François-René Rideau (fare) wrote,
François-René Rideau

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Axioms and their consequences

Dear Roderick,

in your blog entry Are We All Consequentialists Now?, you argue against consequentialism. What a joke! Your opposition between consequences and principles is a false dichotomy. The objective world is one and does not depend on the point of view taken. When you consider things up to isomorphism, you realize that consequentialism is but the requirement that theories be logically coherent. Denying consequentialism is denying that logic applies in philosophical matters. Deontics and utilism (to reuse the term by Hazlitt instead of the over-ended "utilitarianism" -- but then why not usism?) are but different points of view, and can but coincide in their conclusions. As Bastiat would put it, there are Harmonies in Nature. These harmonies are but the correspondances between various points of view due to the fact that they all valid points of view but describe the very same underlying structure from various different angles. Any possible contradiction is but a mistake in whoever reaches an absurd conclusion, and not an indictment of the coherence of the universe. There is no contradiction in the universe. Let's leave philosophical dilemmas to absurdists.

Roderick replied:

I'm afraid I don't understand your reply. Consequentialism is the view that the ends of moral action are always external to and never internal to the action. I don't see how this is entailed by the requirement that theories be logically coherent. In fact, I think consequentialism is *incompatible* with that requirement, and the Bastiat-style harmonies are part of the *reason* -- as I explain in the Yeager review I cite at the end of my blog entry. I certainly agree that the world is objective and does not depend on the point of view taken, but I do not see how that is an argument for consequentialism.

and then:

Maybe you mean something like: in a consistent world, there cannot be any split between the best action and the action with the best consequences. I AGREE. What I disagree with consequentialism about is that consequentialism thinks the direction of explanation akways runs from "action with best consequences" to "best action" and not at all in the other direction; hence I prefer the Aristotelean approach.

OK, so maybe we disagree less than I thought, and it's just a matter of my not being familiar with philosophical terminology, after all. Still, I will clarify why I disagree with the specific arguments and examples you invoked in his letter.

So, though I may be mistaken as to what "Consequentialism" means (is there a universally accepted authority on what it means? or are there several such authorities?), I don't see that Consequentialism is opposed to "Principles" or anything, since in the end, it is through principles of some kind that you judge the consequences of actions. The logical content of Consequentialism is but a requirement of trans-temporal logical consistency in ethics. I do not doubt one split second that we can find illogical proponents of consequentialism, and that Sturgeon's Law applies to them, and I won't try to defend (or indict) Yeager, whom I haven't read (skimming through your review, I have no obvious comment to make). But I feel that your present argument against "Consequentialism" is an overgeneralizing straw man -- yes, consequentialists do "recognize limits in principle on what can be done to people in order to promote good consequences" -- and these limits are the natural requirements for the consequences to be good.

Most importantly, among the criteria to judge consequences, one must evaluate the respect or lack thereof that people have toward some rules of behaviour. Once again, see Hazlitt's The Foundations of Morality, or Hayek's Law, Liberty and Legislation, about the importance of rules. It would require being both dualistic about soul and matter yet exclusively materialistic in ethical evaluations, -- an all-time favorite straw man (though possibly also a common unintentional mistake implicit in some arguments?) -- so as to propose that human psychology doesn't matter in the evaluation of the consequences of some actions (through moral debts or karma).

Also, the reasons why one does or doesn't kill or rape are irrelevant to me in stating that the innocent man is more moral than the criminal; I am sad that you should take a procès d'intention seriously. Excluding considerations of intents from statements of justice is one of the great libertarian achievements, and I fail to see that this exclusion doesn't extend to morality in general. And as for the exceptional killing of innocents, well, mistakes will definitely happen, say, in a war, civil or not, and sometimes it is more moral indeed to wage war than to let the other party enslave you or those dear to you -- see for instance the case of Pinochet vs Allende, or Churchill vs Hitler, maybe even Bush vs Saddam, etc. Justice calls for reparations for torts, not some metaphysically absolute avoidance (yeah, right!), and once again, I fail to see that morality demands more. (Incidentally, I think that separation of Justice from Morality is one of the great achievements of libertarian philosophy, and my cybernetic interpretation of it is that they are instances of a same pattern applied to different cases -- common knowledge versus individual knowledge. And of course, it is a totalitarian delusion to attempt to force these to equate in all circumstances.) Finally, the solution to the last proposed paradox is simply that slavery and plunder are evil things to take into consideration amongst the proximate consequences of government intervention.

Now, if by Consequentialism, you meant the assertion that somehow one must always start from evaluations of consequences and make deductions from there, and never ever make backward deductions and metareasoning, never ever formalize general rules, all the while the evaluations being an arbitrary godsend not subject to any discussion, as an epistemological miracle, well indeed, such "Consequentialism" would obviously be a stupid concept -- not because of the deductions it would do, but because those it forbids as taboo. The absurdity would not be in any internal inconsistency of the point of view, but in the claim that it is the only "acceptable" point of view. Of course, the same claim for a different point of view would be just as absurd, and there is nothing specific about Consequentialism here. Now, if we consider Consequentialism as a point of view that isn't exclusive of other points of view, then I fail to see any problem. The logical content of Consequentialism is but the absence of dynamic contradiction between transtemporal moral evaluations of actions and their consequences. Such a contradiction would be "you should do this (rather than that), despite the (comparative) consequences being unequivocally (comparatively) dreadful". Any such contradiction reveals a mistake in the one who arrives at it, and proves that his theory is wrong and hence doesn't match the universe.

I hope I am clearer now.

PS: To quickly reply to my friend Gustavo below, (1) yes, all correct axiomatizations of the world are logically equivalent, and (2) in ddfr's article, I firmly support the third stand he proposes but doesn't embrace. As for (1b) a discussion of which axioms are correct, we could discuss for hours -- but what matters to me now is that whenever some axioms are correct, the theory they generate contains no dynamic (or static) contradiction.

Tags: argument, blogs, en, epistemology, ethics, fallacies, harmony, libertarian, philosophy

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