When a person says 'My stamp collection is very old' he may well agree to the set of statements, 'stamp X is old; stamp Y is old; stamp Z is old…etc.'. Here we may say that the predicate used to describe to collective is 'divisible'; that is, it is applicable to the members of the collective taken singly. Contrast the above case, though, with the following; A person states that the stew is delicious, but he certainly does not think that any of the ingredients, taken singly, are delicious. The stew’s being delicious is, of course, the result of the ingredients having the qualities that they do; but not one of them need be delicious. Here we say that the predicate used to describe the collective is 'indivisible' over the field of its members.

I think that these observations are correct and fatal to the methodological individualist position. I also think that Cooper's identification of "indivisible predicates" is particularly important. Where there are "divisible" predicates, it seems to me as though we could follow the individualists in saying that to do so would bring about more precision. But it seems rather clear to me that there are instances where there are "indivisible" predicates (whether because of persistent collective identity that's independent of membership flux, or because of emergent phenomena that arise from components' interrelationships, or whatever), and that in these cases we must abandon the reductionist mindset and understand what we are looking at as a uniquely collective phenomenon.


It should here be noted, however, I am not in this post supposed to be discussing collectives in a completely broad sense -- I am discussing them in the context of ascribing moral responsibility. And while the reductionism of methodological individualism is not well suited for all discussions of collectives, it may be that reductionism makes sense when discussing issues of morality. In his essay, "Collective Responsibility" (yes, everything ever written on this subject is in the form of an essay entitled "Collective Responsibility"; get over it), Jan Narveson writes (180):
The question for morals is always and fundamentally cast in individual terms: what is this, that, or the other person to do? If we think that there are things which groups should do, those claims will say nothing to anyone unless there is some way of understanding that individuals, such as members of that group or persons affected by its behavior, have duties or rights or some other moral status in relation to it.

I think that this is an important point. Even if we want to somehow argue that collectives can bear moral responsibility for things as collectives, it ultimately won't matter at all unless we translate that claim into some notion about what the member individuals are responsible for. Narveson conveys this well when he writes (185):
...given irreducibility, you can infer no individual responsibility at all, whether equal or otherwise. If no individual did this thing, no individual is responsible for it...


It may here be objected that just because collective responsibility may be non-distributive, that wouldn't mean that we couldn't hold the members accountable through some distribution of "blame." And I agree that as a practical matter, this may make sense. H.D. Lewis offers what I take to be a perfectly reasonable discussion of this issue in his essay, "Collective Responsibility" (yes, really) (CR 24):
Normally, the purpose served by the imposition of penalties require [sic] the penalties to be inflicted on persons presumed to have offended, and on no others. For if punishment were meted out without discrimination, its deterrent effect would be substantially lessened and, for the most part, reversed. For punishment would then have to be regarded as sheer injury or as "an act of God" unrelated to our own volitions, and, while thus little able to hinder crimes, it would often provoke them. But there are, however, exceptional cases where expediency requires proceedings to be taken against a group as if it were an individual entity. No account will then be taken of the guilt or innocence of individual members of the group. It is in this way that a teacher punishes a class of unruly children when he is not able to discover the real offenders, or when a meticulous apportionment of blame is not practicable. Such procedure may have effect in two ways, either by (a) directly deterring the main offenders or (b) by inducing the class to deal with them in ways not feasible for the teacher himself.

He continues (CR 24-25): a device for the achievement of practical ends, we have sometimes to accept collective responsibility [in a distributed sense]. This is fully acknowledged in law, where a parent may in some respects be held to account for the conduct of children, or where a society or corporation may be proceeded against as a single entity or person. Extending our canvas still wider, we have the imposition of sanctions against a whole nation in the interest of international order, although it is plain that this involves quite as much suffering for the innocent as for the guilty, the former, in a case of this sort, being probably in a very great majority. Reparations and similar measures adopted against an aggressor among nations may also be mentioned here. Such measures may be needed both in the interest of immediate discipline, and as a part of political education, and they may provide means of redress to victims of aggression. But they will involve a great deal of suffering for person who could not, by any streak of imagination, be held accountable for the culpable acts of the nation, most obvious in the case of infants and babes unborn.

Obviously, some people will take moral exception to the idea of holding people accountable in this way. But the point that I'm trying to capture by quoting Lewis is that where we hold collectives responsible for non-distributive wrongs in a distributive way, we will be doing so for pragmatic reasons, and this will not reflect any appropriate distribution of the wrong in question.


So far, I have argued that methodological individualism is a flawed doctrine in light of the existence of "indivisible" predicates that are important for our ability to understand phenomena. I have suggested that in spite of this, moral responsibility must be conceived of as relating to individuals, even if for pragmatic reasons we sometimes hold groups accountable in ways that we aren't properly distributive to their members. But does that mean that when limiting ourselves to thinking about moral issues, methodological individualism is the right way to go?

I don't think so. It seems to me that even if morality applies to individuals, it doesn't follow that the things we talk about in moral discourse have to be stated only in terms of individuals and never in terms of groups. If in thinking about the moral actions of an individual, we must deal with a situation in which an emergent or collective phenomenon is morally relevant, then the methodological individualist approach would be fundamentally flawed.

To illustrate this point, consider this quotation from R.S. Downie's essay, (you guessed it!) "Collective Responsibility" (CR 50-51):
In the first place, the rules which constitute the collective have been created or accepted by the decisions of individuals, who therefore bear moral responsibility for their decisions. If a collective tends to produce actions with a characteristic moral quality this will be partly because the decisions of the individuals who created the collective are to be morally praised or blamed. (Compare, for example, the moral decisions of those who created the collective 'The Gestapo' with those who created 'Oxfam.') In the second place, whether or not the actions of a given collective tend to produce praiseworthy or blameworthy actions some individual person freely decided to become a member of that collective. The morality of 'role-acceptance' is, of course, complex—all sorts of pressures may force a person to join a certain collective—but we can still maintain that the decision to act as a member of a collective is basically an individual decision which carries moral responsibility with it. And a person can resign if he disagrees violently with the actions he must take as a member of the collective. Finally, a person can bring various moral qualities of his own to his actions as a member of the collective. Thus the collective 'The Home Office' has often been morally criticised for the behaviour of its Immigration Officials. This is because some of them are alleged to bring their actions as members of the collective undesirable moral qualities—rudeness and so on.

It may be that ultimately, we will always want to think about moral responsibility in terms of what individuals ought to do or refrain from doing. But it seems clear to me that it would be unwise to take this as support for the methodological individualist paradigm. In moral theorizing, we will need to be able to discuss collectives as well as individuals, and it will therefore be critical that we not hamstring ourselves by accepting the implausible restrictions of methodological individualism.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rather Than Say This Myself...

It's generally been my policy to avoid posting things on this blog that relate to my personal matters outside of the world of philosophy. And I'd like to keep things that way. But recently, I wrote a critique of Stefan Molyneux's book, Univerally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, which was met with a response that I can only call unbecoming of a group of people who claim to be interested in participating in philosophical discourse. Airing my personal grievances would be an uncomfortable use of this space, and so I will not do that. I will instead acknowledge the feelings of another person, YouTube user LibertyIsNotGiven (Eugene on Freedomain Radio), as discussed in his video, "Freedomain Radio - This Train is Bound for Bullshit" (the embedding feature on YouTube has been disabled for the video, so you'll need to click on the link to see it). I think that Eugene's comments should more than suffice to give you a basic idea of what I think about all of this.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Paul Krugman is Right About Something

I think we sometimes get so caught up in our disagreements with people that we forget that they can sometimes have really valuable opinions. Paul Krugman is one person for whom that's sometimes true with me. I know that Krugman is an intelligent person, but sometimes it can be so difficult for me to get past my fundamental disagreements with him that I approach everything he says with the prejudice that he's going to be egregiously and unacceptably wrong. And that's not fair.

Yesterday, Krugman wrote a really good column. It had (almost) nothing to do with economics or the bailout -- it was about the need to hold the Bush administration accountable for the injustices that occurred under their leadership. Krugman said:
...there are indeed immense challenges out there: an economic crisis, a health care crisis, an environmental crisis. Isn’t revisiting the abuses of the last eight years, no matter how bad they were, a luxury we can’t afford?

