Thursday, February 07, 2008

Enforceability and ethics

In my discussion in comments with Micah Cowen, an important component of ethics has emerged: the ideas of enforceability and enforcement.

It seems to me that enforceability and actual enforcement constitute important demarcation criteria. There are those ideas, beliefs, preferences and desires which can be enforced and those that cannot be enforced. Among the ideas that can be enforced, there are those which you approves of enforcing (in a broad sense, from police and prisons to social opprobrium to perhaps criticism), and those you do not approve of enforcing.

It's an arbitrary semantic decision how to label these demarcation criteria, or the ideas on one side or the other of each criterion. You can label as "ethical" only those preferences which you (or someone) is willing to enforce or you can apply the label more broadly to any sort of preferences established by abstract reasoning. More to the point, though, is that regardless of the label, our discourse about preferences we are willing to enforce seems very different from our discourse about preferences we are not willing to enforce.

And, frankly, I find descriptions of people's preferences — especially their preferences about my own behavior — they're not willing to enforce to be monumentally tedious. If you disapprove of I behave, or how I think, or my specific beliefs or preferences, and you're not willing to actually force (or try to force) me to change in favor of your preferences, I'm just not interested. (If you're my friend, and you're willing to withdraw your friendship, that's a kind of force. (A kind of force I generally approve of.))

As I noted yesterday, Colin McGinn "ethically" disapproves of faith-based belief formation. I'm not (and this will come to as a shock to my regular readers) all that thrilled about faith myself. But, absent an intention to actually force people to comply with that preference, the theist can simply employ the ethical equivalent of the Universal Philosophical Refutation.

"So what?" the theist might say. Just these two words are an adequate refutation, but he might elaborate. "You don't approve of how I form my beliefs. So what? I don't approve of how you form your beliefs. I don't approve of your taste in ice cream either. Neither one of us are going to do anything at all about our disapproval; we will even stay friends so long as you don't discuss your dumb atheism with me (and I'll keep my marvelous theism to myself). So I have absolutely no incentive, no motivation whatsoever to do anything but ignore your preference and live my life as before."

Of course, these demarcation criteria are unimportant if ethical statements in general are truth-apt in the same sense that statements about objective physical reality are truth-apt. (We run into a slight problem of self-reference when it comes to the ethics of believing the truth, but the problem is relatively benign: that it's true that it's right to believe the truth is self-referentially coherent; that its true that it's right to believe falsity is self-referentially contradictory.)

But the problem is that it's really hard, apparently impossible, to consider ethical statements as truth-apt. It's a little like God: If God were to exist and the Christian Bible accurately represents His commands, then a lot of ethical truths would follow. But proving the antecedent is the crux of the biscuit: Lacking confidence in the belief of God and the Bible, everything that follows is just specious bullshit.

It's the same with unenforceable and unenforced ethical beliefs: If ethical beliefs really are truth-apt, then unenforced ethical beliefs are just as important as enforced beliefs. But again, the burden is to show the truth of the antecedent, lacking such proof, unenforced ethical beliefs are at best private preferences and at worst specious bullshit.


  1. Alright. I'm finding little to disagree with there, in the main. I might still continue to argue that unenforceable-but-still-ethically-valued things exist, but at that point, what I'm talking to, as you so excellently summed up at the end of the post, are private preferences that I am interested in only for my own edification, and not those of others. I might proclaim to you what these preferences are, and why I hold them; but making an attempt to apply them to you would transition them from the "at best[,] private preferences", to the "at worst[,] specious bullshit." :)

    And even in the case of private preferences, one could well argue that there are "enforceable" consequences to my own person, should I violate them; perhaps in the form of mild guilt or regret. In which case, the still fall under your definition of ethically-valued entities, as well as my own.

    Even so, I'm not sure I'm quite prepared to confidently assert that there are no belief-forming techniques that are unethical: that is, I may find some such methods to be so unpallatable that I would use force (perhaps in the form of withdrawing my friendship).

    A fascinating thing to me in Christian society is that, while Christians tend to believe that they form beliefs primarily on the authority of the Bible, the truth is that many, many beliefs come from the rest of the community, and have basis neither on fact, nor on the Good Book. For instance, the idea that Disney Corporation was trying to sneak subliminal imagery with sexual overtones into our poor children's movies. The idea that the Harry Potter books were designed by worshippers of Satan to draw our children's interests to the occult world. That the LDS church owns Coca-Cola, or Pepsi. That there really were/still are WMDs in Iraq, that we just couldn't find; and that if we hadn't been fighting in Iraq, we'd have been fighting terrorists in the homeland.

    Those last hit a particularly tender spot, for me, as I recently discovered that my 17-year-old brother has enlisted for the Marines. He believes these things. My mother believes these things. And yet, it's not the beliefs themselves that bother me, so much as the fact that they are so blindly susceptible to forming these and similar beliefs.

    Many "belief-forming methods", I believe, are very closely tied to already-held beliefs, so it can be hard to completely distinguish beliefs from the methods used to form them. I believe my parents accept, unquestioningly, the propagandist rhetoric offered them in favor of a great war and a great leader who started it, over the contrary arguments that are actually accompanied by evidence and reason, in great part because these beliefs are more cognitively consonant with other beliefs they already hold. And yet, all these beliefs were formed by the same flawed processes; I cannot help but hold the process itself in contempt.

    I'm not sure yet what sort of "enforcing" may play a role in all this. It certainly encourages me to keep a certain distance from my family; and yet I won't distance myself much more, if any, over this, because—well, they're my family. I doubt I'll take much "enforcing" action against my brother, in particular, as it's my belief he'll be paying a dearer price for his choices than I could ever extract from him (and he'll probably still be paying it cheerily). It'll probably be a bit strained anyway, when they figure out that I'm not exactly quick to congratulate him for his selfless and patriotic service to our country, risking his life to protect the freedoms of the American people, and the interests of democracy. :p

    I think the "enforceability" test for belief-forming comes down to this. Consider someone in a position of power, who through flawed belief-forming machinery has devised several dangerous, destructive, and unethical beliefs/belief-derived-behaviors. Now, suppose that each time these things have cropped up, this leader has eventually been dissuaded from these beliefs (but not always after some amount of harm has been done).

    Now, suppose that this leader is not currently holding any significantly destructive beliefs, but is visibly employing the same flawed thought-processes in devising new ones.

    Is it wrong to consider the process itself unethical, knowing that it is extremely likely to result in more destructive beliefs yet again, down the road? Would you vote for this person (assuming the position of leadership is an elected one)? Or would you be inclined to use whatever force you might have at your disposal to remove per from per current position of power?

  2. You and I, Micah, appear to be on the same wavelength as to the main point.

    I recently discovered that my 17-year-old brother has enlisted for the Marines.

    I know how you feel; My 23 year old son came very close to joining the Army.

    It's not the beliefs themselves that bother me, so much as the fact that they are so blindly susceptible to forming these and similar beliefs.

    It's extremely frustrating, I know all too well. Reading the news these days is like watching a Jackass movie.

    Consider someone in a position of power, who through flawed belief-forming machinery has devised several dangerous, destructive, and unethical beliefs/belief-derived-behaviors. ...

    The dangerous, destructive behavior, though, is the differentiator. I think you're on much firmer ground justify specifically ethical criticism directly on the behavior.

    Keep in mind that I'm specifically exempting rational criticism from the domain of coercive behavior, at least partly on the basis that I myself always welcome rational criticism.


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