Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Long Comment By Andrew Stevens

FLG has long known Andrew Stevens is way smarter than him. Today, he saw this comment by Andrew over at A&J and felt the overwhelming urge to repost it and muck it up by adding his own less than two cents:
1) I reject Divine Command Theory and I see no point in theology for that exact reason. There may be a God who created the Universe and perhaps he is even omnibenevolent and would be very helpful in helping our moral judgment if we could but communicate with him, but the existence of God is irrelevant to my theory of morality. Once I determined that the existence of God was irrelevant to morality, I stopped caring very much whether or not there was such a being.

FLG, probably to the horror of some of his readers, agrees that God is irrelevant to his theory of morality, but doesn't quite understand how Andrew goes from not caring whether such a being exists to his atheist stance that such a being does not exist. FLG sees no reason to deny that such a being exists. Moreover, FLG believes deeply that one does exist and that free will necessitates that such a being does not interfere to the extent even that we have to discover morality on our own. Which probably doesn't makes much sense to people, but there you go.

2) I've never been sure that I have any understanding of what Gadamer via Withywindle is saying. I can't make a lot of sense out of this, but it sounds like some species of a subjectivist metaethics. For what it's worth, if there was a God who was perfect in reason and perfect in benevolence and was interested in communicating with us, this would actually be useful in resolving complex moral issues in my philosophy. But he would have the same role as he would in resolving difficult economic or scientific debates, so I don't know whether that is helpful to you.

3) If you believe that three was a prime number even before there were any humans to think about numbers or to define what prime means, then you are some sort of realist about universals (even if only about numbers, as was the case with Quine), as I am. My sense is that the majority of mathematicians and scientists fall into this camp (sometimes without realizing it), but that the vast majority of people in the humanities regard this belief as on a par with believing in witchcraft or angels or something.

Same difference, but FLG always likes to point out Pi. Pi existed before people began to think about circles or geometry or calculus. Humans didn't invent it; they discovered it. It has always existed and will always exist.

4) My general ethical philosophy is deontological, not consequentialist, so it may or may not be amenable to your concerns. However, I also pretty firmly believe that it is the only ethical theory which actually accords with our common sense ethical views. (Indeed, it is because of this that I believe it to be true.) I follow W.D. Ross in that I believe we have a number of pro tanto duties - duties of fidelity, reparation, gratitude, non-injury, harm prevention, beneficience, self-improvement, and justice (this is not meant to be an exhaustive list and it's possible that even very important duties have been omitted). In any moral dilemma, we generally find two or more pro tanto duties in conflict with one another and we must engage in a delicate balancing act to determine which duty is the more important in that case. In the case of the Alpheovore, this is a pretty easy balancing act to resolve. Some of them are not remotely that simple.

Virtually all other ethical theories that I am aware of simply do not accord with our ethical intuitions. You've mentioned the problem with Kantian ethics. Utilitarianism leads to the absurdity of cutting up perfectly healthy people in order to save the lives of five geniuses. Even philosophies which are generally sensible seem to agree that a person's concern for his children ought to be overridden by concern for the poor in Africa. As far as I am aware, only Ross's theory of duties can handle all of these problems and resolve them the way you and I (and everyone else) know they should be resolved.

FLG tries to approach things deontologically, rather than consequentially, as best he can. Mostly because, given his Time Horizons theory, he'd rather proceed taking the long-term view and deontological arguments are long-term given that we're talking about universal rules. Consequentialist arguments are, almost by definition, so circumstantial and short-term.

26 comments:

George Pal said...

Wow! Does one have to have been drinking to get in on this discussion? You brainiacs are a whimsical lot.

Withywindle said...

FLG: Consequentialism is time-aware; rules are timeless. Not the same thing. You have wrongly conflates the long term and the eternal before.

Withywindle said...

AS: In any moral dilemma, we generally find two or more pro tanto duties in conflict with one another and we must engage in a delicate balancing act to determine which duty is the more important in that case.

I think a prudentialist would say that the determination of which duty is more important in a particular case is not itself a rule-bound act, that determination of cases is more or less the definition of an act of prudence. So what says Ross to the accusation that a little prudential goblin lurks in his deontological machinery?

FLG said...

Withy:

"You have wrongly conflated the long term and the eternal before."

Time horizons are much like a spectrum from zero to infinity. There's a nanosecond time horizon and then an infinity time horizon, .i.e eternity. Therefore, eternity is the fullest realization of the long-term.

