Toward a Fallibilist Synthesis

I see Trent's post has sparked another round of the long-running natural-rights-vs-consequentialism debate. As some here already know, I think that either approach by itself is incomplete, and I want to elaborate a bit on why. I think there is a distinct third approach to libertarianism-- the fallibilist approach-- which naturally implies a need for both natural-rights and consequentialist reasoning. I haven't always considered myself a fallibilist libertarian, but I'm pretty sure that's what I am now.

The fallibilist premise is simple: human beings are imperfect and are in particular too imperfect to judge well, individually or collectively, how to order other people's lives. You might call it "militant humility" instead, or the "no-angels-in-the-form-of-kings" thesis to tip the hat to Jefferson. It's clear, I think, how this leads to libertarian political beliefs. (By the way, as a nice side effect, fallibilism implies that the recent spate of results in behavioral psychology about systematic irrationality in decision-making strengthen, rather than weakening, the case for libertarianism. If we are systematically flawed in our efforts to see what is good for ourselves, how much worse must we be at seeing what is good for others, about whom we can know far less and with whose interests we can have at best partial empathy!)

Fallibilism says that the rights problem-- what are our ethical obligations to one another in a good society?-- and the consequences problem-- of possible measures we could take, which one will truly end up doing the most good in the long term?-- are both intrinsically difficult, and in reasoning about either one we are likely to make errors. Moreover, subtle errors followed logically through long chains of reasoning can easily lead to absurd conclusions. We therefore need consequentialist reasoning to help correct the errors that inevitably crop up in thinking about rights, and natural-rights reasoning to correct the errors that inevitably crop up in thinking about consequences.

The differences between the two approaches make them useful for checking and balancing each other. When your natural-rights logic leads you to a conclusion which seems clearly to have horrible empirical consequences, it's a good sign that you may have made a subtle error somewhere in your assumptions about what rights people really have. And when your consequential reasoning leads to what seems a clear violation of natural rights, there's probably some long-term or indirect consequence you've forgotten to consider. If you only use one or the other, you're almost certain to go astray. There is an analogy here to independence of developers and testers in software engineering, but I'll spare you the geeking.

Now as to Trent's question, I'm not sure where fallibilism leads one to be on the old left-right political spectrum. I have swung, myself, from left to right and (sort of) back, and may well continue to do so. The one observable pattern so far is that I tend to find myself naturally allied with whichever side is out of power; the ones in power always seem more arrogant and corrupt, those out of power the lesser evil. Fallibilism could readily explain this-- it's those in power who are actually telling other people what to do, not just thinking about how they'd like to do so-- but I doubt it's necessary. In consequentialist form this is just the "gridlock strategy," and Murray Rothbard, as extreme a natural-rights guy as you'll find, swung back and forth in a similar way as well.

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Notes of Interest

Notes of Interest (06/24/2005)
Notes of Interest: A new daily feature here at Theocrats—at least from me. I read a lot of interesting stuff throughout the day. Most of it I don’t have time to comment on, but I would like to pass along short excerpts and links. I’l...

This is close to correct,

This is close to correct, but I think there's a presumption which is false underlying this theory: the idea that "errors" in logic are what produce counterintuitive ethical conclusions. There's no reason to assume that our theories of rights are so accurate that any conclusion which seems ethically monsterous is the result of an error of moral calculus. Rather, it's often a limitation of the ethical "law" itself.

Let's take utilitarianism for example (ignoring offshoots like "act utilitarianism"): the basic theory would lead you to the obviously abominable conclusion that you should publicly punish an innocent man if he's widely thought to be guilty. (if you think about this it should be clear, but if not I'll explain.) That's clearly a violation of rights, and is morally wrong, but it's not a failure of moral calculus; it's limitation of the theory.

Fundamentally we're dealing with ethical intuitions, which can be wrong, but are also our primary guide and which allow us to make statements like "[ethical theories can lead to] horrible empirical consequences." That statement is a rejection of an ethical theory simply based on our own ethical intuitions (the only other way something can seem empirically "horrible"), and the fact that the statement is reasonable is evidence that our intuitions have primacy over the theories.