No, it isn’t, because America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. "This government does not torture people," declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

I agree. I agree completely and wholeheartedly. So for a moment, I just want to enjoy this moment of giving credit where credit is due.

Paul Krugman is absolutely right.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Don't You Wish It Could Really Be This Way?

Earlier on the Wonkette blog, Ken Layne posted this piece of hilarious anti-libertarianism:

I'm sure that the majority of libertarians who watch the video will be vaguely offended, or even seriously offended, and will think that Layne is just an idiot who has bought into the propaganda of mainstream politics. "Clearly he doesn't understand libertarianism; he's just a statist parrot!" Yea, yea.

But I want to take a moment to offer an alternative perspective. I'll start with a pair of observations. First, Layne is advocating on behalf of secessionism. That's not to say that he thinks it's a good idea; he seems to think that it's a really stupid idea and that only really stupid people (like we friendly libertarians) would want to do it. But he does seem to think that if a group of people really wants to leave the larger group of which it is a part, and that there doesn't seem to be a basis for resolving the disagreement at the root of that desire, then it would be appropriate for the groups to part ways in peace (though perhaps not in friendship).

Second, he seems to be on board with the idea that if a group of people wants to organize themselves according to their own views about what would be best, then they should be free to do so. Of course, he's saying that as if he thinks that he knows better, but he's not suggesting that the people in question be prevented from following their own plans.

So I guess the point I'm making here is that even though Ken Layne apparently thinks libertarians are dumb, he's actually vaguely libertarian himself. He's just vaguely libertarian while apparently wanting to live in a society run by an enormous, bloated, overreaching bureaucratic monstrosity with its hands deep in other countries' business and a penchant for getting involved in citizens' lives far beyond the point that could be reasonably seen as necessary to ensure that social interrelationships can occur in a safe and equitable environment. And he apparently doesn't understand why anyone would think that his way is a dumb way to live. So be it.

If anything, it seems to me that this sort of thing represents a problem with the way that libertarians have gone around marketing their ideas. Instead of being a philosophy of mutual respect, self-determination, and decentralization, libertarianism has been sold as what basically amounts to "a more consistent conservatism." If people like Ken Layne can go through the hassle of producing an elaborate anti-libertarian screed that is based entirely on a fundamentally libertarian argument, it means that we've screwed up somewhere along the way. That's our argument. Let's make that clear.

This Blog to be Featured on!

I'm very pleased to announce that this blog will henceforth be featured as part of the blog aggregator. I will choose to believe that this means that I've officially made it, and that a big truck of money is on its way to my doorstep. Of course, if it doesn't arrive, you can rest assured that I will demand a massive government-led investigation to get it back, and lobby for a taxpayer-funded bailout if the money isn't found.

My Apparently Vicious Work Covered on YouTube

Maverick YouTube channel-haver ReIgNoFrAdNeSs ("Reign of Radness" for those who refuse to read Alternatingcapsese) has released a video entitled "UPB's Recent Testicalectomy" in a transparent attempt to have me labeled as a depraved murderer...of Stefan Molyneux's ethical theory. Thanks are due for the press! Here's the video:

And here's a link to the critique.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day!

From its inception, Earth Day has been a political event, designed to "raise awareness" about environmental issues and encourage us to be more responsible stewards of our planet. A lot of libertarians bristle at this sort of thing, and perhaps understandably so -- after all, most of the environmentalist rhetoric out there comes tied to demands for increasingly centralized "social" control of the natural resources we need to lead our lives. As many have pointed out, freedom in the absence of the freedom to make use of material goods is not freedom in any effective sense. And it is freedom that allows us to prosper and flourish, not simply existence in a rich natural environment. Jan Narveson put it well in his essay, "Collective Responsibility":
...the idea of collective ownership of the earth is, really, a myth, a dish of romantic political nonsense. And like almost all romantic myths when they are politicized, the results of taking it seriously are inevitably evil. Some general story of the Lockean stripe is all there is, because it is all there can be. Individual people pick fruit from individual trees, dig up particular patches of soil, kill particular deer, grow particular pigs, and the rest of it – up to and including inventing the digital computer and putting on productions of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs. That is how mankind is fed, and clothed, and entertained, because there is no other way. To "collectivize" agriculture is not, because it cannot be, to cause the plants to grow in some other way; it is, instead, to force people to work differently: to work under the direction of others who need pay no attention to the worker’s interests, and to disconnect those workers from the incentives and disincentives that have always impelled people to work. It is not surprising that it does not work very well, but it is important to appreciate what it is and that it cannot be what it appears to pretend to be.

But in this post, I want to briefly consider another side of the issue, which some libertarians seem to overlook in their antipathy towards collectivist environmentalist propaganda. Just as we need freedom in order to plan and lead our separate lives, and just as this freedom is essential to our wellbeing so that taking it away for the sake of the natural world would be a worrisome proposition, so too do we depend on the natural world to make our lives rich and worthwhile. If the freedom to use resources is essential for our effective liberty, it's because resources are such critical elements in the production of our material lives.

David Schmidtz writes, in his essay "On the Institution of Property":
Original appropriation diminishes the stock of what can be originally appropriated, at least in the case of land, but that is not the same thing as diminishing the stock of what can be owned. On the contrary, in taking control of resources and thereby removing those particular resources from the stock of goods that can be acquired by original appropriation, people typically generate massive increases in the stock of goods that can be acquired by trade. The lesson is that appropriation typically is not a zero-sum game. It normally is a positive sum game. As Locke himself stressed, it creates the possibility of mutual benefit on a massive scale. It creates the possibility of society as a cooperative venture.

And Dr. Schmidtz is absolutely right. But so too can we waste resources unnecessarily, and this impoverishes us all. The view that celebrates humanity's capacity to transform the natural environment in awe-inspiringly productive ways must be understood against the backdrop of an appreciation for the role that the environment plays in all of our lives. And it's that backdrop that seems to be missing from so many libertarians' worldviews. (Of course, I don't mean that Dr. Schmidtz is guilty of this, for obvious reasons.)

Another troubling phenomenon that I've observed is a seeming lack of appreciation from libertarians for the value of the natural environment itself as a beautiful and enriching thing in itself. This vulgar-Randian "I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York's skyline"-times-one hundred attitude is embodied in George Reisman's (I think incorrect) intepretation of Menger in his essay, "Environmentalism in the Light of Menger and Mises":
The goods-character of natural resources, according to Menger, is created by man, when he discovers the properties they possess that render them capable of satisfying human needs and when he gains command over them sufficient to direct them to the satisfaction of human needs.

He continues:
...what nature has provided is matter and energy--matter in the form of all the chemical elements both known and as yet unknown, and energy, in all its various forms. I call this contribution of nature "the natural resources provided by nature.

Consider this in light of a different view from Aldo Leopold:
Only those able to see the pageant of evolution can be expected to value its theater, the wilderness, or its outstanding achievement, the grizzly. But if education really educates, there will, in time, be more and more citizens who understand that relics of the old West add meaning and value to the new. Youth yet unborn will pole up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, or climb the Sierras with James Capen Adams, and each generation in turn will ask: Where is the big white bear? It will be a sorry answer to say he went under while conservationists weren't looking.

This, I think, is absolutely right. Our natural world is not just matter and energy; it is a beautiful and astonishing treasure that we must treat with the care that it deserves. And if libertarians forget this, then it's everyone's loss. So on this Earth Day, let's forget for a moment about the vulgar collectivism that so often comes from the environmentalist movement, and instead take the day to look around and appreciate the incredible gift that has been our birthright: the Earth and its natural environment, in all of its diversity and elegance. We can be libertarians and environmentalists at the same time -- and to be honest, I think we should be.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Critique of Stefan Molyneux's Ethical Theory of Universally Preferable Behaviour

So in case anyone (or everyone) has forgotten, in the early days of this blog I went through Stefan Molyneux's book, Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics. My goal was to figure out whether there was really anything to all the fuss that had been made about Stefan and his site, Freedomain Radio, but also to win a bet that I had made with Stefan about the claims that he made about the book. After wrestling with the project for a while, I concluded that Stefan's ideas were troublesome for a rather large number of reasons, and tossed out a rather slipshod overview of some of the things that were wrong with the book. By that time, Stefan had lost interest in continuing to speak with me about the subject, and I was sort of bored with the whole thing anyway, so I was mostly glad to just be done with it.

