Saturday, December 28, 2013

The U in UPB: Universality

I've been thinking about some questions and quibbles from my discussion of UPB with Stefan Molyneux, from FDR2549, Evil is a Confession of Inadequacy, recorded December 6, 2013. 
The discussion starts at about 55 minutes into the show. I have posted a full transcript.  In this post, I want to think about universality.

Stef says, "All moral claims, claim universality."  "All UPB does is say if you're making a moral claim it has to be universal, if it fails the universality test, it's an invalid moral theory.  The UPB framework validates moral propositions by demanding that they be internally consistent and universal in terms of time, place, and individuals." What does Stef mean by "universal?"

What would break universality? If X is true now, but it wasn't true last year, it is not universal. If it applies to you, but not to me, it is not universal. If it is true in Texas but not in Tahiti, it is not universal. At first this seems clear. Imagine some person making a choice at a time and place. Any moral restriction that applies to one particular person, time, or place must apply to all of them. But who do we mean when we say "all of them?"

One obvious complication is that this cannot apply to some persons (infants are the most obvious example, perhaps those with brain injuries, etc.). On the other hand, such persons tend to face practical limits that prevent them from being placed in a position where they face a serious moral choice. So UPB does not apply to all persons in the same way.

How does Stef argue in favor of his universality requirement? Having one moral rule for some and another for others is like having two different sorts of mathematics. The only two mathematics we can imagine are correct mathematics and incorrect mathematics. These are analogous to UPB and non-UPB. I suppose Stef's opponents would say that morality is more like language, there can be more than one. More on this topic here.

If universality did not hold, a skeptic should be able to give an example of a plausible moral proposition that breaks universality. Can we think of an example of a tempting candidate moral proposition that fails as a result of universality?

How about, "Killing is wrong, except in self-defense?" We can interpret that as applying to all persons, times, and places, so no problem. That is, specifying exceptions based on circumstances (other than who, where, and when) does not violate universality?

How about, "Agents of the police may do some things that others are not allowed to do?" Stef clearly would reject this both because it fails universality and because he believes the state is not legitimate. Many ordinary people would accept it. Perhaps this is one of the surprising results Stef promised.

How about "Adults should not seduce children?" At least some children are mature enough to be considered moral agents and have UPB apply to them. Must we amend this statement to make it universal, as in "No one should seduce children?" Keep in mind, the children include those who are seventeen years old. It works well as "no moral agent should seduce someone who is not a moral agent." There are other age restrictions in society, some quite arbitrary. Must we abandon them all? 

Lets go back to "Killing is wrong, except in self-defense." Clearly Stef believes something like this. In the book, he often uses the word "murder," as in 'Don't murder' is UPB. But this just pushes the problem into the semantics of the word "murder." That is, our decision about whether killing in self-defense is acceptable or not will determine whether self-defense will be excluded or included from our definition of "murder," and both cases satisfy universality. Maybe we can generalize this semantic sleight-of-hand to other situations, and redefine our words to describe crimes in a way that implicitly excludes circumstances that absolute universality would include.  E.g. Refraining from theft is UPB, but we might define theft so that it excludes taxation by a "legitimate" government agency. Going back to the special moral proposition regarding police, what if we define kidnapping so that it excludes seizure of criminal suspects by the police? I think Stef would want some sort of restriction requiring universality of time, place, and actor in such definitions. How do we resolve this? I'm not sure.

Could propositions in the following form pass the UPB universality test?
You will be punished if you don't do X frequently enough. Vague.
You will be punished if you do X more than Y times. Arbitrary.
Can we restate these in a way that satisfies universality by redefining terms? That is, could we include some idea about frequency or locality in the definition of X? 

General moral propositions occupy one level of abstraction, specific derived statements fit in another. Property rights provide an example. By analogy: Newton's equation (universal) predicts that when we fire the cannon at this angle in this landscape, the ball will travel this distance (not universal). Similarly, "observe property rights" is UPB, and leads to the specific non-universal application, "This is my car, you would be wrong to drive it without my permission."

If we accept "everyone should respect property rights" as UPB, that does not settle the question of what specific rules of property to follow.

Can we reorient our terms so that all moral claims are a claim of property rights? 
Can we use UPB to derive the NAP and property rights, then use those to derive everything else?

I apologize for my patchy thinking here, this does not qualify as an actual essay. Blog post, okay, maybe.

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