So what's an ethical theory/law/imperative? It's a tent which is constructed to cover and arrange as many of our ethical impulses as possible. The tent never covers them all though, and much of what passes for debate over foundational ethics is which ethical impulses are best left out in the rain. Intuitionism is clearly the way out of this mess- for basics we should use our instincts, and when those instincts contradict other instincts we should use ethical theories like the categorical imperative or consequentialist theories to help us sort them out.

-Matt

I don’t think that it’s

I don’t think that it’s really a matter of working out conveniently that Kant’s ethics line up with theological ethics and more than it’s convenient that Kant and Mill say mostly the same things or that both say largely the same things that Aristotle said. Systems of ethics that survive the test of time do so because they mostly get things right. It’s only the really hard parts where they disagree.
we have no disagreements here.

There is no way, though, that I can really show you how to get at what Kant is doing in a blog comment. That requires a careful reading of Critique of Pure Reason as well as the Groundwork and the Critique of Practical Reason and Metaphysics of Morals. I haven’t done some of those since graduate school, so I doubt that I could do more than a pretty basic account of Kant even if I did have the time and the space in which to do it. I can get you some references if you’re interested.

I know a fair bit about Kant (I studied him for 3 years or so, and have read him.)

Given the example you used, I’m not sure how familiar you are with Kantian moral theory; for all I know, you’re a Kant scholar making a quick point. But for the record, the example you give isn’t all that plausible; you’d have to show that somehow murdering someone really does respect that someone’s autonomy, and that’s going to be quite a trick.
no I think maybe I wasn't clear. I'm pointing out that murdering someone doesn't respect their autonomy. I'm pointing at that there are cases in which such a murder actually does square with our intuitions however (the examples I gave about suicide and euthanasia.) Unless you're talking about my "murder you sister" example. In which case, I'm not at all claiming that it would follow, but rather I'm making a point about the primacy of our intuitions. My point has nothing to do with Kant directly- I'm just saying that we evaluate these theories assuming that the conclusions must square with our moral intuitions.

That was my point about the quickness of counter-examples. To show cases that truly conflict with our intuitions is not very easy to pull off. That’s why philosophers still read Kant and why moral theorists still take his work seriously. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
and he should be taken seriously- he's brilliant. I'm simply making the point that the theory itself would be questioned if they conclusions "conflict with our intuitions." Regardless of whether or not that's the case with Kant, it's in vacuo true that we do consider our intuitions primary and that we see fir to judge things like the categorical imperative on such ground. Whether the CI passes the test is irrelevent (and I largely agree with you, by the way, that it does pass the test.)

But plenty of people reject some of their intuitions in the face of their theoretical commitments (hence, I don’t eat meat, despite really liking the taste of it.) Theories aren’t everything; they don’t always trump intuitions. But neither do intuitions always trump theories.
Intuitionism (a theory to which I subscribe) does allow for a place for a give and take between intuitions and theories. Here's what I wrote inmy first post:
"when those instincts contradict other instincts we should use ethical theories like the categorical imperative or consequentialist theories to help us sort them out."

I think vegetarianism is an excellent example of our impulses contradicting each other, and I think it's very admirable of you to be a vegetarian (I myself find the vegetarian logic airtight, but my willpower less formidable than I'd hoped.) So I should say that I agree with your point here.

-Matt

Matt, To be fair, I have

Matt,

To be fair, I have actually done some thinking about this sort of thing on a deeper level than I can convey in a blog post. No particular reason that you'd know that, though.

http://www.uncp.edu/philosophy_religion/fac_staff.htm

I don't think that it's really a matter of working out conveniently that Kant's ethics line up with theological ethics and more than it's convenient that Kant and Mill say mostly the same things or that both say largely the same things that Aristotle said. Systems of ethics that survive the test of time do so because they mostly get things right. It's only the really hard parts where they disagree. There is no way, though, that I can really show you how to get at what Kant is doing in a blog comment. That requires a careful reading of _Critique of Pure Reason_ as well as the _Groundwork_ and the _Critique of Practical Reason_ and _Metaphysics of Morals_. I haven't done some of those since graduate school, so I doubt that I could do more than a pretty basic account of Kant even if I did have the time and the space in which to do it. I can get you some references if you're interested.