Recently, however, and for reasons that are not known to me, Stefan's ideas have re-entered the limelight. Perhaps most significant in my world has been Alex "Brainpolice" Strekal's recent involvement in a recorded debate with Stefan that was subsequently plastered all over the internet. But in any case, I thought it might finally be time to actually finish what I started in the form of a systematic critique of the book. So here's that effort.

I. Introduction

Stefan's project is an audacious undertaking. He describes his task as a battle against the "beast" of folk morality -- a view that he defines as "...the superstition that, without the tirades of parents, the bullying of gods or the guns of government, we cannot be both rational and good" (7) -- and contends that "Of course, if I have failed, I have at least failed spectacularly, which itself can be both edifying and entertaining!" (10). In this critique, it will become clear that I believe that Stefan has failed. But I am somewhat inclined to agree that his failure was rather spectacular.

In his book, Stefan boldly attempted to address a wide swath of philosophical disciplines, ranging from metaphysics to the philosophy of science to ethics -- all in less than 150 pages and without a single footnote. So it should surprise no one that he may have left a little bit to be desired in his handling of each subject. But because Stefan's discussion is so wide ranging, and because I don't have the time, energy, or interest to dissect Stefan's metaphysical or scientific views, I will limit my critique to Stefan's handling of ethics. After all, this book is supposed to be a rational proof of secular ethics, and if it fails at that, then the other problems with the book will be irrelevant.

In this analysis, I will rely on a certain interpretation of Stefan's approach in the book which suggests that there are actually at least two separate kinds of arguments that are being used. I proceed this way because there are elements of Stefan's approach that don't necessarily work together and which can be isolated into coherent and separate arguments. I will defend this interpretation with extensive reference to the text of the book, but there will nevertheless remain the possibility that I have misunderstood Stefan's intentions at some point along the way. So keep in mind that while I do think that my accounts of Stefan's arguments are accurate and that my critiques effectively demonstrate what is wrong with Stefan's arguments, it is still true that I am only attacking one interpretation of the text, and that interpretation may be wrong.

This critique will involve three steps. First, I will show that Stefan's terminological choices don't work, and that the first line of argumentation (which is built on this terminology) is non-functional. Second, I will show how Stefan's second line of argument works. And finally, I will explain what's wrong with this second line of argument.

II. Preferable...For What?

The first strain of Stefan's argument is the one that gives the book its title, and deals with the idea that certain behavior can be "universally preferable." The meaning of this term is likely not immediately clear, so it will be necessary to spell out what Stefan means by it.

[Added later: Some people have expressed frustration at the following paragraphs, calling them "nitpicky" as a way of dismissing them as unimportant. But what could be more important to a theory of universally preferable behavior than the definition of universally preferable behavior? In what follows, you will see that I think that the examples which Stefan uses to illustrate his definition contain some errors. These errors may seem small -- indeed, I think they are small -- but nevertheless, they are errors in illustrating the definition of the concept upon which the entire theory is based. I think that I would be doing a disservice to the reader if I simply allowed them to stand without explaining why the examples that Stefan uses are not examples of universally preferable behavior. So I hope that you will bear with me through a tiny bit of nitpicking, since at the other end will hopefully be a clearer understanding of what Stefan's theory looks like than is conveyed by his own examples.]

On page 30, Stefan writes:
When I speak of a universal preference, I am really defining what is objectively required, or necessary, assuming a particular goal. If I want to live, I do not have to like jazz, but I must eat. "Eating" remains a preference - I do not have to eat, in the same way that I have to obey gravity - but "eating" is a universal, objective, and binding requirement for staying alive, since it relies on biological facts that cannot be wished away.

It should be immediately clear that "eating" is not the best example, because you could stay alive by drinking smoothies, injecting yourself with nutrients intravenously, or whatever. But it shouldn't be too difficult to understand what Stefan means; here's another statement from the same page:
If I say that it is preferable for human beings to exercise and eat well...What I am saying is that if you want to be healthy, you should exercise and eat well.

Again this is potentially a bad example, but that's beside the point. What we need to get from this is that the word "preferable" means "required in order to achieve some end." We also need to acknowledge that the claim that something is preferable demands that we identify the end for which the preferable act is required. It isn't enough to simply say "it is preferable to eat"; we need to say, "it is preferable to eat because you want to live." And Stefan acknowledges this, writing:
Naturally, preferential behaviour can only be binding if the goal is desired.

The term "universally preferable behavior," then, could coherently be used in two senses. The first sense, which I will call the "weak" sense, would be to identify something that is required for all people to achieve some end, without claiming that it's actually going to be preferable for everyone. So, for example, you could say that "not killing yourself" is universally preferable for "living," in the sense that anyone who wants to live must not kill herself. But you could allow the possibility that some people wouldn't want to live, and so it wouldn't be preferable for them to not kill themselves. The second sense, which I will call the "strong" sense, would be to identify something that is required for all people to achieve some end that they all actually want to achieve. So if it were true that everyone on Earth actually did want to live, you could say that it is universally preferable that they all not kill themselves, because that would be incompatible with their ends.

So let's see this in action. On page 34, Stefan says:
...if a man wants to cure an infection, he should take antibiotics rather than perform an Aztec rain dance. The preference for taking antibiotics rather than doing a rain dance is universal, since dancing cannot cure infections. Thus, although there is the occasional madman who will try to cure himself through dancing, it is still universally preferable that if a man wants to cure himself, he must take antibiotics.

Here (again in spite of the bad example -- there might be other ways to cure an infection) we can directly see the weak sense of the term being used. It's not necessarily true that everyone actually wants to cure their infections, but if they did, then Stefan is identifying what would be required for them to achieve their ends: taking antibiotics. I hope that this will be sufficient for establishing that this is how Stefan is using the term; if not, I can find some other examples.

But now it's time for the first bit of that spectacular and entertaining failure that I promised at the beginning. On page 33, Stefan writes:
When I say that some preferences may be objective, I do not mean that all people follow these preferences at all times. If I were to argue that breathing is an objective preference, I could be easily countered by the example of those who commit suicide by hanging themselves.

What do we make of this? Let's try running it through our two senses of the term "universally preferable." According to the strong sense, arguing that breathing is objectively preferable would mean that breathing is required for some end that everyone shares, and since he gives suicide as the example, we might presume that the end in question is something like "living without the aid of life-support machinery." But I would imagine that someone who commits suicide probably does not want to live (with or without life-support machinery), and so it simply wouldn't be true that breathing is universally preferable in the strong sense.

In the weak sense of the term, we can say that breathing is universally preferable for living without life-support, since anyone wanting to do that would need to breathe. And since we're only using the weak sense of the term, we acknowledge that if the suicidal person doesn't want to live, it won't be necessary for her to breathe: it's only preferable to breathe in order to achieve the end in question, and she doesn't want to achieve it. So this makes sense.

But in the next paragraph, Stefan writes:
Thus when I talk about universal preferences, I am talking about what people should prefer, not what they always do prefer.

Now if we were using the strong sense of the term "universally preferable," this would make sense: because everyone shares the end in question, we can say that everyone should do what is universally preferable. But in this example, we're forced to use the weak sense, since it's not the case that everyone shares the end in question. Accordingly, it simply isn't true that by this line of thinking, we would arrive at the conclusion that the suicidal person should breathe. In fact, the suicidal person's goal is to suffocate: for people with that end, it is actually universally preferable (in the weak sense) not to breathe.

Okay; back to business. Now that we have an understanding of what Stefan means by "universally preferable," we can turn to his theory of ethics. First, we need to get a bit of confusion out of the way. On page 30, Stefan writes:
Ethics as a discipline can be defined as any theory regarding preferable human behaviour that is universal, objective, consistent - and binding.

But later in the book, Stefan uses a much more restricted definition of the discipline of ethics. On page 48, for example, he writes:
In general, we will use the term aesthetics to refer to non-enforceable preferences - universal or personal - while ethics or morality will refer to enforceable preferences.

And he continues:
Ethics is the subset of UPB which deals with inflicted behaviour, or the use of violence.

