Saturday, December 8, 2007

Rawls and Dialetheism

Some things I've been thinking about while wrapping up my "History of Ethics" paper....

Rawls, in his "Theory of Justice," makes it clear that his primary enemy is utilitarianism. His grand project is to come up with a plausible more or less Kantishly-flavored alternative to it. Despite this, he praises utilitarianism for giving us a single consistent principle of justice, thereby ruling out the possibility of conflicting obligations. He admits that this would be best, but since he doesn't find their one principle defensible, he thinks the next best thing is to postulate a lexical ordering of obligations, such that when obligations stemming from Principle A conflict with alleged obligations rooted in Principle B, the A-obligations always win and so on down the line.

Now, to the extent that I'm a moral realist (which I try to be, or at least I do on Mondays, Wednesdays, alternate Tuesdays and maybe on Yom Kippur even when it falls on one of the other days), I take it for graned that it is never true that one is morally obliged to do P & ~P. (On Thursdays-through-Sundays, I'm even more sure of it!) So, programmatically, my sympathies are entirely with Rawls here.

What I find interesting, though, is that he makes no arguments, none whatsoever, to tell us *why* to think this should be the case. In what is, at least to me, one of the most interesting lines in the whole of the ToJ, Rawls attacks intuitionism by saying that if we don't have a knowable principle for deciding between conflicting prima facie obligations, "the means for rational discussion come to an end."

So....why? Let's put it this way. There are at least three options when dealing with a prima facie obligation to do P and a prima facie obligation to do ~P.

(1) Use some principle to decide between P & ~P, as Rawls and his utilitarian opponents both do.
(2) Admit, as Rawls castigates the inuitionist for doing, that there's no way to decide, that you just have to go with your gut on a case-by-case basis, but take it as a given that of course the conjunction of an action and its negation can't be obligatory.
(3) Say, as Graham Priest does in his chapter on Philosophy of Law in "In Contradiction," that there is no general reason to assume that contradictory prima facie obligations need always to be merely prima facie.

Now, perhaps Rawls is right that there's nothing much to discuss given (2)--it's hard not to think of Stephen Colbert's inspired White House Correspondents dinner riff on knowledge based on the gut rather than on the head--but Rawls takes it as a given that (2) being unpalatable, we must go with (1). Why?

Well, if we assume that the underlying logic of this rational discussion need be classical, it's certainly the case that in standard classical logic extended with deontic operators, you can conclude ~O(P) from O(~P), and hence [O(P) & ~O(P)] from O(P & ~P). This could be seen as problematic due to the alleged explosiveness of contradictions--that is to say, on the assumption that the underlying logic of Rawls' "rational discussion" is classical, and [O(P) & ~O(P)] is sometimes true, then any randomly chosen O(Q) would also be true. Hence, if in a lifeboat situation, you were morally obliged to save your sister and your mother from drowning, and it was impossible to do both, then it would follow that you were morally obliged to go around killing puppies. The strong moral intuition that we are not in fact so obliged might be considered, on an intuition-reliant reflective-equilibrium sort of model of moral reasoning, to be taken to be pretty good evidence that we never have inconsistent obligations.

So far, so good. By why should the means of rational discusison about morality have to be based on classical logic? It seems fairly clear that--since, as we've seen in earlier posts, the Duns Scotus proof follows from logical rules that only make sense if we assume that the Law of Non-Contradiction is universally true--if there are indeed inconsistent obligations, then the underlying logic of rational moral discussion had best be paraconsistent.

So, given that, why should we rule out (3)?

A moral philosopher could leave the refutation of dialetheism to the logician and assume that, since dialetheism is false, there are no moral dialetheias, but if inconsistent obligations are taken to be part of the motivating evidence for dialetheism, the burden is distributed the other way around. (Indeed, when Graham Priest came to Miami last spring, he told me that inconsistent obligations are the most compelling cases of true contradictions. While his primary focus in this work is on the philosophy of law, he's very clear in the chapter on this in "In Contradiction" that any normative system is likely to give rise to similar examples.) As such, the logician needs the moral philosopher to do his part for the refutation of dialetheism by giving us independent grounds for supposing moral obligations to be necessarily consistent.

The obvious move is to say that "ought implies can," and we can't engage in contradictory actions. You can't both save your mother and (by saving your sister on the other end of the lifeboat) not save your mother. Even Graham Priest, who has a detailed argument in "Doubt Truth to Be a Liar" that there are no contradictions in the "observable world," would grant this much. (As a side note, I think that his argument for the consistency of the observable world is extremely dubious, and that if the Law of Non-Contradiction is not universally and necessarily true--which of course I think it is--there are no particularly good reasons to believe the observable world to be consistent. BUT that would get us well off-track from the present discussion, so for the moment, I'm happy to grant Priest the point.) But why should we suppose that ought does indeed imply can?

