More Problems of Philosophy

A note to Bob Alexander and his brief reply:

Some Preliminary Thoughts

Beliefs in “scientific” facts:  not the technical statements of science, but statements like “It’s cold outside”.  Having a reason involves appealing to the facts.  We can all do that and be quite certain when we’ve done it properly and with a positive result, we can then say we are justified in asserting our statement.

Mathematical facts:  “7+5=12”  Again we can appeal to the facts.  In this case, it is the facts of the way we use certain signs and perform certain operations.  We become very certain under particular circumstances and state that we are justified etc.

Ethical facts:  e.g. “One ought to help the needy.”  We can appeal to the facts.  In this case it is the way we are to use the word “ought”:  perhaps we have insisted on generalizability (i.e. a standard of duty that has appropriate built in checks such that all who follow it are at least not hindered in that by the community).  Then we can apply this standard and check to see if specific ethical assertions are justified.

But why, after we’ve done all this, couldn’t we say “All Right, now let’s go kill some Jews.”?  But that would be a self-contradiction.  “Ought” means that one is forbidden to do the contradictory thing.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t do that thing.  Just watch me….  Or perhaps you are suggesting that some authority is forbidding me.  Then the authority must stand by his laws.  Is it God?  That’s possible, but you must first give me good reasons to believe he even exists, let alone legislate for my life.  Is it society?  It is to a certain extent.  It depends upon the society.  But then all these ethical facts amount to are necessary rules for social stability coupled with threats of punishment for transgression.  So then all I need worry about is escaping the punishment.

Is it me?  If “ought” entails some sort of agreement to regulations upon behaviour then it seems that the individual who says “I ought to do X” is standing as an authority over himself.  The enforcement of the regulations comes from a demand for consistency.  But why be consistent?  “That question goes outside the game!”  But don’t you realize that life goes outside that game, and it’s life we’re concerned about here.

One needn’t even reach that particular point.  If one is looking for the most generalizable maxims and comes up with a general rule, need one say “That’s what I ought to do”?  A:  “If you don’t say that, then you are, in your actions, implicitly at least, assigning positive ethical values to actions that are not generalizable.  You are choosing an unworkable ethic.”

But what do you mean by “unworkable”?  If I can’t do it, then I can’t do it and you needn’t worry about my doing it.  “But everyone couldn’t do it at once without coming into conflict.”  That’s an interesting fact, but so what?

Statement A above isn’t necessarily true.  It’s also possible that I withhold the imperative but perform all the appropriate actions (I believe that I and most other people in fact do this).  Sometimes one “feels compelled” to do the right thing, or even does it accidentally.  “But what are your reasons?”  What makes you think we have any non-local reasons?  There’s nothing inherent about actions that says one must be subsuming under general standards.  “But then aren’t you irrational?”  Maybe in a sense, but is that bad? (outside the game again).

Also:  the efficacy of the reasons for actions???

Comments from Bob Alexander:  Sure one can “go kill some Jews”.  One can also believe that 7+5=13, and “it’s hotter than 80 degrees outside, though the snow is not melting.”  The only constraint on actions or beliefs is reason, i.e. one can be unreasonable, but one can’t also justify such unreasonable behaviours or beliefs (even when one thinks of facts as constraining beliefs or threats of punishment as constraining actions, in both cases it is the rational backing that the fact is relevant or that punishment is against one’s interest that constrains one.  After all, the problem of stopping unreasonable behavior or action is logically posterior and independent of (i.e. one might fail to stop it) the theoretical probability of what is or is not reasonable.

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