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John T. Kennedy has revived the morality debate we seem to have every few months, and since I'm called out by name as a representative of the opposing side, I figure I might as well jump back in.

Kennedy says we (Patri, me, other consequentialists) don't take moral ends seriously because we don't make a meaningful distinction between morality and personal preference. But we take our personal preferences seriously, don't we? Kennedy may believe that his moral views are much more serious and meaningful than his personal preferences, but he has given us no reason why this should be so. On what basis can Kennedy claim that, to use the example given, theft is wrong?

I certainly wish we could prove this moral axiom with the same certainty we can prove f=ma, but unlike the latter equation, theft=wrong contains an undefined term. It's not that I like moral nihilism, as Kennedy is fond of calling it, but that's what we're left with when his side fails to make their case.

Kennedy asks why, if our opposition to theft rests solely on our dislike of it, we shouldn’t prefer theft that benefits us? I could respond with a number of different theories (David Friedman has a nice one: Most of us are not very good liars), but I have no need to do so, because Kennedy is in the same boat. He has not given any answer to his own question: Why shouldn't Kennedy be a prudent predator? Until he does, this debate is pointless, because as undesireable as relying on our preferences may be, it's all that's left in the absence of an opposing argument.

As I've noted in the past, this debate is identical to another. Consider the following statement:

If you tell me you do not believe in _____ and then say to me that I should brake for animals, or pay women equally, or help the poor, on what basis are you making such an appeal? If no standard for objective truth, law, wisdom, justice, charity, kindness, compassion and fidelity exists in the universe, then what you are asking me to accept is an idea that has taken hold in your head but that has all of the moral compulsion of a bowl of cereal. You are a sentimentalist, trying to persuade me to a point of view based on your feelings about the subject and not rooted in _____ or some other unchanging earthly standard.

Suppose we accept this argument and agree that if we don't believe in _____, all these horrible things will follow. Is that a reason to believe in _____?

Even if there is no way to ground morality without first positing the existence of _____, this is not a good argument for _____'s existence. Just because we find something convenient and comforting doesn’t make it true.

Whether _____ is God or objective natural rights, the result is the same. Unfortunate consequences that result from disbelieving in _____ are not sufficient reason to believe in _____.

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"But we take our personal

"But we take our personal preferences seriously, don’t we?"

Nope, Catallarchs are prone to favor unlibertarian results of consequentialist arguments precisely because they don't take their libertarian preferences seriously. That was my point.

A more charitable

A more charitable interpretation would be that Catallarchs, like everyone, have competing sets of preferences, and the libertarian set doesn't automatically win every balancing act. Lexicographic orderings crumble in the face of scarcity. Refusal to rank preferences lexicographicly in the face of steep trade-offs is not a sign that we don't take our preferences seriously; it is a sign that we excercise common sense.

Micha, Fascinating argument

Micha,

Fascinating argument here. And I hate to move things even further into the abstract...actually, scratch that. I don't hate it at all. So here goes.

Your argument, at the end, asks a question of a type that we might call normative epistemology. You ask, in other words, what conditions must obtain before we ought to believe X. Your suggestion is that the fact that failing to believe in X has bad consequences is not a good reason for believing in X. You might be right about that. But you are right only if you make a set of assumptions that you haven't made explicit here.

For starters, it seems reasonable to say that an initial answer to the question, "What things ought I believe" is that I ought to believe true things. That answer would, of course, immediately require that we figure out what we mean by 'true'. And there are, of course, a number of competing definitions of truth. Only one of those conceptions, however, is consistent with your conclusion.

The three main claimants for the title of Correct Definition of Truth are correspondence, coherence and pragmatism. Correspondence holds, roughly, that proposition X is true if and only if proposition X correctly corresponds to the external world. Your comments pretty clearly presume something like a correspondence theory of truth. The good consequences of proposition X have nothing whatsoever to do with the existence of some aspect of the world to which X corresponds. Thus, it is entirely possible that proposition X be both utility maximizing and false.