After all, in contemporary work on moral responsibility, that principle is less secure than ever. Frankfurt in particular has given us some extremely compelling thought experiments that pump our intuitions in the opposite direction. In his cases, we do in fact morally judge people even when they could not to otherwise, and statistical evidence from experimental philosophers have shown that most people's pre-philosophical intuitions lie with Frankfurt.

So what's a moral realist anti-dialetheist who takes Frankfurt's examples seriously to do? There may be a way of reconstructing "ought implies can" that freely admits that "can" need not be an actual physical possibility for a given agent as required in libertarian (or even traditional compatibilist) conceptions of free will, but that is still carefully enough construed to rule out things that are never physically possible for any agent under any circumstances, but caution and independent grounding would be sorely required here to avoid making this completely ad hoc and question-begging.

Anyone have any ideas?


J said...
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J said...

Yeah. Start over with Hume's fact/value distinction. Obligations are not rationally justifiable; there's no contradiction in making "unethical" decisions, as Hume pointed out (with the prick on the finger vs. half the world destroyed or something). Were one the captain on the lifeboat with the only firearm, say--Capn could decide to put the one pretty dame onboard the lifeboat, instead of saving 3-4 others, and leave the rest for sharkbait.

Perhaps one could posit a right of some sort binding on all (put yourself in X's shoes), but then the obligation becomes something like "be consistent', and still does not overcome Hume (though respecting rights might be prudent--the Capn if prudent would have to estimate whether there was a chance that one of the gents might survive the sharks and get to shore, and accuse him of a crime: there was room for 6 on the lifeboat, and yet Capn only took the cute gal, or something )

Rawls himself doesn't really hold to an objective rationalist ethics, does he? More like a contractualist: given a certain situation (the veil of ignorance, right) people will choose certain situations which might seem "just" in conventional terms, but that's still a matter of self-interest (and in that, both contracturalists and utilitarians sort of agree: tho' it's been some years since the cliffsnotes to ToJ and Ethics BS 101). Though if one can sort of escape the veil of ignorance, or choose to be a robber baron instead of comrade, one might choose to do so: even Hobbes said that centuries ago. The alternatives to self-interest is not Rawls but more like Plato or Screepture (and Kant doesn't really do much better---at least in terms of justifying an obligation. See also Gewirth).

Ben said...

Rawls is certainly a moral realist. In one of the most (relevantly) striking passages in the ToJ he compares truth to justice. Just as truth is the ultimate value in theories, such that even the most elegant theory must be rejected if it is untrue, justice is the ultimate value of social institutions, such that whatever their other virtues they must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.

(Remember, all the realism you need for this to be a problem is that statements of obligation have truth value. That's it.)

The crucial thing is to figure out *why* the demands of justice can't be inconsistent. He takes it as a given that they can't, and provides no rationale, so it's up to us to come up with a reason on his behalf.

J said...
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J said...

Au contraire. Rawls' "Original position" updates Hobbes' Leviathan, more or less: what sort of society would rational humans choose (given some parameters, like, there is a high probability that they will live in the society they choose). The Prisoner's Dilemma in a sense, rather than some platonic or theological ethical realism. The later comments which do sound a bit like moral objectivism are premised on that initial, desire-based, and one dares say naturalist, contractual position. I contend Kant's cat. imp. itself is a type of contract (and thus consequentialist, as y'all say), at least in the since that the presumed obligation cannot be justified, except in a prudential sense (it would be prudent to consider the effects of proposed political or economic policies-- or at least the probable effects).

Really, most moral "realists" more or less posit objective Justice, but cannot prove it. It seems to have a vaguely Platonic aspect. Hobbes' writing on ethics, however, still seems relevant in so far as he does a great job in demolishing that vague platonic-theist framework: there's even a somewhat Darwinian aspect to the Leviathan.

Hobbes in a sense pre-dates Hume's fact/value distinction, without getting all pompous about it, at least in terms of denying altruism--the real issue, and indeed inductive, not deductive (or analytical as the snobs say).

(Challenges to the law of contradiction (or non-contradiction if you prefer) are a separate matter. I agree one could argue against the "necessity" of the LOC, given the difficulty of justifying any a priori "truths". Yet ordinary language itself would be quite difficult. The behaviorists had problems with logic---and I think Quine sort of ducks the issue of "necessity," and thus of constructivism, tho' he is certainly aware of it (see his early essay with Goodman, which might be construed as some radical criticism of the Fregean sort of logicism)).

Ben said...

(1) I don't know why you think moral realism has to be "Platonic or theological," considering that plenty of hard-core naturalists are moral realists. We're just talking about the view that moral statements are the kinds of things that can be true or false. It's difficult (though, clearly, not impossible) to argue about normative ethics if you aren't a realist in this sense. I'm also not sure what you're getting at with the business about "proving" that justice-claims are objectively true or false. What's meant by proof here? If it's absolute deductive certainty based on self-evident principles that we can't coherently deny, then, nope, probably not. (Although good luck "proving" that justice-claims aren't truth-evaluable by that standard.) Certainly, the literature on analytic meta-ethics is full of detailed and rigorous arguments back and forth about whether or not moral statements are truth-evaluable.