Given the example you used, I'm not sure how familiar you are with Kantian moral theory; for all I know, you're a Kant scholar making a quick point. But for the record, the example you give isn't all that plausible; you'd have to show that somehow murdering someone really does respect that someone's autonomy, and that's going to be quite a trick. That was my point about the quickness of counter-examples. To show cases that truly conflict with our intuitions is not very easy to pull off. That's why philosophers still read Kant and why moral theorists still take his work seriously. It's pretty powerful stuff.

You are right to an extent that no one blindly follows a theory; they have to match up to the bulk of our intuitions. But plenty of people reject _some_ of their intuitions in the face of their theoretical commitments (hence, I don't eat meat, despite _really_ liking the taste of it.) Theories aren't everything; they don't always trump intuitions. But neither do intuitions always trump theories.

John, That's a little quick,

John,

That's a little quick, isn't it? There might be utilitarian sorts of reasons for thinking that we ought to grant people rights. The rights would be the same kinds of rights that people refer to in talking about 'natural' rights, but they wouldn't be 'natural' at all. I'm deeply suspicious of talk of natural rights. Like Bentham, I find them to be "nonsense upon stilts". But I do think that rights ought to exist because I think that there are bad consequences that come about from not granting people certain rights. Recognizing those rights doesn't make me into a rights-based theorist and more than recognizing the existence of rights makes me into a libertarian at all.

I like this one best,

I like this one best, Nick.

Never having heard it in those terms, I would consider myself a fallibilst, also. I wonder if it could best considered a reduced-to-the-extreme form of consequentialism. As in: the consequences of any larger-sized, minopolisti political power are so dire given the fallibility of human decision making, that humans should be recognized to hold a broad array of "rights" which themselves are broadly construed.

No natural rights there, all consequential based on human fallibilty.

I am curious as to if you

I am curious as to if you see this relating to the idea of "Harmonic" ethics attributed to Bastiat. The idea as I understand it is that the debate between natural rights and utilitarianism creates a false dichotomy - that natural rights proceed from utilitarianism, because they lead themselves the intended 'greatest good'. Hence fallibilism seems to be an approach to ethics that takes this into account in a digestible way - analyzing arguments from both utilitarian and natural rights grounds, and (if there is a difference, or an unintuitive result) explain the difference in terms of some misapplication of one or both theories.

On the whole, it sounds like a good approach. I have always been uncomfortable with consequentialism personally, since it can lead to unintuitive results that seem to justify moral attrocities, but this seems like a decent compromise/explanation. I will have to think on it a bit more.

Joe- While you're clearly

Joe-
While you're clearly right on a surface level, I think you just need to think about this more deeply. Where does Kant get access to this special power of reason? And isn't it convenient that a=a can logically create system that's so exactly like theological ethics? What I'm saying is that ethical theoreticians are crafting these theories and checking their results by using their inuitions.

Think about it this way: if these theories could be right on a deeper level than moral intuitions are "right" then we have no business judging the "horrible" consequences of such theories. What I said above about Utilitarian theory justifying the punishment of an innocent man- well how can we judge that without an appeal to our instincts? We can't. We'd just have to accept it.

Let's suppose you're a Kantian and tomorrow it's demonstrated that Kantian theory logically neccesitates murdering one's sister. Let's assume this logic is absolutely airtight- and you're completely convinced that the logic is correct. Do you murder your sister without question? Or do you see it as a flaw in theory?

Obviously the latter. We accept or reject ethical theories based on how their consequences mesh without intuitions; we don't blindly follow their logic. That means our intuitions have primacy over the theories. It doesn't mean the theories are worthless; they're tents.

-Matt

Why do you need natural

Why do you need natural rights reasoning if there are no rights? If there are rights then recognizing them makes you a rights based libertarian.