Throughout the book, Stefan uses this second, more restricted sense, and not the first sense, to talk about morality. For example, on page 76 he writes, "...morality is defined as an enforceable subset of UPB...," and in Appendix A on page 125, he writes, "The subset of UPB that examines enforceable behaviour is called "morality." He explains this shift on page 48 by explaining that "Although we first focused on UPB in the realm of ethics, UPB can now be seen as an "umbrella term"..." Fair enough; it just seems like it should be explicitly acknowledged here.

So, then, how would we use the concept of universally preferable behavior to think about "inflicted" or violent behaviors? To use the strong sense of "universally preferable behavior," we'd need to think about a kind of situation where all people need to use violence in order to achieve their ends. But given the vast diversity of ends, it would seem sort of odd to suggest that everyone is going to be required to do a particular sort of violent action in order to achieve a particular end that they all share. I mean, maybe there's a way to make that work, but I'd be sort of surprised.

What about the weak sense of the term? It seems rather clear that there are at least some ends that would require the use of violence, no matter who was trying to achieve them, and in these cases we'd want to say that it was universally preferable to use violence in order to achieve those ends.

But notice that so far, we're not talking about morality at all. We're pretty much talking about prudence -- that is, what you should do in order to achieve your goals. And this makes sense, because as Stefan said, "Naturally, preferential behaviour can only be binding if the goal is desired."

So, then, it's interesting to see where Stefan goes next. He writes:
Any theory that justifies or denies the use of violence is a moral theory, and is subject to the requirements of logical consistency and empirical evidence.

But what does he mean by "justifies" and "denies"? The idea of "justification" usually has to do with the idea that someone ought to be able to provide certain defenses of the choices he or she makes. But if we're just talking about ways of achieving our goals, the only justification we would need would be to a) identify what our goals are, and b) show how our chosen behaviors are consistent with achieving our goals.

It's this feature of the meaning of "universally preferable" that proves to be the fatal flaw in this line of argumentation. As long as we understand "universal preferability" in the terms that Stefan outlined in the beginning of the book, we will never be able to use the term to establish anything beyond the fact that something is necessary in order to achieve certain ends. So, then, it cannot be on the basis of universal preferability that we condemn the rapist, the murderer, or the thief -- that is, unless we somehow want to argue that rape, murder, or theft are somehow incompatible with the desires of the rapist, the murderer, or the thief, and our condemnation is simply one of taking exception to their stupid and ignorant choices. But Stefan doesn't argue this way, and that's good, because if he did it would be disastrous.

To illustrate this point, let's run the example of rape through our two senses of the term "universally preferable." The strong sense of universal preferability relies on the idea that everyone shares a certain end, and that there is something that is universally required in order to achieve this end. But it should be uncontroversial that neither raping nor non-raping is necessary for any end that everyone shares (after all, there are rapists, and presumably it will help them achieve their goals if they rape). So it simply would not be true that in the strong sense of "universally preferable," it is universally preferable for people to either rape or not rape.

And in the weak sense of "universally preferable," we can surely imagine that there are some ends that would require rape to achieve. For example, we might imagine that someone wants to achieve the end of "Having sex with someone who doesn't want to have sex with them, and who won't be amenable to being convinced or bargained with." In order to achieve this end, it would seem that rape would be required, no matter who was trying to achieve the end. So in the weak sense, rape would be universally preferable for anyone trying to achieve this end. And the same sort of thinking would apply in the cases of murder and theft.

So the concept of "universally preferable" behavior is simply not going to get Stefan to where he wants to go. He's just defined it in a way that makes it incompatible with the kinds of things he wants to establish -- among them that rape, murder, and theft are (thankfully) not moral. Accordingly, we'll turn to the next kind of argument that Stefan offers in his book.

III. A Maxim-Based Approach

Stefan's second line of argument is also built on the vocabulary of "universally preferable behavior," but seems to use the term in a way that's very different from the way that it is defined at the beginning of the book. In this other sense, "universally preferable" no longer means "required in order to achieve certain ends," but instead takes on a role in what I will call a "maxim-based" approach to ethical reasoning.

Because Stefan's words are tied up in the flawed terminology of "universally preferable behaviors," it will be necessary to find another way to interpret what Stefan is talking about. As we saw in the previous section, Stefan tells us that moral theories identify inflicted behaviors that are either justified or unjustified. We saw that when we think about this in terms of a behavior's being "universally preferable," this doesn't make sense. But it seems to me that we can proceed if we just cut out the "universally preferable" terminology altogether and just use terms like "morally required" or "morally unjustified" in their stead.

So for example, when Stefan is talking about the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) on page 54, he says:
The NAP is basically the proposition that "the initiation of the use of force is morally wrong." Or, to put it more in the terms of our conversation: "The non-initiation of force is universally preferable."

As we saw in the last section, calling the non-initiation of force "universally preferable" doesn't actually mean what Stefan seems to want it to mean. But if we just ignore the term "universally preferable" and substitute "morally required" in its place, then the statement is basically a tautology (which is what we want). It would now say:
The NAP is basically the proposition that "the initiation of the use of force is morally wrong." Or to put it more in the terms of our conversation: "The non-initiation of force is [morally required]."

Now that we have figured out a way to interpret Stefan's ideas without being hindered by his terminology, we can turn to the question of how he's using the term in order to build a moral framework. I said that the way he goes about doing this is through a "maxim-based" approach. So what is a maxim-based approach, and how does it work? The fundamental building block of such an approach is -- unsurprisingly -- a "maxim," which is a principle on which a person bases her decisions. The form of a maxim is as follows:

"In circumstances C, I will do X."

The role of C is to tell the actor when the rule is supposed to apply by describing the sorts of situations in which the action is to take place, and the role of the X is to describe the action that this person is supposed to be doing. So for example, we might offer the maxim, "When I am outside in the rain, I will cover myself with an umbrella." The C in this case would be any set of circumstances in which I am outside in the rain, and the X would be the action of covering myself with an umbrella. Clearly, when it is not raining or when I am inside, the maxim will have nothing to say; it only applies when the situation I face matches the circumstances set out in C. But we can say that I am always following this maxim if whenever I'm outside in the rain, I cover myself with an umbrella.

Stefan's approach to moral theorizing looks at maxims in order to determine whether they can be morally legitimate as guides for action. We can see the maxim-based approach most clearly on page 44, when Stefan is considering whether a soldier could ever be justified in killing. After first dismissing the possibility that murder is always morally required (a bold stance!), he introduces another possibility by saying:
If, to save the virtue of soldiers, I alter my theory to argue that it is moral for people to murder if someone else tells them to...

We can translate this proposed maxim as saying, "In circumstances where I am told to murder, I will do so." Stefan goes on to dismiss this maxim, and for reasons I will discuss in the next paragraph. But for right now, the thing to understand is how Stefan's approach can be understood as being based on evaluating maxims. The question of whether the soldier's killing is morally justified is answered by first figuring out what maxim the soldier would be following in deciding to kill, and then considering whether or not that maxim is an acceptable guide for the soldier's action.

So how does Stefan determine whether or not a maxim is acceptable? The first step that he takes is to suggest that we ought to consider what would happen if everyone followed the maxim in question. Stefan uses this approach to dismiss the maxim we just discussed:
If Politician A can order a soldier to murder an Iraqi, then the Iraqi must also be able to order the soldier to murder Politician A, and the soldier can also order Politician A to murder the Iraqi. The application of this theory results in a general and amoral paralysis, and is thus proven invalid.

If we generalize this idea, we can arrive at the following rule, which I think is foundational to Stefan's argument:

Claim 1: If it would be impossible or unreasonable for everyone to follow a particular maxim all the time, then that maxim is not morally legitimate as a guide for action.

How does this fit in? It seems clear that the problem that Stefan is identifying with the maxim in question -- "In circumstances where I am told to murder, I will do so" -- is that it would be impossible or unreasonable for everyone to follow it as a "rule to live by." It is on this basis that Stefan is claiming that it is defective as a guide for action.

But why should we accept Claim 1? Stefan offers the following explanation on page 43:
...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 mankind must apply to all mankind. No moral theory can be valid if it argues that a certain action is right in Syria, but wrong in San Francisco. It cannot say that Person A must do X, but that Person B must never do X. It cannot say that what was wrong yesterday is right today - or vice versa. If it does, it is false and must be refined or discarded.