Do you think there is some relevant distinction at some point? That when you go from super-duper-long-term, say multiple millenia, to eternal, that this makes a huge difference?

Withywindle said...

It's essential. When you care about the eternal, time doesn't matter at all. You keep money dear because God commands it eternally; whether it's good for the short or the long term is equally irrelevant. Eternity is boundless; time is bounded. Rules exist eternally, regardless of consequences, time, particular circumstances. The concern with time is the concern essentially with consequences in time, concatenations of particular circumstances. Short and long term time horizons are variations on a theme, in comparison with this profound difference. You cannot accumulate moments of time to reach eternity.

Andrew Stevens said...

FLG: I define atheism as "not believing in God," rather than as a positive statement that "God is impossible" or something like that. So, in my view, all non-theists are atheists. The reason why I do this is because the word "agnostic" has a very good alternative use - the belief that God is unknowable and I would argue that there are agnostic theists and agnostic atheists (the latter usually believe that it is impossible to know whether or not God exists). So, while I call myself an atheist, my view on the existence of a god or gods probably differs very little from yours.

I think I'm more with Withywindle on where deontological ethics would play into your time horizons theory. Sometimes theists will ask me where I find meaning in life and I always reply that I have a wife and daughter; what more meaning do I need? They seem to believe that if we're all going to die and there is no end point (Heaven), then nothing matters. I reject this philosophy. All of the future matters, not just some hypothetical end point, today matters, and even the past matters. (I believe I have a duty of reparation - to make up for harms I have done in the past, as well as duties in the present, and duties to the future. I also believe I have a duty to keep promises I made in the past, etc.)

I think a prudentialist would say that the determination of which duty is more important in a particular case is not itself a rule-bound act, that determination of cases is more or less the definition of an act of prudence. So what says Ross to the accusation that a little prudential goblin lurks in his deontological machinery?

I think he would agree with you and I don't think he would be at all concerned. Ross was trying to describe our actual ethical system, not adhering to some ideological commitment to deontology. As I said in the other thread, it is possible that one could transform Ross's theory into a theory of virtue ethics. It is also possible that it could be transformed into, say, G.E. Moore's theory of ideal utilitarianism (so long as it assigned some weight to the natural good of keeping promises, making reparations, etc). Neither of these ways of thinking about it particularly bothers me and they probably wouldn't have bothered Ross.

Andrew Stevens said...

George: Drinking probably helps, but I actually drink very rarely. Never acquired a taste for it.

Withywindle said...

It all sounds terribly subjectivist to me ... which I say to tease, but isn't there then also an element of that subjectivism you dislike? Or if this prudence isn't subjective, can't I then say that all the prudence I go on about isn't subjective by your lights either?

George said...

Andrew,

For those ranking nearer densa than Mensa, like myself, drinking (and/or cannibis) was essential, but I reminisce.

Does anyone see the philosophical consequentialist and deontologist as stand-ins, in the political arena, for the Gnostic Left and traditionalist Right? Or had I one too many vodka tonics last night?

George Pal said...

Andrew,

For those ranking nearer densa than Mensa, like myself, drinking (and/or cannibis) was essential, but I reminisce.

Does anyone see the philosophical consequentialist and deontologist as stand-ins, in the political arena, for the Gnostic Left and traditionalist Right? Or had I one too many vodka tonics last night?

Withywindle said...

Actually, when FLG conflates the long-term and the eternal, that's precisely the Gnostic move that I believe Voegelin criticizes by reference to immanentizing the eschaton.

Andrew Stevens said...

Withywindle, Ross believes (and I agree with him) that there is in fact one right answer to every moral dilemma and this answer does not depend on anyone's attitudes or opinions about what the right answer is. But ultimately, we are poor creatures who are forced to make decisions on less than perfect information and with only imperfect reasoning abilities. So we are forced to make judgments about what that right answer is. This is simply how ethics works in practice and, probably, how it must work for human beings.

I actually have very little issue with your practical ethical philosophy, other than a few particulars where our reasoning is discordant (e.g. the wrongness of homosexual activity). It is only your metaethical philosophy that I disagree with. You reason from, "We must use our judgment about what the right answer is and can never know it with absolute certainty" to "There is no certain answer at all and judgment is all there is." (Or at least that is what I have taken you to mean in the past.) I have two objections to this: 1) I would change "never" to "rarely" and 2) the conclusion does not follow from the premise. Right now, I can only guess at whether the Riemann hypothesis is true or false, using my best judgment given the facts that I have and my own powers of reason, but it does not follow that it is neither true nor false or that it somehow depends on my opinion.

