Liberty is an inherently offensive lifestyle. Living in a free society guarantees that each one of us will see our most cherished principles and beliefs questioned and in some cases mocked. That psychic discomfort is the price we pay for basic civic peace. It's worth it. It's a pragmatic principle. Defend everyone else's rights, because if you don't there is no one to defend yours. -- MaxedOutMama

I don't just want gun rights... I want individual liberty, a culture of self-reliance....I want the whole bloody thing. -- Kim du Toit

The most glaring example of the cognitive dissonance on the left is the concept that human beings are inherently good, yet at the same time cannot be trusted with any kind of weapon, unless the magic fairy dust of government authority gets sprinkled upon them.-- Moshe Ben-David

The cult of the left believes that it is engaged in a great apocalyptic battle with corporations and industrialists for the ownership of the unthinking masses. Its acolytes see themselves as the individuals who have been "liberated" to think for themselves. They make choices. You however are just a member of the unthinking masses. You are not really a person, but only respond to the agendas of your corporate overlords. If you eat too much, it's because corporations make you eat. If you kill, it's because corporations encourage you to buy guns. You are not an individual. You are a social problem. -- Sultan Knish

All politics in this country now is just dress rehearsal for civil war. -- Billy Beck

Friday, April 15, 2005

Rights, Morality, Idealism & Pragmatism, Part III.

Dr. Cline replied to Part II early last week. I've been putting this off, quite honestly, because I'm on vacation and I'm still recovering from the sprained frontal lobe that Part II cost me last time. Once again, I'm posting Dr. Cline's reply in its entirety, to be followed later, but predated, by my response which will appear below this one. Give me a day or so to complete it.

Without further ado, I give you Dr. Cline:

First, let me say, regarding your suspicion that we are nearing agreement that I am not quite so optimistic. I think we have already reached agreement on some points, or nearly so, but I suspect that what we are really doing in the greater part of our discussion is uncovering a fundamental point of disagreement. Maybe you’re right, though.

I’m glad you brought up the difference between physics and mathematics. I don’t have the same disdain for physicists that you attribute to mathematicians in your post, but it is useful to examine the differences. Mathematics operates by proof, by moving logically from premises to whatever conclusions can be derived from the premises. A statement such as the "twin prime conjecture" (which states that there are infinitely many distinct pairs of primes whose difference is two) is therefore suspected to be true in mathematics, but it has not yet been proven. Until recently, Fermat’s famous "Last Theorem" suffered through its existence in the same limbo realm. (Although, at the time, it should have more properly been called Fermat’s last conjecture.) The greatest problems of mathematics have traditionally spent long years in this state.

Physics on the other hand, operates by disproof (or, as Karl Popper called it, by falsification), as does all of science. Nothing is ever proven (in the positive sense) in science. Science operates by making claims that can then be tested against empirical observations. No number of observations can grant us a satisfactory verification of any scientific claim. What we must settle for in science, then, is to be able to test our claims and eliminate those that do not agree with our observations. Once I discovered Popper’s works on the philosophy of science, I was amazed that people had not discovered this sooner. (They didn’t, and many still deny it – there are still yet those people, even some scientists, who claim that somehow a finite number of observations can conclusively verify a scientific theory.)

This distinction gives us a nice way to look at the internal workings of thought itself. Both math and science operate according to the rules of logic. Further, both math and science implicitly accept certain additional premises or axioms as true. In mathematics these additional premises are, stated simply, "logic is true" and "arithmetic is true" among others. Until Popper’s work, in science there were several, (again among them that "logic is true") but notable among them was the claim that scientific induction worked – i.e. that we are eventually supported in a universal claim by examining a finite number of particular cases. After Popper, even if this premise is no longer necessary to us, we still have other premises that we accept as true without any attempt at proof in science. Notable among these is the supposition that our observations reflect some independent, actually existing reality. Now we can avoid this question by claiming that our observations do not actually represent anything else at all. Indeed, no less a luminary of physics than Stephen Hawking has stated more or less this very position, that science has no independent meaning - we are just playing a game (one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s "language games") when we are doing science. If this is all science is for us, I’d argue it is not of much value. Fortunately, this view is incorrect.