When I first read this, I was a little confused, since this isn't obviously how all theories in physics actually work. That is, the theory of gravity may apply to all matter, but other theories (e.g., theories about black holes) clearly don't apply to all matter (though they presumably apply to all black holes). What physical theories do follow is something like a principle that things that are identical in all relevant properties must be treated in the same way by a theory -- so a theory of matter would apply to anything that is matter, and a theory of black holes would apply to anything that is a black hole.

But are people identical in the senses that would be relevant for ethical theorizing? I think that's a sort of complicated question, and an overly simplistic attempt to answer it sets up for the next episode of "Stefan's spectacular and entertaining failure" (this time from page 44):
Since all human beings share common physical properties and requirements, proposing one rule for one person and the opposite rule for another is invalid - it is like proposing a physics theory that says that some rocks fall down, while others fall up. Not only is it illogical, it contradicts an observable fact of reality, which is that human beings as a species share common characteristics, and so cannot be subjected to opposing rules.

Really, Stefan? So do you pee sitting down, or does your wife pee standing up? Or do you both pee in your diapers (holler back, baby Molyneux)? *Rimshot!* But I don't actually want to object to Claim 1, so we can move on while leaving it intact. I personally think it's sort of reasonable (though perhaps not as solid as Stefan seems to think), and there are much bigger fish to fry. [Added later: For those interested in thinking more about the moral equality of humans, a classic piece is Bernard Williams' essay, "The Idea of Equality." Taking the discussion a step further to ask how humans can be morally equal and morally unequal from animals is Bonnie Steinbock's excellent piece, "Speciesism and the Idea of Equality."]

The next step in Stefan's ethical theory is a bit more troubling, but ultimately can be repaired to make sense. On page 66, Stefan writes:
The opposite of "virtue" must be "vice" - the opposite of "good" must be "evil." If I propose the moral rule "thou shalt not steal," then stealing must be evil, and not stealing must be good.

It should immediately be recognized that "not stealing" is not the opposite of stealing, but is rather the negation of stealing. To illustrate this point: Most people would say that the opposite of "black" is "white." But "not black" is not the same thing as "white." "Green" is "not black," but it isn't "white."

Unfortunately, if we try to repair Stefan's point by changing the word "opposite" to "negation," then the point becomes false. The negation of "virtue" isn't "vice," and nor is the negation of "good" "evil." A person can lack virtue without displaying vice, and a person can be not good without being evil.

But Stefan does not recognize this problem, and so adopts something like the following:

Claim 2: If adopting a particular maxim would be virtuous or morally good, then failing to adopt that maxim would be evil. Likewise, if adopting a particular maxim would be evil, then failing to adopt that maxim would be virtuous or morally good.

This is embodied rather clearly on page 66 when Stefan writes:
If "rape" is a moral good, then "not raping" must be a moral evil - thus it is impossible for two men in a single room to both be moral at the same time, since only one of them can be a rapist at any given moment - and he can only be a rapist if the other man becomes his victim.

It should be uncontroversial that rape is not actually a moral good, but for our purposes this is beside the point. I use this example only to demonstrate how Claim 2 is being used in Stefan's theory. Presumably, the maxim that Stefan is discussing here is something along the lines of "In all circumstances, I will rape," and the question appears to be what would follow if we said that adopting the maxim is morally good. Applying Claim 2, Stefan arrives at the conclusion that failing to adopt the maxim would be morally evil.

But where Stefan has introduced Claim 2 as if it were simply a logical truth, the disconnection between the concept of an "opposite" and a "negation" eliminates this defense of the claim. Accordingly, Claim 2 is a rule in search of a justification, and as far as I can tell, Stefan doesn't offer another argument for it.

So what do we think of Claim 2? Personally, I think it depends on what we mean by "morally good" or "virtuous" When we normally talk about morally good or virtuous actions, we mean things that speak highly to a person's character, but which it would not necessarily be evil for me not to do. Charity is a great example of something which most people find to be morally good, and helping my sister with her homework is seemingly virtuous. But I wouldn't obviously be evil if I didn't do those things. If this is how we mean "morally good," then Claim 2 is clearly going to be false. We can only save Claim 2 if by "morally good," we mean something like "morally required." Rephrased this way, we get:

Claim 2': If adopting a particular maxim would be morally required, then failing to adopt that maxim would be evil. Likewise, if adopting a particular maxim would be evil, then failing to adopt that maxim would be morally required.

And Claim 2' seems obviously true. If we interpret Stefan's example with this altered terminology, we can see that things make a little more sense: If rape were morally required, then not raping would be evil, and Stefan's concerns would seem to apply.

So to summarize, we thus far have two more-or-less plausible claims underpinning Stefan's maxim-based approach:

Claim 1: If it would be impossible or unreasonable for everyone to follow a particular maxim all the time, then that maxim is not morally legitimate as a guide for action.
Claim 2': If adopting a particular maxim would be morally required, then failing to adopt that maxim would be evil. Likewise, if adopting a particular maxim would be evil, then failing to adopt that maxim would be morally required.

The third step in Stefan's theory is even more troubling, and will ultimately lead to the objections that we will see in the next section. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Recall that on page 48, Stefan defined "ethics" as "the subset of UPB which deals with inflicted behaviour, or the use of violence," and said that "Any theory that justifies or denies the use of violence is a moral theory, and is subject to the requirements of logical consistency and empirical evidence."

This realm of "ethics" is distinguished by the presence of violence, and is contrasted by Stefan against the realm of aesthetics, which involves behaviors that are not "inflicted" on others (for our purposes, we can ignore the potential difficulties of distinguishing between behaviors that are "inflicted" and those that are not). The distinction is illustrated on page 50:
If I accept your invitation to a dinner party, but find the conversation highly offensive, I can decide to get up and leave - and I can also choose to never accept another invitation from you. This capacity for escape and/or avoidance is an essential characteristic differentiating aesthetics from ethics.

If, however, when I decide to leave your dinner party, you leap up and chain me to my chair, clearly I no longer have the free choice to leave. This is the moment at which your rudeness becomes overt aggression, and crosses the line from aesthetics to ethics.

We see, then, that when we're trying to determine whether something is a moral question or not, we need only establish that there is violence involved, or that something is being inflicted on someone else.

So then let's jump forward to page 69, where Stefan is trying to determine whether we can think of rape in terms of personal preference. He writes:
If we propose the moral rule: "personal preferences must be violently inflicted upon other people," how does that stand up to the framework of UPB? (Note that I cannot propose that personal preferences may be violently inflicted upon other people, since that is a violation of UPB, which states that moral rules must be absolute and universal - if they are not, they fall into APA [aesthetically positive action] territory, and so cannot be inflicted on others.)

There's a lot wrong with this statement, particularly since Stefan seems to be confused about his own distinction between ethics and aesthetics -- he now seems to think that it would be wrong to impose aesthetic matters on people, but any imposed behavior has already been defined as falling within the realm of ethics, and not aesthetics.

However, what I want to focus on for the moment is another idea captured in this statement: that moral rules can't be optional. What Stefan seems to be saying is that we must accept either that "personal preferences must be violently inflicted upon other people" or that "personal preferences must not be violently inflicted upon other people." Otherwise, we would need to say that "personal preferences may be violently inflicted upon other people, or they may not be," and Stefan has ruled out this possibility. To more explicitly phrase this issue in terms of the maxim-based language, Stefan is posing a choice between "In all circumstances, I will violently inflict my personal preferences upon other people" and "In all circumstances, I will not violently inflict my personal preferences upon other people."

If this is how Stefan wants to structure his theory, then we get a third claim:

Claim 3: For any maxim that involves an inflicted behavior, it is either the case that everyone is morally required to follow that maxim all the time, or that everyone is morally prohibited from ever following that maxim.

And we can see this claim at work, for example, on pages 79-81 where Stefan uses an illustration involving the theft of a lighter in order to argue that stealing must be universally prohibited, since it would be ridiculous to think that everyone could possibly be morally required to steal all the time.

At this point I think we have a pretty clear understanding of the substance of Stefan's second line of argument. The argument is based on a maxim-based approach, and involves at least three central claims:

Claim 1: If it would be impossible or unreasonable for everyone to follow a particular maxim all the time, then that maxim is not morally legitimate as a guide for action.
Claim 2': If adopting a particular maxim would be morally required, then failing to adopt that maxim would be evil. Likewise, if adopting a particular maxim would be evil, then failing to adopt that maxim would be morally required.
Claim 3: For any maxim that involves an inflicted behavior, it is either the case that everyone is morally required to follow that maxim all the time, or that everyone is morally prohibited from ever following that maxim.