Withywindle said...

Not "There is no certain answer at all and judgment is all there is."; rather "There is no certain answer accessible to us and judgment is all there is." I think that makes a difference. And then that I say this most confidently about moral and human matters; de facto, math and the natural world is generally a matter of default confidence in its knowability. I think I will still say "de facto", not "de jure", even about Riemannian manifolds, bozhe moi, but it's not a stipulation of great practical difference.

Incidentally, I've also been thinking about the usefulness of law, universals, etc., to a prudentialist. They are precisely what you need to rise above the arbitrary and the solipsistic--not certain rules, but persuasive arguments made and accepted among different minds, subject to interpretation for particular cases (judges, ho!), but the necessary aspiration toward the known and universal truth--inescapably provisional and limited, but trying for more. And then, they are the material on which the prudential mind operates for maximum success--you need rules before you can make exceptions. I've put it before to Alpheus that rhetoric values reason in a subordinate position; I'm restating that here to say that rhetoric needs reason--rules, logic--and cannot succeed without it. (Except when it can. ;) )

Andrew Stevens said...

We are, then, coming much closer to a meeting of the minds. I would caution against even the "accessible to us" phrasing, since I think one of the things that is currently inaccessible to us is how accessible these things might be in the future. I personally question whether we will ever invent a "moral algorithm" which will resolve all our disputes (I think this exceedingly unlikely), but I do not wish to rule it out ab initio. On a different human matter to which you apply this analysis, if we invent a time/space visualizer which allows us to see and hear events in the past without interacting with them, previously insoluble historical questions can suddenly be answered. Nero either did or did not murder Agrippina, regardless of our state of knowledge on this point.

I believe it is an important meta-ethical point to make that moral values are objective and can be discovered by us through intuition and reasoning (and also using rhetoric and prudence, if you like). I genuinely believe that not making this point explicitly undermines our moral fabric and so I stress the point, even while acknowledging that on many moral issues, such as abortion, our reasoning is often murky.

I often make the point that most moral disagreements are actually disagreements about facts and not normally about moral premises. One of the few genuinely contentious moral questions is "does the end justify the means?" with the deontologists saying no and the consequentialists saying yes. My own answer is "sometimes." If I have to break a promise to my daughter to save a person's life, then that's one thing, but if I have to break a promise to my daughter to save myself a little time or money even though that would mean more net happiness in the world (my extra happiness would outweigh my daughter's extra unhappiness), that's quite another.

Andrew Stevens said...

FLG: I seem to have failed Reading 101 when I made my earlier comment about how my beliefs and yours differ on the existence of God. I had always labeled you as an "agnostic" (though sympathetic to religion) in my head and somehow completely missed your comment to the contrary in this post. My opinions on God's existence do differ from yours, since I actually find the existence of God highly implausible. The problems of my metaphysical beliefs are not solved by the existence of God who introduces additional metaphysical problems of his own, so God is an unnecessary hypothesis to me.

Withywindle said...

Deus ex machina? Next year in Menlo Park.

I don't think I disagree with the thought of moral values as objective, so long as one allows this to co-exist with subjective value. The goal, then, is to discover the moral values both objectively and subjectively true, accessible to all through heart and head.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'd have to get some specific examples from you on what you mean and probably think about it before I could agree.

There is a sense in which Ross's theory can be said to be subjective. Ross makes a place for specific, personal duties, duties which we all recognize in our common sense morality, but which generally go unrecognized in grand ethical theories. E.g. my duty to my daughter is greater than to some stranger girl, because my daughter is mine. I have a duty to keep my promises because I made those promises. These sorts of things are usually disregarded in utilitarian theories.

I do make an explicit place for subjectivity in my theory of aesthetics (not exactly ground-breaking), while also making a place for objectivity (much less common), so I am not unalterably opposed to the idea and I can conceive of cases where we can talk about subjective value in ethics as well. Meta-ethically speaking, I would place people who believe in both subjective and objective values firmly in the moral realist camp. Subjectivist theories, by definition, deny that any moral propositions refer to objective facts.

Withywindle said...

You divide aesthetics from ethics? I thought the idea was that they involved the same sort of judgment.