Primary among the questions we ask regarding physics, mathematics, and even metaphysical questions such as questions of morality are questions about our justification. How and when (and why) do we say we are justified in a determination of fact in one of these areas? The answer that skeptics (at least certain skeptics, those we might call "hard skeptics") reach to this question is that no answer is justified in any area. Indeed, this is a difficult position to argue against in one sense, as knowledge in virtually any subject matter is open to doubt. However, this sort of skepticism is very unproductive. Further, as stated above, it is self-contradictory, as it announces in absolute certainty that nothing can be known for certain. Other skeptics might only express doubts of this level of severity for certain knowledge, and hold other knowledge as absolute truth (or at least very resistant to doubt). This was the method of the logical positivists (whom I mentioned last time) who said only answers to questions of science are justified (or even meaningful). Unfortunately, this statement is itself an answer to a non-scientific question and the belief of these more limited skeptics also is self-contradictory. A skeptical view that might not contradict itself could be "all or nearly all knowledge is open to some doubt." However, this view says almost nothing and still leaves us with the open question - where is doubt valid, and in these cases, how much doubt is reasonable?

The question of how much doubt is reasonable applies in questions of morality as well as in science or knowledge in general. I have suggested in my previous letters that we can know certain rules of morality (of what is right and what is wrong) such as "murder is wrong" or whatever. However, my main point is rather not that we know specific rules of morality with absolute certainty – at least not without a great deal of work (as even rules as seemingly obvious as "murder is wrong" may contain subtleties as, indeed, "murder is wrong" seems to in regard to the difference between murder and other forms of killing). Rather my main point was that we know, with whatever level of certainty possible in knowledge, that there are such rules. We must accept that such rules exist before we can find them.

Your note that rights are not completely interchangeable with morals is at least possibly true. Rights are a way of stating certain "negative moral rules," i.e. what things are not morally acceptable for one person to do to another. There may well be (and many would no doubt say that there are) other "positive moral rules," rules of obligation rather than rules of freedom – things we must do for others if we wish to live morally. Others would disagree with the claim that there are positive obligations that others place upon us if we wish to live a moral life. Ayn Rand I think would be foremost among the claimants that all we really owe each other is our absence and thus might claim that all there is to morality are questions of individual rights. However, even she might grant that there are certain rules of obligation in morality, though if so, she would no doubt say our obligations are to ourselves.

Your claim of the tale of the Maori and the Moriori as evidence of a lack of an objective standard of morality seems false to me. Again, morals are not inviolable. Saying that the fact that not everyone obeys whatever moral rules there might be is evidence for their absence seems to be expecting a little too much of morality. I might wish morality was self-enforcing, but that will not make it so. Anyone can choose to live how he wants; the Maori (at least those involved) made their choices. Your claim that condemnation of them is inappropriate as their behavior was moral according to their society is simply wrong. Any such claim negates entirely the validity of the rights of the individual, subjecting them to a test by opinion poll or ballot. My claim is that the primary position is that of the individual (a thing with both physical form and, more importantly, a mind) and the individual ONLY. Your earlier claim (following Ayn Rand) was that "the whole purpose of morals is to ensure survival, and whatever works to ensure survival is, for that society, 'moral.'" I’m not quite so sure that the source of morality is survival only, but whether or not I agree with that, the survival that Rand was alluding to was NOT survival of society, but rather the survival of the individual. The necessary condition upon an entity to have rights seems to me to be either the presence of a mind or, at the very least (and probably not nearly enough), some sort of physical existence. A society, the thing to which you claim that at least some rights (and apparently from your argument, those that trump all others) are given, has neither of these qualities. In the end, if the primary position as holder of rights is granted to the society (or the nation or the collective or the volk) the end of all individual rights is the result.

Your examination of things regarding how well they "work," whether science or morals, again misses the fundamental point of difference between the two. Morality is not science. Moral questions are not posed in a way as to be falsifiable; there are no scientific tests we can perform to determine whether a moral claim fails to hold or not. This points us to the flaw in your Heinlein quote:
"A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual's instinct to survive -- and nowhere else! -- and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.