Matt, I'm not at all sure

Matt,

I'm not at all sure that it's correct to characterize moral theories as tents. Certainly one _can_ use them in that way, but it's hardly the way that most are intended to be used.

To take your example of Kant, he's not looking to group intuitions together. Rather, he argues for an a priori account of morality, one that is grounded in certain truths of practical reasoning. If one buys his premises (that morality is universal, that it applies to all rational beings, and that acting autonomously is a necessary condition for moral agency), then his account of morality follows deductively from his premises. One can do a similar sort of justification for utilitarianism.

What you describe is a pragmatist's notion of morality--choose whatever account best gets at the results that we find to be most useful (however we go about defining 'useful'.) I think, though, that it's question-begging to assume that all moral theories really are doing what the pragmatist is doing. Richard Rorty does that sort of thing (in his mind, everyone is really just anticipating Rorty), but that's just plain bad interpretation. You make an interesting case for why we _ought_ to view moral theories as tents, but it's just not true that that's what all moral theorists are really trying to do.

matt: certainly errors in

matt: certainly errors in premises are not the only source of
counterintuitive conclusions, but they are one source. And I’d say your utilitarian example does point to a premise error: namely, the premise that utilitarianism is the right notion of the good.

perhaps I used the wrong example then- there's no doubt that utilitarianism isn't a perfect notion of good, but niether are rights based theories. There are all sorts of flaws that you can find in them, especially when you don't understand that their merely trying to group as many of your ethical intuitions together as possible. There's no reason to assume that our ethical intuitions will be even be particularly rational- it's just all we have to go on.

Let's take a classic rights-based theory: Kant categorical imperative. Euthenasia and Suicide (both pretty reasonable in my view) are considered unjustified because they violate human rights and because they can't be universalized. Well this is logic, but it's not bad logic- it's just the limitation of a theory.

I think it should be clear to everyone that the conclusions of both consequentialism and rights based theories are highly intuitive in most cases. Rather than battle it out around the edges, we should analyze what these theories are attempting to do and understand them for what they are: tents. (see my last post.)

-Matt

I'm sure that this is going

I'm sure that this is going to prove terribly unpopular, but as a consequentialist, I'm going to see if I can give at least some defense, at least in one respect.

Several people in this thread have pointed out that consequentialism can have counterintuitive results. I submit that that claim is just false, or at least, it's true only to the extent that one has only an introductory-level understanding of consequentialism.

There are lots of purported counter-examples to consequentialism; it's an entire cottage industry to create such things. Judith Thomson and Bernard Williams, for instance, have made quite a career of doing so. But all of those counter-examples have one thing in common: to the extent that they do run counter to our intuitions, it's because they are hopelessly vague, failing to rule out (or even consider) other long-term effects of our actions. Those examples that do provide a real dilemma (i.e., allow only two choices where the consequences are easy to calculate and knowable in advance of our action) are so far-fetched that it's not at all clear why our intuitions should be thought to be a guide in such a case anyway.

R.M. Hare makes this point in _Moral Thinking_. His point is the intuitions are designed to give us correct answers in ordinary sorts of cases. In truly extraordinary cases, then, there is little reason for thinking that our intuitions are particularly useful.

All that aside, though, it's still not clear to me why anyone ought to reject a moral theory on the basis of some set of intuitions. Intuitions, after all, are largely given to us through our culture, our background, our upbringing, etc. Quite often, though, cultures, societies or parents instill intuitions that are simply wrong. So if I grow up as a good Marxist, I might have all sorts of intuitions about the badness of markets and a whole set of intuitions about basic fairness and the like. It doesn't mean that those intuitions are true, and some of them, arguably, are just false, because they are based on an understanding of human nature that just doesn't turn out to reflect reality.