Now there's a fourth claim that is implied in Stefan's argument that I want to eliminate right away for being too dumb to even consider. The claim is this:

Claim 4: For any maxim that involves an inflicted behavior, the set of circumstances to which the maxim applies must be "where the action in question will be inflicted upon a human being."

Stefan introduces this idea on page 73 when he considers the maxim "I can shoot a man anytime I want" (or to use the more precise form we've been using, "In circumstances where my shooting will be inflicted upon a person who is asleep, and I want to engage in the shooting, I will shoot the person"):
The problem here is not only the sleep that Bob will lose based on his universal premise, but also the logical impossibility of reversing moral propositions based on the differences in the states of sleeping and waking. Biologically speaking, a man does not become the opposite of a man when he falls asleep, any more than gravity reverses when he blinks.

Since a man remains a man when he falls asleep, it cannot be the case that opposite moral rules apply to him in this state. Thus to say that it is immoral to murder a man when he is awake, but it is moral to murder a him [sic] when he is asleep, is to create a logical contradiction unsupported by any objective biological facts. A physicist may say that a rock falls down, but a helium balloon rises up - but that is because a rock and a helium balloon have fundamentally different properties. No credible physicist can say that one rock falls down, but that another rock with almost exactly the same qualities falls up. The same is for moral theories - no credible philosopher can say that morality reverses itself when a man is asleep, since a man's nature does not fundamentally alter when he naps.

The number of things wrong with this argument is utterly astonishing; I won't even begin to address them all, since to do so would require an analysis all its own. But what's important to pay attention to is the last sentence, where Stefan says that we can't draw moral distinctions that make reference to the fact that a man is asleep because a man's nature does not fundamentally alter when he naps. To see why this is dumb, consider the following: In the game of hockey, a goal is scored when a puck goes into the net during a legal play. A goal is not scored when a puck does not go into the net under such circumstances. What Stefan is suggesting basically amounts to saying that we logically can't differentiate a goal from a non-goal because a puck's nature does not reverse itself when it goes into the net. This is dumb, and I don't even want to try to think about what kind of nonsensical ethical theory we would get from accepting it.

[Added later: It occurs to me that the hockey example is a rhetorically weak one, regardless of whether or not it captures the conceptual point well. To see why this sort of claim is a problem for Stefan's theory, consider the case of self-defense. When we are put in a position where we must defend ourselves, most of us think that we are justified in taking measures against our attackers which would be unjustified under other sorts of circumstances. So, for example, it would be okay for me to punch Albert in the face if he were assaulting me, even though it would normally not be okay to punch Albert in the face. However, notice that Albert's nature as a man does not fundamentally change when he attacks me. Thus if we accept what Stefan says here, then I should not be able to justify treating Albert differently when he is assaulting me than when he is leaving me alone. This seems silly to me. Of course it would not take a fundamental change in Albert's nature as a man to justify treating him in ways that are normally unacceptable. We could justify different treatment for far less.]

Accordingly, I will do my best go on as if Stefan never said this. It will come up again a little later on, but I'll do my best to minimize the importance of this error. So setting aside Claim 4, we can now proceed to the critique.

IV. What's Wrong With This Structure?

I want to argue two things about the structure I discussed in the previous section (ignoring Claim 4). First, I will show that even if we accept the maxim-based approach and the three claims, we will not be able to generate satisfying conclusions for moral problems. And second, I will contend that it leaves out an important component of ethical thinking that makes the resulting structure very awkward to work with.

My argument that Stefan's theory will not generate satisfying conclusions focuses mainly on Claim 3. The first thing to notice about the Claim is that Stefan applies it in such broad strokes that it seems to be rather implausible; the example on pages 79-81 (where Stefan attempts to show that theft must always be evil because it couldn't possibly be morally obligatory to steal all the time) illustrates this point well.

In order to see why this is an implausible way to apply the Claim, we must remember that Stefan's approach is based on evaluating maxims, and not actions directly. Claim 1 was "If it would be impossible or unreasonable for everyone to follow a particular maxim all the time, then that maxim is not morally legitimate as a guide for action." Accordingly, the fact that "In all circumstances, I will steal" is unacceptable as a maxim does not demonstrate that stealing is wrong, as Stefan seems to think it does. It only demonstrates that the moral rule, "In all circumstances, I will steal," is unacceptable.

In order to use Claim 3 coherently, we would need to focus on the C term in the maxim-based framework (remember, the form of a maxim is "In circumstances C, I will do X"). Stefan's discussion focuses on maxims where the C term covers all possible circumstances, so that the maxim is prescribing a particular action all the time. But if we changed the C term to say, for example, "When I will die if I don't steal an object, and I can be reasonably certain that the victim will not miss what I took very much, and I want to live" we would seemingly be able to avoid the problems that Stefan presents. Phrased this way, the maxim would be, "In circumstances where I will die if I don't steal an object, and I can be reasonably certain that the victim will not miss what I took very much, and I want to live, I will steal the object." And it seems rather clear to me that everyone could follow this rule all the time without any horrible problems arising (even though it would only prescribe that the follower take a particular action in a very limited set of circumstances). Accordingly, this maxim would be able to get past Claim 1 intact.

Stefan seems to think that this is not acceptable because of Claim 4. But remember, we're not going to pay any attention to Claim 4, because it's dumb.

It is important, though, to see how this works with Claim 1, which we are paying attention to. Remember, Claim 1 was that "If it would be impossible or unreasonable for everyone to follow a particular maxim all the time, then that maxim is not morally legitimate as a guide for action." This claim was not built on the idea that maxims must prescribe actions that must be carried out by all people at all times; it was built on the idea that it must be possible for all people to follow the maxims at all times. And in fact, he actually provided an example in the same place where he introduced the universality requirement with such a limitation: "In circumstances where I am told to murder, I will do so." Clearly, this maxim would not instruct someone to murder in circumstances where no one told them to murder, but Stefan doesn't raise any objections to this feature of the maxim in his discussion. Remember, we got Claim 1 from his objection that it would be ridiculous for everyone to follow this maxim all the time, not from any claim that it would be ridiculous for everyone to murder all the time -- that was an objection raised to a different maxim.

What implications does this have for the theory's capacity to generate satisfying conclusions? Remember, Claim 3 says, "For any maxim that involves an inflicted behavior, it is either the case that everyone is morally required to follow that maxim all the time, or that everyone is morally prohibited from ever following that maxim." So Stefan's approach rules out maxims, and not actually the action prescribed by the maxim (remember, the X component). Accordingly, we can see that what Stefan's system requires us to do is to figure out ways to justify our inflicted behaviors so that the maxims we follow could be morally obligatory for all people to follow all the time (this is not true if we accept Claim 4, which essentially rules out adjustment for circumstances, but remember, Claim 4 is dumb).

This would still mean that "In all circumstances, I will steal," would be problematic (because of Claim 1), but we might be able to make something out of "In circumstances where I will die if I don't steal an object, and I can be reasonably certain that the victim will not miss what I took very much, and I want to live, I will steal the object." It will at least be true that if we want to object to this latter maxim, we won't be able to effectively do so on the basis of the three Claims that I offered without begging the question. Again, they were:

Claim 1: If it would be impossible or unreasonable for everyone to follow a particular maxim all the time, then that maxim is not morally legitimate as a guide for action.
Claim 2': If adopting a particular maxim would be morally required, then failing to adopt that maxim would be evil. Likewise, if adopting a particular maxim would be evil, then failing to adopt that maxim would be morally required.
Claim 3: For any maxim that involves an inflicted behavior, it is either the case that everyone is morally required to follow that maxim all the time, or that everyone is morally prohibited from ever following that maxim.

Subjecting our maxim to Claim 1, it doesn't seem like we would be able to mount any conclusive attack on the basis of it being impossible or unreasonable for everyone to follow it all the time. Claim 2' wouldn't be a problem for our maxim, since it's just sort of a formal requirement for how we think of morally required behaviors and evil behaviors. And Claim 3 would just say that either people are morally required to follow the maxim all the time (since it involves an inflicted behavior), or they're prohibited from ever following it. But there's nothing about the maxim itself that makes it clearly true that either one of these would be true and the other false; to rule in favor of one side over the other would simply beg the question. This, I think, is very unsatisfying.

