Pulp Non-Fiction

May 17, 2009

I’m a big fan of Danny Shahar’s blog. It is one of my “regular reads” and part of the charm is that his posts are both interesting and epic (in length). Recently, he has posted a series of four (so far) epic posts on metaethics. I never pass up a discussion on metaethics but there is a great deal to cover and Danny is churning out new talking points faster then I can read it all.

However, I will be raising objections to Danny’s (and his friend Vichy’s) conception of metaethics primarily from the perspective of Roderick Long’s work on a praxeological foundation for ethics. While I do find Long’s metaethical theory compelling, my primary reason for selecting this pairing in the metaethical Battle Royale is that they seem matched as nearly perfect opposites. There is, to me at least, an almost eerie correspondance between Danny’s supporting points for moral fictionalism and the aspects of ethical thought that Long seeks to criticize. It seems like the perfect case to flex Long’s theory.

I will draw on a few of Long’s works for this view:

  1. Economics and Its Ethical Assumptions (mp3 audio)
  2. Review of Leland Yeager’s Ethics As Social Science
  3. Anti-Psychologism in Economics: Wittgenstein and Mises
  4. Wittgenstein, Austrian Economics, and the Logic of Action
  5. Foundations of Libertarian Ethics lectures & handouts.

Give these a read (or listen, especially the much shorter first three) if you want to know what the hell I’m going on about below. I’m also going to assume the reader is familiar with the thread on Danny’s blog.

Psychologism vs. Anti-Psychologism

Danny:

[That kicking a baby is wrong], I take it, is literally a projection of our evaluative attitudes towards the kicking of the baby (and its results) onto objective reality (…). But because it’s a projection, we think, “It’s wrong to kick the baby,” and not, “The idea of kicking the baby makes me feel like something’s wrong.”

Adapting an example from Dr. Long ([4]), this psychologistic view of moral discourse ignores the role moral propositions commonly play in logical inference. The argument

  1. It is wrong to kick the baby.
  2. Ludwig kicked the baby.
  3. Therefore: Ludwig was wrong.

is logically valid even if you do not think it is sound (because, for example, you believe all normative statements like #1 are false). However, what if we substitute what, according to Danny, we really mean?

  1. The idea of kicking the baby makes me feel like something’s wrong.
  2. Ludwig kicked the baby.
  3. Therefore: The idea of Ludwig makes me feel like something’s wrong.

The first premise is now just a subjective attitude. It does not logically follow that Ludwig generates a similar feeling in me that the action of kicking the baby does. I would have to consider my attitude toward Ludwig as a separate matter, even if it seems intuitively likely that I would feel something wrong about Ludwig. Likewise, an emotivist approach fails to capture what we do with moral terms:

  1. Kicking babies, boo!
  2. Ludwig kicked the baby.
  3. Therefore: Ludwig, boo!

If the last two arguments seem to be logically valid, careful thinking will show you that it is only because you are inadvertently translating the arguments back to the first one.

To take a more direct approach, however, I should point out that Danny uses “wrong” in way that creates a circularity. If by “X is wrong” we really mean “I feel like X is wrong”, then we also mean (substituting the “correct” interpretation whenever we discover the concept “X is wrong”) “I feel like I feel like X is wrong” and on and on in that manner forever.

Socrates  fully  accepts  the  Misesian  point  that  all  action  is  driven  by  the  agent’s  own judgments  of  value. If  that  is  economic  subjectivism,  then  Socrates  is  an  economic subjectivist. But  in  that  case,  Socrates’  view  is  that  economic subjectivism entails ethical objectivism.  For  once  we  combine  the  Socrates-Mises  point  that  all  action  is  driven  by value  judgments  with  the  Socrates-Frege  point  that  the  logical  form  of  value  judgments requires  that  they  be  objective,  then  the  conclusion  follows  that  we  cannot  act  without committing  ourselves  to  the  existence  of  objective  value. Ethical  subjectivism  is  not merely indefensible; it is praxeologically indefensible.