(2) There's no way of reading Rawls by which he does not come out as thinking that some moral statements are true and others are false. (Certainly, the thinking of the hypothetical agents in the original position would be purely amoral maximizing of their own self-interest, but the point is not that the rest of us should be that way, but that thinking about what sort of society people thinking that way in that position would design is a good guide for those of us *not* in the original position to use to figure out what a truly just society would look like.) His relationship with classical social contract theory seems beside the point here, since it's not as if the classical social contract theorists weren't moral realists.

(3) Just to underline the point, the important part here is not where moral obligations come from, but whether we have any in a sense that would allow us to ascribe truth value to statements like "murder is always wrong" or "murder is not always wrong." If so, the issue of why they have to be consistent gets off the ground. Rawls explicitly states that moral obligations must be consistent, and that in fact if intuitionists are right and we don't have a clear, intersubjectively available principle for choosing between conflicting prima facie obligations, "rational discussion comes to an end."

(4) How exactly to understand Rawls' degree-of-realism is beside the point here. Even if "quasi-realists" like Blackburn, who take a basically expressivist theory about ethics, combine it with a deflationary theory of truth, and thus allow moral statements to be true and false, are faced with the problem of how to make sure that moral obligations are inconsistent. After all, if they can be inconsistent (and if we accept the basic principle in deontic logic that allows us to derive (O(P) & ~O(P) from O(P&~P)), then even a moral quasi-realist who accepts all of this has committed themselves to dialetheism, since they think there is at least one true statement of the form P&~P.

(5) Even if, for the sake of argument, Rawls wasn't a moral realist in whatever sense--that is to say, he didn't believe that moral statements were truth evaluable--then there would still be a pretty interesting question about what people who *are* moral realists (but who don't want to be dialetheists) should think about the possibility of inconsistent obligations, yes? Is Rawls right that it's always irrational to posit them?

If so, *why*? Extra credit points for not begging the question against the possibility of true contradictions.

J said...

I. Let's put it this way: assuming that agents in the original position make choices based on self-interest, desire, pleasure (as say Hume asserts too--"reason (and presumably reasonable ethics and politics) shall be the slave of the passions"), the term "moral realism" does not seem to apply (since "realism" generally means mind-independent, objective--which is to say platonic and/or theological).

For one, even in the hypothetical "veil", some people might choose, say, aristocracy over democracy (I think Rawls addresses this as well), or shall we say DeSadeVille over Nice-nik-land. The only way Rawls gets around that is via more hypotheticals: well, the Veil includes a proviso such that there exists a high probability that the choice turns out to be the "real" eventuality, and thus binding on the Chooser, right? Now the easy criticism is that, as with Hobbes, that Veil is purely speculative, a construct, implausible. But the better criticism suggests that there is hardly any "necessity" to people's self-interest. Were some bizarre Rawlsian "VeilBot" implemented, some humans might choose DeSadeVille over Nice-nik-ville, right? No obligations, no inherent "logic" except the person's calculation (or guestimate) that a certain situation would be more in his interest, i.e. pleasurable. And again, that hardly seems like "moral realism" in the sense that "murder is always wrong". X could choose a society where murder was occasionally acceptable (say death penalty).



Moral realism, or perhaps more accurately, rationalist Justice, might be argued for in terms of rights or entitlement claims, I believe, but that is a bit different than Rawls' Veil. Even Locke sort of suggested that. Humans needs a certain amount of liberty to obtain economic goods (food, shelter, employment, cash, etc). So at least from the standpoint of agency, sane humans value liberty (Gewirth argues along these lines): without it, they could not obtain their livelihood. Is there a consistency maxim there??? Gewirth say yes. Hobbes says NYET, I believe. One can posit some consistency maxim, or natural right all you want: obviously history shows how humans treat those natural or innate rights.

OK, that could be refined. Say X and Y, two doctors, are shipwrecked on a desert island. X managed to get a gun and hoards all the coconuts and water, while Y a few hundred yards away is dying of thirst, shouting "you're not recognizing my entitlement claim!!". So? Does that mean that X is feeling some pain from not being consistent, or ye gods, in sin? Unlikely. "Thou shalt not be inconsistent in terms of supposed moral acts" does not really pan out in terms of truth functionality. I think it's a premise, or warrant if you want, but as a warrant merely prudential, constructive, indeed provisional, not T v F (again Hume notes that too: modal imperatives are not fact statements). There could be instances where one would be morally inconsistent: riot, war, mafia-ruled society, famine, etc. Hobbes (and Hume in a different sense) anticipate that, as does Nietzsche (who sort of pissed on rational ethics and social contract theory. Malthus and Darwin also have some ideas along those lines)