The second thing I wanted to establish about this system is that it leaves out an important component of ethical thinking, and that this makes the whole theory a bit awkward. The component I have in mind is the idea of a behavior that is morally permissible, but not morally required. In most moral theories, there are three kinds of actions (even ones that involve violence): things you must do, things you may do if you want, and things that you may not do. Stefan rules out the second category with Claim 3, which claims that moral behaviors must either be obligatory or prohibited. But this would seem to mean that you could never have a choice about whether to act violently where you wouldn't be evil for choosing one of the alternatives. Surely this would be implausible.

In order to save the theory from being dismissed out of hand, the personal choice has to be snuck back in through the C component of the maxim. So for our maxim, "In circumstances where I will die if I don't steal an object, and I can be reasonably certain that the victim will not miss what I took very much, and I want to live, I will steal the object," we should immediately notice that "and I want to live" is a critical part of the idea. Without it, we would need to be saying that it would be evil for the person in question to choose to simply die rather than steal. And surely someone who thinks that stealing in such situations would be okay would not want to imply that not stealing in that situation would be evil if the person didn't want to do it. This, I think, makes the theory very awkward to work with. You end up saying that people must do things in circumstances where they want to do them (and, presumably, that they must not do things in circumstances where they don't).

V. Conclusion

In this critique, I have attempted to establish three things. First, I have argued that Stefan's choice of the term "universally preferable behavior" simply doesn't work with the rest of his theory; the way he defines the term makes it completely incompatible with the sorts of things he wants to argue for. Second, I have attempted to build a coherent way of evaluating moral propositions based on a maxim-based approach to ethical reasoning that involves three central claims about maxims. And third, I have tried to show that (without the ridiculous and implausible Claim 4) the resulting theory is incapable of generating satisfying answers to moral questions, and is awkward to work with. The system is unsatisfying because it does not offer us a way to determine definitively whether certain actions are morally required or not as long as the maxims being followed are sufficiently specific. And it is awkward because it requires us to twist ourselves into weird shapes in order to accommodate the idea of morally permissible behaviors.

If these arguments hold, it would mean that Stefan has not only failed to "slay the beast" and deliver us with the salvation that he promises in the beginning of the book, but that he has also failed to even provide us with a coherent ethical theory. This is an important "if," I will admit: the amount of conceptual reconstruction that I've had to do in order to put together this critique almost ensures that the resulting structure is about as much Stefan's as it is my own. And if Stefan rejects that his argument is based on maxims, or that the three claims I've offered are actually indicative of his arguments, then I may have attacked a straw man.

It should be noted that I justified each step of my interpretation with direct evidence from Stefan's book, and so in order to reject my interpretation, Stefan would need to explain how my interpretation doesn't actually capture what's being said in the passages I cited. But I don't dismiss the possibility that this can be done.

With this, I think we can finally consider The Molyneux Project to be a success, though it will not be truly complete until all objectors are satisfied. I hope that this has been instructive for any of you who have been keeping up, and that those who are interested in Stefan's ideas will take seriously the need to respond to what's been said here.


P.S. Yes, I know that my critique can be answered by insisting that Claim 4 is true. But Claim 4 is so obviously ridiculous that this would be a pretty troubling defense to offer. Advance it at your own risk.

P.P.S. I've added a few clarifications. The first is at the beginning of section II where I discuss the definition of universally preferable behavior. Some people had focused their responses to this critique on that discussion, and so I added a note giving it a little bit more context. Hopefully that will address the criticisms. The second clarification is in my discussion of Claim 1 in section III, pointing to some further reading on the issues raised there. I added the note because I sort of made light of Stefan's discussion of Claim 1, but then just moved on without really offering any other explanation for why it makes sense. While I don't think that hurt the critique, I do think it was a bit unhelpful for people who might have been reading through it and who might have wanted more. The third clarification was in my discussion of Claim 4 in section III. I think that it adds an important element that was absent before, so hopefully others find it a worthwhile addition.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Yin and the Yang: An Approach to Publicizing Broadly Libertarian Ideas

I had an idea today for a new way that one might go about spreading some of our (well, at least my) ideas to the public. The idea is to use the familiar imagine of the Taijitu -- the yin yang symbol -- to offer a nuanced articulation of difficult concepts that sometimes end up being articulated sloppily with other approaches. The concept of yin yang is that mutually opposing forces can be seen as interconnected and even as interdependent, so that each gives form and substance to the other. I can immediately think of two examples of how this approach would be useful:

Unity and Separateness

On one hand, we need unity in order to have things like property rights, right-of-way conventions, procedural rules, and arguably collectivized programs where burden-sharing is important to us. On the other hand, we need separateness in order to plan and lead our own separate lives according to our own values and goals. But sometimes our best successes as communities come from living and letting live, and sometimes our best successes as individuals come from putting aside our own interests and being good neighbors. When we understand unity in the light of separateness, and separateness in the light of unity, we can achieve each more fully than we could if we pursued either on its own.

Knowledge and Ignorance

We know a tremendous amount about the world in which we live, and our knowledge can enable us to do wonderful things. But one of the most important things that we know is just how ignorant we are. A little bit of knowledge can be an extremely dangerous thing, and sometimes the wisest action is to admit that we not know for sure what would be best. Sometimes when we allow for an open-ended result, we find out that we end up with something better than we would have been able to design ourselves.

These are just two examples, and both are clearly in need of development. But I'm finding this way of thinking to be very satisfying and elegant; you pose two seemingly conflicting values against each other and show how each helps give the other its shape. And I think that as a vehicle for getting people to think about complicated philosophical issues that are integral to the advancement of liberty (like the knowledge problem, reasonable pluralism, the separateness of persons, the nirvana fallacy, etc.), it might be helpful to use this tool to explain things in a way that can resonate with anyone. Plus, I think it opens the door for a libertarianism or liberalism that is softer, more understanding, and more reflective than the kinds of views that so often come from our camp. Leave it to the notoriously wishy-washy, hand-wavy guy to come up with something like this...but I like it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Might Our Moral Views Underdetermine the Demands of Justice?

Update: It appears that I've misrepresented Dr. Long's position in this post. With due apologies, please see the comments section for his clarification.


Congratulations are due to Jerry Gaus, my professor-to-be at Arizona, for winning the Gregory Kavka Prize in Political Philosophy for his essay, "On Justifying the Rights of the Moderns: a Case of Old Wine in New Bottles." In my perpetual state of playing catch-up, I'm only now reading the essay. And so far, I'm enjoying it a lot.

In this post, I wanted to hammer out some thoughts on a point that Dr. Gaus raises about reasonable pluralism about morality and justice. This point particularly caught my attention because of a conversation that I had with Roderick Long last summer about this exact subject, where Dr. Long expressed reservations about the idea that people could reasonably disagree about the demands of justice. If I recall correctly, he fully acknowledged that individuals disagree about what constitutes a good life or what values are worthy of pursuing, and that there is often no impartial way to proclaim one person's views to be "correct" or "better" than others' conflicting views. But I recall Dr. Long being skeptical of the idea that this sort of reasonable pluralism in views could extend to the realm of morality. He contended that where it can be perfectly reasonable to disagree about what constitutes "the good life," it is not reasonable to disagree about how others ought to be treated.


So it was with this backdrop that I wanted to discuss Dr. Gaus' arguments in "On Justifying the Rights of the Moderns." On page 94 of his essay, Gaus puts aside the idea that we can reasonably disagree on the kinds of normative considerations that are important in justifying moral claims, in order to focus on problems that arise when agree about these things. He points out, on pages 94-95, that even if we agree on what is morally relevant, we may still disagree on the relative importance of these different considerations.

If I understand him correctly, we might illustrate Gaus' point with the example I used in my essay on the rich victim problem. In that essay, I set up a scenario in which a poor guy, Jerry, needed to make a phone call in order to secure a life-changing job, but his own phone had been disabled by a fallen branch. The only way for him to get the job would be to break into his neighbor Lucy's house by smashing one of the windows in order to use her phone. But in the example, Lucy was incredibly wealthy, and while her windows were not of enormous importance to her, they were so expensive that Jerry would never be able to afford to replace them, even with his new job. The question I raised was whether Jerry would be justified in breaking in.

