Thursday, October 4, 2012

commentary on UPB page 32

Here I will comment on page 32 of "Universally Preferred Behaviour - A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics" by Stefan Molyneux. I don't understand this book, and my not understanding starts (or at least, grows conscious) on page 32.

Paragraph 1 - no comment.

Paragraph 2: "Preferences are central to any methodology claiming to define the truth-value of propositions." "Central" is vague. The sentences that follow do not explain, but illustrate with the example of science. "If you want to determine a valid truth about the behaviour of matter and energy, it is preferable to use the scientific method." He seems to want to show that it is instrumental, we seek a goal, we choose the best method of achieving the goal. It's easy to agree with the example, but he does not show how we came to agreement, or what compels someone who wishes to disagree to give in. Is this merely circular, with "scientific method" defined more or less as "method for determining truth?"

All that may explain some of my confusion, but perhaps it is beside the point for Molyneux. I think what he is trying to say is, ethics consists of attempts to determine the truth-value of ethical propositions, and by adopting that as our goal, we must adopt certain approaches or admit certain restrictions. Presumably, he will explain later why we have adopted that goal and how we know what methods or restrictions our goal implies.

Doesn't this goal-orientation violate Molyneux's proscription of arguments from effect (page 9)?

Paragraph 3: Let me paraphrase. Preferable means required, but not inviolable. If you violate the preference, you (certainly? probably?) fail to achieve the goal (or your chances of success are reduced?). The law of gravity has no exceptions. We can violate preferences. Our goal may be to live, but we may eat arsenic and fail in our goal. Valid truths must exhibit internal consistency and must not be falsified by observations.

Is Molyneux bait and switching us here? Previously, we were justifying the use of the scientific method, or disparaging other methods, and comparing that to the need or non-need to adopt UPB in ethics. Here he is discussing a different level, the strictness of the truths that we approve with each method. Perhaps he means that we adopt UPB in ethics for similar reasons that we adopt the scientific method, but the sort of theories each produces are different. And that ethics differs from physics in important ways that require us to take a slightly different approach, though we need not, must not abandon internal consistency and empirical testing. Nothing prevents us from violating ethical truths. But if they were truths about the possibility or impossibility of certain actions, they would belong to physics, not ethics. Ethical claims are not about possibility or necessity or cause and effect. But what are they about? What distinguishes an ethical theory/truth claim from a scientific one, for Molyneux? Maybe he covered this earlier in the book and I've forgotten. I should review, I've been stuck in this section for quite a while.

Paragraph 4: Ethical theories must be internally consistent and not contradict empirical observations. This paragragh is unusually clear, but contains one weasel-word that violates Molyneux's characteristic boldness - he uses the phrase "near-universal preferences." I think I understand universal preferences, and non-universal preferences, but what the heck is a near-universal preference? Why did we need to slip that in here?

Paragraph 5: "Valid theories must be both logically consistent and empirically verifiable." At this point, I don't know what it would mean for an ethical theory to be empirically verifiable or not. An example might help. He may mean that the theory validates our moral intuitions. But what happens if some result is counterintuitive?

Paragraph 6: No comment.

Paragraph 7: "Preferences do no exist objectively within reality." I think Molyneux means that preferences exist only in the mind. I'm not sure, because in other contexts I've heard him belabor the existence of various things, e.g. the United States of America, in a way that blurs things for me. In any case, what does this imply for the preference he discussed at the top of the page, for pursuit of physical truth claims using the scientific method? Might it be the case that in spite of their non-existence, preferences tend to converge for persons with similar purposes? Could they diverge?

Paragraph 8: Makes me all quibbly. Preference consists of a relationship between consciousness and matter. I'm not sure where that is going. By the way, does consciousness exist objectively within reality?

Paragraph 9: Ordinarily, we are pretty safe assuming that a person's behaviour reveals that person's preferences. What about deception? Not relevant here?

1 comment:

David Burns said...

an ethical theory that contradicts itself cannot be valid – and an ethical theory that contradicts empirical evidence and near-universal preferences also cannot be valid.
Self-contradiction demonstrates the falsehood of statements.