"We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race -- we are even developing an exact ethic for extra-human relations. But all moral problems can be illustrated by one misquotation: 'Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.' Once you understand the problem facing that cat and how she solved it, you will then be ready to examine yourself and learn how high up the moral ladder you are capable of climbing."
You rightly recognize that a "scientifically verifiable theory of morals" is nonsense. However, your supposition that Heinlein’s talk about such a "science of morality" was the kind of thing I was referring to is wrong. The realm of morality is different from the realm of science. Moral rules are a priori, in the sense that they are unprovable, and indeed untestable.

The claim Heinlein makes for his future society is unsupportable for two reasons. First, science does not work through verification, but through falsification. Second, moral claims are not falsifiable. This does not make them false, merely not science. Karl Popper understood this. His critiques of certain ideas (notably the later form of Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis) were based on their proponents' claims that these ideas were science. They were not falsifiable, and thus, they were not science. Popper recognized, however, that all knowledge is not necessarily scientific. Some knowledge must exist before science in order to make science a method of divining truth. If we claim that science is all there is of knowledge, we are making the logical positivist fallacy. If only statements of science are true, or meaningful, or valuable, then the claim itself that science is all there is fails the same test for truth, or meaning, or value. Examining everything with regards to whether it "works" or not puts us in the same quandary. If, as I suspect, you mean that something "works" when it has so far passed every scientific test devised by us, then the statement that only things that “work” are true (or meaningful, or valuable) is just as untestable and so just as untrue (or meaningless or worthless). Even Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his logical positivist days, recognized this. He said:
6.53 The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other -- he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy -- but it would be the only strictly correct method.

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way; he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
In 6.54, he recognizes the self-contradictory nature of his own claims, which presumably led to him eventually (somehow not immediately!) abandoning them and taking up (amazingly) other self-contradictory claims. Of course, if we throw away our ladder after we have climbed up it, and knock out the legs of the platform we are standing on, we must wonder what is left holding us up? If the only things we recognize as valid are questions of science and answers found through scientific means, we must in the end accept that there is no justification for science itself. Note that I am not saying we must accept that there is no justification for science, but that science’s justification must be found outside of science. If science’s justification lies outside of science, we might well expect other justifications (such as moral ones) to lie outside of science.

In the end, the existence of a society must be of (distant) secondary importance to the existence of the individual. The individual does not exist to serve society; the individual exists for his or her own purposes. Society, inasmuch as it exists at all, exists only to further the purposes of the individual. If we grant, as you clearly do in your statement:
There are MANY moralities, one for each society extant, of which the objective question is "do they work?" Do they support the continued existence of their societies?
that the existence of society is the primary purpose of morality and even existence, we should not be surprised when individual rights are denied, even by those agreeing with us. In any case, whether we regard the individual and its existence as primary (as I do) or the society and its existence as primary (as you seem to), we may (and probably will) have to fight for the continued practice of our rights, but their protection and their existence are not the same things. If we grant society the top spot in existence, we lose the justification we have in our fight.

You finally say:
It is not enough to believe that there is a single objective standard of morality, based on the corollaries of the fundamental right to one's own life. It is necessary to convince others of the "rightness" of that standard and those corollaries, and to inspire them to support and defend that standard against attack by others who hold different moralities as "right."
which I agree with. It is not enough to simply hold that there is a single true standard of morality. However, though it is not sufficient, it IS necessary. If we accept that there are several moralities, each true in its own right and perfectly good for a certain society, be it the New Guinean cannibals, the Maori, the Moriori, or the American Revolutionaries, we have removed our justification for choosing one over another, other than claiming "it’s good because it’s ours," perfectly unsatisfying reasoning to me. If we insist that how well they "work" (assuming that we have a clear definition of what we mean for a morality to work, which I don’t think we do) is the only means allowing us a preference between them, we again find that we can only say that moral questions are answered "it’s good because it happened" or perhaps "it’s good because the society was successful" or other such after the fact answers. As far as convincing others of the rightness of our standard (and before that, convincing others that there are standards in the first place), I agree that it is an important goal. In fact, convincing you that there is such a true standard (which we must accept before we can say what the standard is that is "good" or "right" or "something that works" or whatever) is my main purpose in writing all this.

Expect the response to be long and involved. I certainly do.

UPDATE, 4/16, 3:35PM: Part IV is up.

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