Sunday, October 7, 2012

Comment on UPB page 33-36

I think I understand the top half of the page, though I don't yet see much relevance. Perhaps I will need to revisit this later.

Bottom half of 33 and top of 34, section "Preferences and Universality": Molyneux asks himself "can some preferences be objective, i.e. universal?" This confuses me. Is universality supposed to be identical to objectivity here, or does one imply the other, or what?

The author then proceeds to clarify what it would mean for a preference to be objective (universal?), by giving some analogies. Or are they examples? It's not clear. If these are not examples, then he never answers his question before moving on to a new topic. If they are examples, then he could have concluded the section by saying something like "I've shown an example of an objective preference, therefore objective preferences exist."

In his example, Molyneux claims it is universally preferable for a sick person to treat themselves with antibiotics. For the moment, let's not quibble about cases where some other reasonable treatment might be as good or even better than antibiotics, assume that antibiotics are clearly indicated. The sick person has a goal, which is to return to good health, and by assumption we all know that antibiotic treatment is his best option.

The universality aspect comes from our ability to place any person in that situation and get the same answer, right? Not that all persons should have some preference with regard to the specific person's action, but that any person in those circumstances should prefer the proper treatment, given that she/he is ill and wants to recover.

Does the objectivity of the preference derive from universality, or from our assumption regarding the cause and effect relationship between the malady and the cure? Will no subjective factors creep in, such as the sick person's attitude toward risk? Some people are allergic to antibiotics, does that break universality?

If we could predict the future perfectly, the sick person could just choose a preferred outcome. Presumably in this perfect information case all persons would agree and make the same choice. So with perfect information, objectivity implies universality.

But what if we step back from this assumption of perfect omniscience and instead give persons a more realistic but still well-informed choice, such as, given your diagnosis, there's such a chance of full recovery with antibiotic treatment, such a chance of failure of the treatment, and such a chance of complications like allergic reaction. Different persons will have different attitudes toward risks associated with different actions, how do we save objectivity and universality? Perhaps the cases that UPB deals with are less ambiguous?

An actual example of a universal preference would illustrate the idea in a helpful way. This example didn't help me much.

Page 34, Section "Arguments and Universality": This begins a long list of premises Molyneux believes derive from the act of arguing, so that anyone who makes an argument implicitly accepts their truth. This will allow him to accuse certain arguments of being self-defeating. The list goes on for a few pages. I'm not sure about the relevance of these premises, I'm skipping most of them for now.

Page 35, Premise 5: Molyneux states in the section title that "an objective methodology exists for separating truth from falsehood." But what he claims within the section is "truth is more than a matter of opinion." I suppose it is possible for the author to consider these statements to mean the same thing.

Further, I'm not sure it follows that engaging in argument implies what Molyneux claims. He could have made a stronger claim, that argument implies a belief that argument itself or some other process known to the arguer can objectively separate truth from falsehood. Why hold back? Perhaps because argument fails in many cases to fulfill this ideal, so Molyneux instead makes a weaker claim. Is he merely claiming that participants in an argument must implicitly accept that the separation of truth and falsehood is at least possible? His claim entails the idea that arguers must concede that such an objective method exists, but falls short of claiming that they have knowledge of it in the sense of being able to use it. That seems odd.

Another odd thing. Molyneux writes, "The moment I provide some sort of objective criterion for determining truth from falsehood, I am accepting [etc.]" Is it the case that all persons engaged in argument must "provide some objective criterion?" Perhaps I simply don't understand what he means by that, but it seems to me that most persons I argue with fail to provide a criterion of any kind. Perhaps I am quibbling again, what can I guess he really means, if not the idea my brain keeps tripping over?

Page 35, Premise 6: Some quibbles. I believe that when Molyneux titled the section "Truth is better than Falsehood", he was using an imprecise readable shorthand for saying something like "Believing and acting on the truth is preferable to believing and acting on a falsehood." Does falsehood exist objectively?

Perhaps what Molyneux really intends is something like this: someone who uses facts to try to win an argument, by admitting that true facts outrank falsehoods in such a context, admits that true facts outrank falsehoods in all arguments generally and also admits that the idea of truth has a meaning and is relevant and when we argue we universally prefer the truth. Well, I'm still not very satisfied I know what's going on, but I'm impatient so I'm going to move on.


David Burns said...

When I say that some preferences may be objective, I do not mean that all people follow these preferences at all times. [...]
Thus when I talk about universal preferences, I am talking about what people should prefer, not what they always do prefer.

If you want X, it is preferable to do Y. When is this sufficient to declare Y to be universally preferable? What must we know about X?
Likewise, 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.
We could measure the effectiveness of antibiotics and rain dances, and compare them. Why use the word universal here? Why not "more effective"?

David Burns said...

If I choose to debate, I have implicitly accepted a wide variety of premises
He lists 8, none of which seem very important or obviously applicable to deriving his concepts or contradicting justifications of rules violations.