Coherence accounts of truth, however, hold that proposition X is true for agent A if and only if X consistently coheres with the remainder of A's beliefs. Coherence accounts leave open the possibility of relativism, insofar as it is possible that there could be two mutually exclusive but internally consistent sets of beliefs. That possibility need not obtain, however. More to the point, on a coherence account, the fact that X maximizes good consequences might well turn out to be true if it coheres with the remainder of my beliefs. Your conclusions _could_ be consistent with coherence accounts of truth, but need not be.

As for the final account of truth, the pragmatist's, well, your conclusion just simply begs the question against the pragmatist, who defines proposition X as true if and only if X is the most useful proposition to believe. In other words, for the pragmatist, I ought to believe true propositions where true propositions are defined as those whose general acceptance produce the best set of consequences. Clearly You don't endorse the pragmatist's conception of truth, but to be more than just question-begging, you should probably spell out the reasons for rejecting that account.

On a related note, you adopt an interesting position here. Most consequentialists are pragmatists of some sort. It's not necessary, obviously, but still. So to endorse consequentialism while rejecting pragmatism does seem to leave you in a funny position. I'm not really sure that I see why you want to/need to leave yourself adopting such an odd philosophical posture.

I don't think those are

I don't think those are competing definitions of truth at all, Joe. They may all go by the name "truth" but they're all referring to different things that don't have much of anything to do with eachother, depending on your metaphysical assumptions. You have to be a metaphysical realist to hold the correspondence definition, but I'm pretty sure that you have to reject realism in order to embrace either of the other two as definitions of truth. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the pragmatic definition is question-begging -- why is P "useful"? You can't get a sensible answer to that question without implicitly assuming the notion of external truths.

Oh and just FYI, I'm a

Oh and just FYI, I'm a correspondence guy who's also a consequentialist and I don't find it an odd position at all. Why should it be? The consequences of believing something have no relation to that belief's truth value. If anything I think it's the pragmatic position that's odd -- how can you measure the consequences of anything without facts to base your ethical decisions on?

Matt, I don’t think those

Matt,

I don’t think those are competing definitions of truth at all, Joe. They may all go by the name “truth” but they’re all referring to different things that don’t have much of anything to do with eachother, depending on your metaphysical assumptions.

It's been a while since I took my epistemology course, but I'm pretty sure that correspondence and coherence really are competing conceptions of truth. They certainly make very different assumptions about the world, but that hardly demonstrates that they are not competing conceptions. You might as well say that consequentialism and deontology are not competing conceptions of morality since they refer to different things even though both go by the name 'morality'.

You have to be a metaphysical realist to hold the correspondence definition, but I’m pretty sure that you have to reject realism in order to embrace either of the other two as definitions of truth.

Okay, this sounds right. I'm not sure that I see where you're going with the argument, though. Different epistemological positions might very well imply different metaphysical positions. That hardly shows that we aren't still talking about the same thing, though. Kant's ethics assume a particular metaphysical position, one that is pretty antithetical to the metaphysical views of Mill. Still, they are both talking about the same sorts of things even if they aren't very much in agreement about _how_ we should go about talking about such things. That's the kind of thing that philosophers do. We talk about the same thing, but we argue about the proper way to talk about said things.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that the pragmatic definition is question-begging – why is P “useful"? You can’t get a sensible answer to that question without implicitly assuming the notion of external truths.

The pragmatist's definition of truth would be question-begging were it asserted without argument. I'm pretty sure, though, that pragmatists offer some reasons. Those arguments are a bit lenghty to reproduce here. William James and C.S. Peirce are a good place to start. Or you could try Richard Rorty. One begs the question only if one assumes the truth of one's position as a reason for that position. One begs the question against a position by simply assuming as a premise that the opponent's position is false. It's not clear to me that the definition above meets either of those criteria.

I wouldn't want to stake my career on it, but I'm pretty sure that the last part of this claim is too quick. It's true that I can make sense of 'useful' only if I assume the existence of an external world. It's not clear, though, why I need to assume the existence of external truths. I might, for instance, define 'useful' in terms of preference-satisfaction. I need not then assume that your stated preferences really do somehow map on to something real in the world. I need only know that X is your stated preference, and A satisfies that preference. Nothing about that has to necessarily correspond in some way to the external world. My conception of 'useful' holds up if you really have a preference for X in the actual external world. But it would still hold up if we all lived in the Matrix and your preference for X didn't really map on to anything that was real in the external world.