I think I'm using "subjective" slightly differently from the way you are. I mean to say that our understanding of morals, our belief in them, come from our individuated and time-bound character; our subjectivity. We make arguments based on our subjective beliefs as to which are universally, objectively true, and assent to these arguments based on our subjective beliefs. I'm willing to grant that morals objectively exist--but since we can't know them with any confidence (and no machine can provide that confidence), our apprehension of them must remain subjective, an assent of character. But there is no reason an objectively true moral cannot receive the validation of both our (imperfect) reason and our (imperfect) characters; and what we aim to discover is the morals that universally receive both assents. It cannot be true in itself if it does not receive the assent of reason; it cannot be believed, true for us, if it does not receive the assent of character.

Perhaps I could reframe this to say "I have to desire to perform a duty with all my heart, and that desire proceeds from my heart, from my subjectivity."

Andrew Stevens said...

You divide aesthetics from ethics? I thought the idea was that they involved the same sort of judgment.

Ethical subjectivism is the view that when we say "murder is wrong" what we mean is "I disapprove of murder" (individual subjectivism) or "my society disapproves of murder" (cultural relativism) or "murder is forbidden by God" (Divine Command Theory). This view is mistaken since it implies things like "If I changed my mind about torturing little babies for the fun of it, then torturing little babies for the fun of it wouldn't be wrong." It also makes little sense of disagreement. If when we said, "murder is wrong," all we meant was "I disapprove of murder," then somebody who said, "murder is not wrong" would not be disagreeing with me. He would simply be reporting his own attitude and I would only disagree if I thought he was reporting it incorrectly. But when somebody says to me, "murder is not wrong," I do think they're disagreeing with me and I provide arguments for why they are mistaken.

Aesthetic subjectivism, however, is not subject to this argument. When I say, "That joke was funny" and you respond with "that joke wasn't funny," I (or anyone else) am very unlikely to argue that you are wrong or present arguments to demonstrate that the joke is funny (except perhaps to argue that lots of other people laughed at it - a sort of democratic theory of truth regarding funniness). And it may very well make sense to say, "If I changed my mind about that joke, then the joke would cease to be funny" in a way that is very implausible about ethics.

The rest of your argument I have no issue with, but it is not ethical subjectivism as it is generally defined.

Withywindle said...

I'm going to plead that you said I was a subjectivist ...

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm not sure I ever did actually. In the thread on your blog, I said, "you appear to have a metaethical theory based on some species of subjectivism" and "it sounds like some species of a subjectivist metaethics." I was trying to puzzle out what your metaethical theory was, rather than asserting it. (And later changed to thinking that it was some species of non-cognitivism.)

There are only four meta-ethical theories. Do you believe there are any objectively true moral propositions? Yes - then you're a moral realist. No, then do you believe that there are any subjectively true moral propositions? Yes - then you're a subjectivist. No? Then either you believe all moral propositions are false (since none of them are either objectively or subjectively true), which makes you an error theorist or you believe that moral propositions aren't propositions at all (and so neither true nor false), which makes you a non-cognitivist.

You can see some of the difficulty in determining someone's meta-ethical position. Let us say that you believe there is exactly one true moral proposition, say, "Everybody ought to love pirates," but on all other ethical matters, you are a subjectivist. By my definition, you are actually a moral realist which would probably surprise even you and it would probably take me eons to discover that this was your philosophy.

Withywindle said...

I have great difficulty understanding this vocabulary. It doesn't help that the Germans use a different set of words. Me, I get "snide" for more easily than "cognitivist." Although I do now wonder if Gadamer was trying with his fusion of horizons to come up with a conclusion using his vocabulary that your brand of philosopher would find marginally congenial.

Andrew Stevens said...

I have the same issue with the vocabulary of the Continental philosophers, but the vocabulary I'm using is almost second nature to me.

I am now thinking that Gadamer's philosophy may simply not be interested in moral ontology at all and have nothing to say on the matter. It may be 100% concerned with epistemology. This would be very surprising, but it is possible.

Wittgenstein's Ghost said...

Ethik und Ästhetik sind Eins.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ethik und Ästhetik sind Eins.

Of course, Wittgenstein didn't bother to make any actual, you know, arguments. I'll never understand why people read every word by him while G.E. Moore, a much greater philosopher, is sadly neglected. I personally believe Wittgenstein's influence on philosophy was entirely malignant.

Withywindle said...

Substantiation for the thesis of Moore's greatness.

 
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