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A description of Derek Parfit's non-religious Principles for distinguishing Right from Wrong (within a discussion of Tautologies)

Post of the Month: January 2012


Subject:    | Simon Blackburn tautology
Date:       | 28 Jan 2012
Message-ID: |

Beginning with quotes by Backspace, a creationist:
> ''..........:Putting all these together we get that "an act is wrong
> just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is
> optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably
> rejectable"...........................''
> rephrase: ... an act is wrong when such acts are disallowed by some
> principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not
> reasonably rejectable....

well, not quite the same but by your normal standards of distorting what people say relatively close

> rephrase: ... an act is wrong when such acts are disallowed by some
> principle that ..... are not reasonably rejectable....

And here we go again: if we remove arbitrarily words from what someone says, it suddenly means something different. If a recipe says that to bake a cake, you need flour, water and eggs, then Backspace would "rephrase" this as : to make a cake,.. you need eggs" and then complain to the author that even though he put the eggs in the oven as described no cake came out.

> rephrase: ... an act is wrong when such acts are disallowed ....
> rephrase: ... an act is wrong when disallowed ....
> rephrase: ... something is wrong when disallowed ....
> final tautological bafoonism: When we define something as
> wrong then it means it isn't allowed.

Final false witness bearing from Backspace (who ever gave him an exemption from the 9th commandment), as the sentence has no similarity whatsoever with the original quote.

Then main body of Burkhard's POTM begins:
Let's look at what it _really_ says:

"an act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle..."

What does this mean? Essentially, it is a statement in support of freedom. It says that the default assumption is that acts are not wrong or disallowed. One can disagree with that, and dictators of all hues often do (everything is prohibited unless permitted), but this is the first content bearing part of the quote.

From this results a burden of proof allocation: when it is disputed if an act is right or wrong, the burden of proof is with the party that declares the act wrong.

How can that party discharge that burden of proof? That follows in the second part of the quote: " disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable".

So if you argue that an act is wrong, merely saying that you think it is, or that you have the power to punish anyone who does it nonetheless, is not enough. Might does not make right. Instead, you have to give a reason.

First, that reason has to have the syntactic form of a principle - that is a general statement. "I don't like it" is not sufficient (this distinguishes this approach from certain forms of emotivism, and thus gives it content – people can and do disagree with that requirement, it is neither obvious nor tautologous).

But not every principle will do – it has to meet three conditions at the same time;

- your reason has to be optimific. That is, if your argument is accepted and the act disallowed, the sum of human happiness must increase. If this is the case there is an empirical question that needs to be decided in every individual case. Again, the person arguing that the act is disallowed has the burden of proof, and must provide a (falsifiable) theory why disallowing the act increases human happiness. As an example, I can't for instance tell my neighbour not to wear red shirts, as I can't prove that in a world without red shirts, everybody would be ceteris paribus better off. I can however tell him to tone down the music a bit, since his marginal loss of enjoyment is demonstrably offset by the increase of happiness of all the neighbours who can't sleep.

- this however is not enough, In addition to being optimific, the principle has also to be universally willable (this essentially combines Bentham's utilitarianism with Kantian' deontology) With other words, I can only claim that an act is disallowed if the same prohibition applies to me (and everybody else) as well. So I can't tell my neighbour to give me all his money, even if it would make me happier than him (criterion 1 met), because I would not want to universalise that principle and then hand over the money in turn to someone else.

The third condition is that my principle must not be "reasonably rejectable". Now that condition is of a slightly different nature from the other two. It is again a burden of proof allocation. If I have shown that a prohibition of an act is optimific, and universalisable, I have discharged for the time being my burden of proof. We now have at least some good reason to believe the world would indeed be a better place if the action in question were disallowed.

BUT this claim can still be falsified. One way we discussed above - maybe it was not optimific after all, that is a testable, empirical question. The third condition allows for another way to falsify a prohibition – by arguing that there are good reasons to make an exception from the rule. We can for instance discuss if it was wrong for Joe to kill Jane. My argument would be that since killing inflicts pain, a world without murder is one where the happiness of people is overall increased (condition 1 met). I also argue that it is universally willable – not just Joe should refrain from killing, but also me and everybody else. No contradiction seems to follow. That means condition 2 is met.

At this point we can tentatively conclude that Joe's act was wrong. But he has a comeback under condition three: he can now argue that there was a good reason in turn to reject the application of the principle to his situation. A typical example would be if he claims self-defence. He then has to show, again, that the self-defence exception can be put in the form of a principle, is optimific and universalisable – resulting in a refined principle.

Let's use another example. I implied above that Backspace's constant lying about people by putting words in their mouth that they have not said is morally wrong. Under the idea proposed in the quote, I now have the burden of proof. There are lots of different ethical theories that are inconsistent with what the quote demands, which means that it can't be tautologous. In particular, it is not enough for me to point out that most cultures are against lying (argument from moral consensus, not demanded/covered by the quote), that God prohibits false witness bearing (argument from authority, not covered by the quote) or that I have a strong moral intuition (not covered by the quote).

So, far from being a tautology, the approach in the quote is inconsistent with (can be falsified by) several other ethical theories.

What the quote demands from me is instead to show that a general prohibition to lie about people is optimific, that is that ceteris paribus people are happier when nobody is lied about and their reputation attacked through lying. I would indeed make this claim. Personal reputation matters to people and gives them a reason to behave in a good way. If lies about them are as common as truth, an important incentive for benevolent behaviour disappears. It also inflicts harm on the individual, and also on people who change their behaviour towards someone because of lies spread about them (Reading backspaces's misrepresentation of Parfit, if I believed it to be true, could deprive me of the enjoyment of reading a good book)

The prohibition of lying can also be universalised, it is generally wrong to lie, not just for backspace, but everybody. In fact, this is why Kant uses lying and the prohibition of lying as an example to illustrate the categorical imperative – we can't wish to live in a world where everybody lies all the time, since we could not any longer coordinate our actions at all.

With that I have discharged my burden of proof, it would now be up to backspace to find good reasons why his action should be exempted from the principle.

> This tautological banality by Blackburn

Just a minor point. The quote is not even from Blackburn. It is Blackburn reporting what Parfit wrote – the article is a book review.

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