Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nerd Pron #1

Mill has made as naive and artless a sense of the naturalistic fallacy as anybody could desire. 'Good,' he tells us, means 'desirable,' and you can only find out what is desirable by seeking to find out what is actually desired. This is, of course, only one step towards the proof of Hedonism; for it may be, as Mill goes on to say, that other things beside pleasure are desired. Whether or not pleasure is the only thing desired is, as Mill himself admits (p. 58), a psychological question, to which we shall presently proceed. The important step for Ethics is this one just taken, the step which pretends to prove that 'good' means 'desired.'

Well, the fallacy in this step is so obvious, that it is quite wonderful how Mill failed to see it. The fact is that 'desirable' does not mean 'able to be desired' as 'visible' means 'able to be seen.' The desirable means simply what ought to be desired or deserves to be desired; just as the detestable means not what can be but what ought to be detested and the damnable what deserves to be damned. Mill has, then, smuggled in, under cover of the word 'desirable,' the very notion about which he ought to be quite clear. 'Desirable' does indeed mean 'what it is good to desire'; but when this is understood, it is no longer plausible to say that our only test of that, is what is actually desired. Is it merely a tautology when the Prayer Book talks of good desires? Are not bad desires also possible? Nay, we find Mill himself talking of a 'better and nobler object of desire' (p. 10), as if, after all, what is desired were not ipso facto good, and good in proportion to the amount it is desired. Moreover, if the desired is ipso facto the good; then the good is ipso facto the motive of our actions, and there can be no question of finding motives for doing it, as Mill is at such pains to do. If Mill's explanation of 'desirable' be true, then his statement (p. 26) that the rule of action may be confounded with the motive of it is untrue: for the motive of action will then be according to him ipso facto its rule; there can be no distinction between the two, and therefore no confusion, and thus he has contradicted himself flatly. These are specimens of the contradictions, which, as I have tried to shew, must always follow from the use of the naturalistic fallacy; and I hop I need now say no more about the matter.

G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica

It is probably evidence of just how much of a nerd I am that I am vastly amused by one philosopher handing another his ass. Quite obviously, I am in total agreement with Moore on this issue. The hedonistic principle that good=pleasure is self-evidently problematic. For one, it does not truly take into consideration the rights and feelings of others. In this, it violates one of Kant's categorical imperatives, that people have inherent moral worth. Of course, no Hedonist worth his salt is going to give Kant's theories any weight; however I think most people will immediately intuit the value of Kant's teachings in this regard at least.

I enjoy Moore, though I find his insistence on saying that good is ineffable and therefore we can only know something is good if we know it is good to be circular reasoning at best (honestly, it's vapid). I can absolutely get on board with his smack-down of Utilitarianism.

Note: Much of what in politics and American society we instinctively think of as Socialism is in reality Utilitarianism. The governing principle of this philosophy is the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is, on its surface, an admirable philosophy when it comes to public policy, and indeed Beckham conceived of it as a sort of macroethics, one which was intended to be put into use by governments in governing.

Of course, your average conservative--myself included--is going to look at that statement and say "Um, what about those of us for whom the greater good isn't good at all?" Beckham was a progressive in his time, and he'd be absolutely at home in our re-branded liberal party. I'm certain Obama is a fan of Beckham's, or would be if he's had any ethical training (which frankly his policies cast into doubt). It is, in fact, this principle of utilitarianism which has led to certain (in my opinion) deep moral errors in medical ethics, wherein a right to death has turned into a duty to die.

By contrast, I think Rawls and his theories on Justice, specifically the principle of greatest equal liberty (which is that we should all have the greatest amount of freedom possible that does not infringe upon anyone else's rights) and his Original Position, which speaks toward the proper thought-processes for developing public policy, probably will resonate more fully with your average conservative.

These, by the way, are the assumptions of the Original Position:

1) People are mutually self-interested. This is to say, they will not, as a general principle, harm themselves so as to benefit another.
2) That people are rational, which entails the following:
a. that they know their own interests
b. they realize that some of their interests and goals will conflict with other of their own goals, and that therefore they will have to give up or relinquish certain goals to accomplish others;
c. they are able to understand the consequences of their actions;
d. they can stay with a plan of action once it is decided upon;
e. they can evaluate and weigh long term vs. short term gains and losses;
f. they are free from pure envy
3) Everyone has similar interests and needs.
4) The veil of ignorance. This is that policymakers should act, when making policy, as if they have no concept of their own positions in society. (This is so that they will make just policies, rather than just ones that benefit themselves.)

{This simplificaton of the theory is credited to my professor, Dr Cox.}

Granted, this is rather an idealistic outlook. For one, I know that many of my fellow conservatives don't honestly believe their fellow men are rational; however this is actually a very minimal definition of rational that Rawls is using here.

Dear God, I just lapped myself in nerdiness, didn't I?

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