Leaving all that aside, though, let's suppose that consequentialism does conflict with some of our intuitions. I think, for instance, that consequentialism leads one to the conclusion that one ought not eat animals but that it's okay to kill severely disabled infants. That strikes some as highly counterintuitive. But I have good reasons on my side; it's hard to see why your intuitions should hold as much sway as my set of reasons. Now you might offer reasons for why you hold the intuitions that you do. That's fine, but notice now that it's not the intuitions that have any weight, it's the reasons behind them. If your intuitions conflict with my moral theory, then unless you can provide good _reasons_ for your view, then I would think that it's just so much the worse for your intuitions.

A more formal way of putting this point would be to argue for Rawlsian reflective equilibrium. The fact that a theory conflicts with our intuitions is a reason for thinking carefully about the theory, but it's an open question whether we should therefore ditch or modify the theory or our intuitions.

matt: certainly errors in

matt: certainly errors in premises are not the only source of counterintuitive conclusions, but they are one source. And I'd say your utilitarian example *does* point to a premise error: namely, the premise that utilitarianism is the right notion of the good.

Academician: yes, that's quite similar. David Friedman, IIRC, also put forth this idea in an essay whose name escapes me now.

Jim: a good point, thanks.

Nick, this is excellent. I'd

Nick, this is excellent. I'd add one modification. I think it is perfectly possible for some people some of the time to know better how someone else should choose to live their lives than they do. I think that I was right that one of my brothers should not have committed a million dollars in credit-card fraud, for example. I think my other brother was right that I should have finished college.

The problem is that you can always, in principle, be wrong about the best choice. If I'm wrong about a choice for my own life, the consequences fall on me. If I'm wrong about a choice for someone else's life, the consequences fall on - them.

This is itself, I hope, clearly problematic. And if we believe that consequences are educational, it's also perverse. The negative reinforcement I get from fvcking up someone else's life is so attenuated as to inspire doubt that I'll be motivated to learn much from it at all.

Jack- Democracy and

Jack-

Democracy and libertarian political beliefs are not necessarily in conflict, but rather the idea that large swaths of our lives and society should be governed by some sort of majoritarian/plural political process (democracy broadly defined) is opposed to a general liberal/libertarian belief in (a) self-government and (b) evolved, spontaneous order reflecting the particular circumstances of space and time for different groups of individuals.

When democracy flows from the liberal impulse (that for the sticky, high level meta questions that are left to political processes, the way to best resolve them is by some sort of large scale consent process) then that's fine, but the flip side of democracy is to embolden & encourage majoritarian thinking, such that whomever has the most votes gets to "rule", as in impose a certain order on the people with the minority position, which is surely an illiberal impulse. That democracy per se has no defense against that sort of illiberality is a reason for criticism (though for sure, any political system has this defect, but that is part of the general liberal critique of politics & power)

No, Jack, thank you for the

No, Jack, thank you for the compliments and thoughtful commentary.

First off, I just discovered

First off, I just discovered this blog and I can't believe it exists. As a former editorial page editor for a daily newspaper, I would have loved to print letters and commentaries as thoughtful and articulate as these entries. You know, the mainstream media thinks the threat from blogs is that they are going to dumb down and cheapen publication communication...

Second, to Nick's point about fallibilism, a question: Don't most pragmatists start with this point and reach a completely different political result (i.e. a fallibilistic position entails a preference for a deomcratic regime)?

Nick writes:
The fallibilist premise is simple: human beings are imperfect and are in particular too imperfect to judge well, individually or collectively, how to order other people’s lives. You might call it “militant humility” instead, or the “no-angels-in-the-form-of-kings” thesis to tip the hat to Jefferson. It’s clear, I think, how this leads to libertarian political beliefs.

Peirce argued that a "militant humility" should lead to a definition of truth that is constructivist -- that in science or any other discipline, because of the propensity of one to be wrong, the opinion of many provides a better answer than the opinion of one. So in that case, I may know better than anyone else what's best for me -- or I may not (as Jim Henley notes). Thus a functional democracy, in which many people make the rules that I live by, should provide a better answer than either the dictator or the anarchist.

Recognizing that a defense of democracy here may not be welcome here (nor do I feel compelled or particularly able to mount such a defense), I reiterate that this is a question -- wouldn't fallibilism lead to democracy?

Thanks,