Joe, "It’s been a while

Joe,

"It’s been a while since I took my epistemology course, but I’m pretty sure that correspondence and coherence really are competing conceptions of truth."

I know they've historically been billed as such, but I was never convinced that they actually were. To clarify what I meant, let's forget about truth for a moment and just look at the three things by themselves:

1. correspondence with the facts
2. coherence with prior beliefs
3. usefullness

These are clearly three very different proprties that need not necessarily have anything at all to do with one another, so I don't see how slapping the same string of symbols ("truth") on each of them somehow makes them "compete" for anything at all, other than a monopoly on that string of symbols. I don't think your consequentialism/deontology similie holds, because those are clearly concerned with the same thing -- human actions. They're just different methods of trying to figure out what the right kind of actions are. This seems like apples and oranges to me.

Perhaps my use of "question-begging" wasn't precisely appropriate, but it's completely unclear to me how you can possibly have an external world without external truths.

Clarification: in that last

Clarification: in that last sentence, I use "truth" in the correspondence sense.

Ghertner, I certainly wish

Ghertner,

I certainly wish we could prove this moral axiom with the same certainty we can prove f=ma, but unlike the latter equation, theft=wrong contains an undefined term.

But you accept the concept of "degrading" with far less than a rigorous definition:

Reasonable people can disagree about the borderline cases. But the same is true with material that some people consider degrading towards Jews and degrading towards blacks and degrading towards Hispanics. That doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as bigoted material of this kind, nor that it isn’t pervasive in many cases; only that some cases are notoriously difficult to determine.

So why are you applying a different standard to the concept of morality?

"Why shouldn’t Kennedy be

"Why shouldn’t Kennedy be a prudent predator? Until he does, this debate is pointless, because as undesirable as relying on our preferences may be, it’s all that’s left in the absence of an opposing argument."

As I've explained before, one reason I shouldn't be a predator is because the highest values cannot be stolen. The prudent predator obtains goods which are inferior to those he could otherwise secure. The rapist obtains goods which are inferior to those available to the lover.

You think that even if one prefers love to rape one could still maximize value by raping some women and loving others but that just demonstrates that you can't see why rape is *in principle* inferior to love.

I'm persuaded (even if I'm wrong) that preying on others would make me worse off by inescapable principle. You're not. That puts us in very different positions, which is why we see means redefining the ends of Catallarchs taking this path.

Why shouldn't you redefine your ends as convenient? Why shouldn't you be a prudent predator?

Micha, "A more charitable

Micha,

"A more charitable interpretation would be that Catallarchs, like everyone, have competing sets of preferences, and the libertarian set doesn’t automatically win every balancing act. Lexicographic orderings crumble in the face of scarcity. Refusal to rank preferences lexicographicly in the face of steep trade-offs is not a sign that we don’t take our preferences seriously; it is a sign that we exercise common sense."

Yeah, that would be a charitable interpretation. What were the steep trade-offs that got Scott to ditch his libertarian preferences in favor of Kaldor-Hicks? I see no evidence he even remembered his libertarian preferences, never mind the balancing.

You know, I'm not an

You know, I'm not an official Catallarch, but all this kvetching has moved me to go on record right now as saying that I don't have "libertarian preferences," if only to show my contempt for that kind of thing. I have preferences for what makes people better off as defined by their ability to satisfy their own desires, whatever you want to call that. As for "libertarian," yer can 'ave it, mate.

Ahhhh, that feels good.

"I have preferences for what

"I have preferences for what makes people better off as defined by their ability to satisfy their own desires, whatever you want to call that. As for “libertarian,” yer can ‘ave it, mate."

Some of them desire to arrange your affairs. You could be worse off when they satisfy that desire.

Joe, You're quite right that

Joe,

You're quite right that I didn't make my normative epistemology explicit. I didn't have to, for JTK did it for me.

In his post to which I was responding, he confirmed that he subscribes to the correspondence theory of truth. So my entire argument takes his beliefs as a given; even if we assume that belief in X leads to bad consequences, if we subscribe to the correspondence theory of truth, as Kennedy does, this alone is not a sufficient reason for believing in not-X.