And in the paper, I argued that he would be. Jerry's need for the job, I took it, was of moral importance, as was Lucy's legitimate claim to her property. But I suggested that because it was critically important to Jerry to break the window, and because it would harm Lucy very little if he did so, that it would be morally permissible for Jerry to break in. But since writing that, I've spoken to a lot of people who disagree. Jerry ought not to break into Lucy's house, according to these people, even in his situation. Maybe, some of them concede, he would be justified in doing so to save his life or preserve some basic functioning, but in my story Jerry would have been fine if he hadn't been able to get the job, and so he had insufficient justification to break in.

I'll immediately point out that my argument in that paper is nowhere near as developed as it would need to be for me to go to battle on this point. I don't, for example, talk about what sort of compensation Jerry would owe (if any) even if he couldn't pay the full compensation. And that seems pretty important. But for our purposes, it'll only be important to note that in my paper, I posited a sort of "priority principle" about how moral claims should relate to each other, and other people disagreed with that priority principle even though they agreed on a basic level with my attribution of moral importance of both Jerry's need and Lucy's property claims.

This raises the possibility, which I interpret Dr. Gaus to be discussing in his paper, that perhaps even if we agree on what kinds of things have normative significance, there can still be reasonable pluralism about morality if we can reasonably disagree on priority principles.


But it seems like one would immediately want to say, "Well yes, there are disagreements about priority principles. But no one is denying it. No one is saying that there is no pluralism about morality; the issue would be whether or not that pluralism is reasonable. Someone like Dr. Long (if he wanted to maintain the position that you've attributed to him) would want to say that when people genuinely disagree about priority principles, it's because at least one of them is wrong." Accordingly, I'll need to provide some reason for thinking that pluralism about priority principles can be reasonable in order to settle this issue.

And here it is: I take it that the objects of our moral concern are seen as being valuable in themselves (otherwise, they would not directly be the objects of our moral concern; they would be means towards something else or "proxies" for the true objects of our moral concern). And yet, I take it that there is no objective or impartial way to determine just how valuable an end-in-itself is that would allow us to objectively or impartially compare its moral significance with other ends-in-themselves with any manner of precision (I don't claim that we can never make impartial inter-value comparisons, but only that there will almost necessarily be hazy areas -- the existence of reasonable pluralism does not entail that all pluralism is reasonable). If this is all true, then at least some reasonable pluralism about priority principles seems inevitable.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Cost of a Carbon Tax

Lately I've been hearing a lot from some people on the Right about potential climate change legislation and why it's going to be horrible. The idea from some of these people seems to be that whether we have an auction-based cap and trade system (which would be relatively imbecilic but seems more or less inevitable) or a carbon tax system, the end result is going to be that we end up paying a whole bunch of money, and we're all going to go straight to the poor house as a result.

Since I think that auction-based cap and trade systems are excruciatingly dumb, I'll focus my comments on a carbon tax system. If this gives anyone an ulcer, I'll be happy to explain how these thoughts can apply to a cap and trade regime, but I'd rather not have to do those gymnastics if no one's ultimately going to care. The subject of this post, then, is whether or not a carbon tax should be expected to force us all into poverty. I will avoid here the question of whether or not such a policy would be advisable in an all-things-considered sense, since that's a question far too big for this post. Suffice it to say that I don't think the necessity of such a policy is as obvious as some people make it out to be. But that's a conversation for elsewhere.

So here's how an effective carbon tax (in the sense of mitigating contributions to climate change) might be expected to work. The government slowly phases in a tax on things like coal, natural gas, and petroleum which are cited as sources of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other influences on the climate system like agriculture, land clearing, etc. The revenues from the tax are used to finance a tax cut (ideally structured to cancel out some of the potentially worrisome distributive effects of the tax) or to finance some government expenditure that otherwise would have resulted in a tax increase (i.e., paying for the preposterous stimulus programs). The goal of the policy is to increase the price of energy-intensive goods with the tax, and to use the revenues to ensure that people do not lose overall purchasing power. Accordingly, people would have an incentive to shift their consumption away from energy intensive goods and towards non-energy-intensive goods. And while those who purchase disproportionately energy-intensive goods would be expected to suffer, those who purchase disproportionately non-energy-intensive goods would actually be expected to benefit.

Let me illustrate this in action. Let's say we have an economy with two goods: rocks and rubber balls. Producing and using rocks, in our example, does not involve any net impact on the climate system, whereas producing rubber balls involves the use of a substantial amount of fossil fuel. Rocks and rubber balls both cost $5 before the tax. Now let's imagine that every year, Xavier typically buys three rocks for $15, and three rubber balls for $15. And imagine that Cynthia usually purchases five rocks for $25 and only one rubber ball for $5.

Now we implement a carbon tax of $1 on rubber balls, so they now cost $6. The argument from some on the Right says, "Well look; now Xavier's consumption would cost $33 and Cynthia's consumption would cost $31, instead of both costing $30! This is a tragedy!"

But watch: let's say that Xavier and Cynthia don't change their consumption patterns in light of the tax. Xavier ends up paying $3 more in taxes to finance the purchase of the rubber balls, and Cynthia ends up paying $1 more. The government now uses its $4 to finance a $2 tax cut for both Xavier and Cynthia. So now Xavier ends up paying $1 for consuming a disproportionately high amount of rubber balls, and Cynthia actually gets paid $1 for consuming a disproportionately low amount of them.

In such a scenario, we might expect that the parties would see an opportunity to benefit from shifting their consumption away from the more expensive rubber balls. And the extent to which they were doing this before others or to a larger degree, they would benefit. Those who stubbornly insisted on consuming rubber balls, the argument goes, would simply be forced to pay the price for their anti-social behavior.

Things are a little more complicated with real governments who never actually do things like returning all the money, and where there are costs associated with implementing and enforcing the tax. But at least that's the idea. If the tax is revenue neutral, the only people who go to the poor house are the people who have a far greater impact on the climate than everyone else. And when those people go to the poor house, everyone else gets paid for being more responsible. So yes, some people would lose, but it seems like the advocates of this policy would want this sort of thing to be happening. Accordingly, the argument from some on the Right -- which focuses not on how we wouldn't want to trust the government with this policy, and not on how expensive it would be to implement, but only on the fact that it involves an increase in prices -- seems to me to be an utter failure in its current form.

Accordingly, it seems to me that this argument should be abandoned. There are other more plausible arguments that could satisfy the Right's thirst for some reason to oppose climate change legislation. They could question the ethical basis for such a policy, arguing that cost-benefit analysis (by which the policies are typically justified) are not ethically legitimate grounds for the kind of intervention that would be involved in the policy, and that the philosophical groundwork that would be necessary for an alternative analysis has not been satisfactorily settled. They could voice doubts about the government's ability to implement a policy like this in any way that wouldn't be a disaster more morally questionable than letting climate change happen. They could argue that given the amount of restructuring that will be necessary to substantially decrease our contributions to climate change, the resources we use to mitigate climate change could be better used fighting malaria around the world, bringing clean water to those who don't have it, researching cancer and AIDS, or any number of other things. But this overly simplistic argument about costs is misguided, and should be trashed.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Disproving Deterministic Incompatiblism

I'm sick of having this conversation, so look. An exercise:

Put a cup on the table in front of you. Now if you want to, say the following out loud:

"Right now, I am reading this sentence."

Now look away for a few seconds and then look back. Back? Good. Now for the next exercise, you're going to have to choose whether or not to pick up that cup that's on the table; you should decide whether or not you are going to do it. Got it? Now read the following out loud and either pick up the cup at the end or don't:

"I am going to count to five. When I finish counting to five, I can either pick up the cup or not. One. Two. Three. Four. Five."

See? Okay, now was that so hard?

Look. If deterministic incompatiblism is true, then it's not only true in the past; it's true in the present and the future as well. And yet you just made a bunch of choices. Right? So drop it already.

See how I can tell you to drop it, and you can decide whether or not you're going to do that? Good. We're done here.
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"Rational philosophy is on the march. It will f--- up all of your sh-- and leave you without any teeth."