As for my own normative epistemology, heck if I know. (And heck if I know how I should know!)

JTK, You think that even if

JTK,

You think that even if one prefers love to rape one could still maximize value by raping some women and loving others but that just demonstrates that you can’t see why rape is in principle inferior to love.

Correct. Where are you finding this principle? Are you making it up? How did you discover it?

And why do you assume that in all future encounters, there will always be a tradeoff between rape and love, to use your example? Isn't it possible that you might encounter a situation where love is impossible but rape isn't? What then? You can't fall back on your mutually exclusive argument in such a situation, so since love isn't relevent, what is preventing you from being a prudent predator?

So far you've given us nothing more than what you believe to be a better strategy for maximizing your preferences. You say that "The prudent predator obtains goods which are inferior to those he could otherwise secure." Inferior how? You don't explain this inferiority; instead you engage in hand waving reference to "principle." In the absence of further information, we can only conclude that you believe inferior goods are inferior at satisfying preferences to superior goods.

Lopez, The point I was

Lopez,

The point I was trying to make there, if I recall correctly, is that borderline cases are not sufficient reason to reject a concept, for lots of legitimate concepts have fuzzy boundaries. I was not trying to claim that bigotry and degrading material are somehow objectively determined.

JTK, "Some of them desire to

JTK,

"Some of them desire to arrange your affairs. You could be worse off when they satisfy that desire."

Living in a society where destructive and grossly coercive preferences are indulged would not maximize total ability to satisfy desires for everyone. I should hardly think this needs pointing out. It's why we lock up thieves.

How can you meaningfully

How can you meaningfully weigh the comflicting desires of different individuals against one another?

Kennedy: You think that even

Kennedy: You think that even if one prefers love to rape one could still maximize value by raping some women and loving others but that just demonstrates that you can’t see why rape is in principle inferior to love.

Ghertner: Correct.

Chicks dig guys who *can* see why.

"You say that “The prudent predator obtains goods which are inferior to those he could otherwise secure.” Inferior how? You don’t explain this inferiority; instead you engage in hand waving reference to “principle.” In the absence of further information, we can only conclude that you believe inferior goods are inferior at satisfying preferences to superior goods."

Dunno what more I can do to help you there Micha. If you can't see that the pleasures of rape are in principle inferior to the pleasures of love then you are effectively blind.

Have you ever seen the movie Sexy Beast?

JTK, "How can you

JTK,

"How can you meaningfully weigh the comflicting desires of different individuals against one another?"

Who says we need to? We can take all preferences as having a priori equal moral weight and still get the same result.

Why equal? Is satisfying

Why equal?

Is satisfying the desires of other individuals really as important to you as satisfying your own?

Ghertner, The point I was

Ghertner,

The point I was trying to make there, if I recall correctly, is that borderline cases are not sufficient reason to reject a concept, for lots of legitimate concepts have fuzzy boundaries. I was not trying to claim that bigotry and degrading material are somehow objectively determined.

If you refuse to reject "bigotry" as a concept just because it has fuzzy boundaries, then why do you reject "morality" as a concept just because it has fuzzy boundaries?

Lopez, I don't reject

Lopez,

I don't reject morality as a concept just because it has fuzzy boundaries. In fact, I don't reject morality as a concept at all. I just understand morality to be something different than your definition. I reject your definition because it's nothing more than wishful make-believe.

Kennedy, If you can’t see

Kennedy,

If you can’t see that the pleasures of rape are in principle inferior to the pleasures of love then you are effectively blind.

So you are unable to explain this principle other than stipulating that it exists? What do you say to the rapist who doesn't share your same assumptions?

And you didn't answer my other point.

And why do you assume that in all future encounters, there will always be a tradeoff between rape and love, to use your example? Isn’t it possible that you might encounter a situation where love is impossible but rape isn’t? What then? You can’t fall back on your mutually exclusive argument in such a situation, so since love isn’t relevent, what is preventing you from being a prudent predator?

JTK, "Why equal?" If we're

JTK,

"Why equal?"

If we're constructing a theory of morality, it seems arbitrary to start anywhere else.

"Is satisfying the desires of other individuals really as important to you as satisfying your own?"

Of course, but so what? Are you plumping for moral subjectivism? ;)