Far  from  being  blind  urges  without  cognitive  content,  then,  the  values  that  impel  our actions  are  propositional  beliefs that  represent certain  states  of  affairs  as  having  the property  of  goodness. Like  any  other  beliefs,  then,  they  are  open  to  revision  through criticism. [4]

Impositionism vs. Reflectionism

Continuing with the projection theme, Danny says,

The view that money “is” valuable involves a projection of one’s own evaluative feelings about money onto the money itself. It is not literally true that the money is valuable, but it is nevertheless comprehensible to talk about money as “being” valuable, and in fact this is a useful fiction to have — it seems to me that this is similarly true about the moral fiction.

I think this is a mistake to think that the value in the concept of money is imposed on the world by our mind. But this impositionism seems to be Danny’s weapon against what he sees as the incorrect (and only) alternative: reflectionism, the view that values would be imposed on us by the world.

But it does assert that aside from people attributing value to certain things, and aside from the inherent capacity of certain objects to produce valuing reactions in normally functioning human beings, there is no sense in which we can say that they are valuable in themselves. And I think that that’s true.

No third way seems obvious to him. But, beginning with his money example, I think a third way is possible: the Wittgensteinian way. It simply seems incoherent to say that something called “money” could ever not be valuable as a means of exchange; that’s just what “money” means. Something that had all the characteristics of money except for value just wouldn’t be called “money”.

Mises and Hayek agree with Wittgenstein that economic categories legitimately apply only  to those items that play the corresponding role in people’s actions. They too invoke the  specific example of coins, which count as money only if they are actually used to  facilitate indirect exchange. That use is constitutive of money. [4]

Likewise, by rejecting the queerness (like Mackie) of moral reflectionism, Danny concludes that impositionsim is the final word.

The point is just that it’s not clear what a plausible moral reason can be based on besides the identification of the implications of one’s actions for something that one values. And if one values that thing, then it makes sense to act accordingly — that has nothing to do with morality. Distinctly moral problems (as opposed to prudential problems) arise only when one tries to make the claim that someone ought to value something that they don’t value. Since value is subjective, and since ultimately the universe is just a bunch of stuff in different configurations, it’s going to be difficult to ground such an “ought” claim in something “objective” or “objectively true.” As Vichy might put it, all value is ultimately just bias for one sort of thing over another. And the idea that there can be no literal truth to the matter of what one “ought to value” is basically moral nihilism.

Prudence vs. Morality

In the previous quotation, Danny is claiming that the difference between claims of prudence and claims of morality is the difference between counseling someone on means as opposed to ends. Like, Mises, he doesn’t think the latter is possible because what someone has as a particular end is subjective. As Long points out in describing Mises’ argument, “this argument presupposes the ethical subjectivism it is trying to prove” [4] by begging the question against the alternative that we all share the same ultimate end. If that alternative is true, then we are back to criticizing means, something Danny acknowledges is open to rational criticism as a matter of prudence. Rather than a prudential should or a moral should, there is just should.

The hook here is to consider the difference between instrumental and constitutive means:

So there are cases where a means can be a constitutive part of the end rather than being an external means to it. And a lot of things that Mises considers ultimate ends you might think are really means, but they’re constitutive means rather than instrumental means. So then the question is: well, can we deliberate about constitutive means? How do we determine whether something is a constitutive means to an end? It seems it’s not a matter of cause and effect any more; it’s more a matter of logical or conceptual analysis. [1]

Explanatory vs. Normative Value Subjectivism

The understandable appeal (especially for someone with a background in Austrian economics) to value subjectivism confuses being valuable with holding as valuable.

You can have explanatory value-subjectivism, which simply means that in explaining someone’s actions, you appeal to their evaluations, not yours — just as in explaining someone’s actions you appeal to their beliefs and not yours. (…)

So explanatory value-subjectivism doesn’t say anything one way or the other about whether there is such a thing as objective value; it just says that if you’re going to explain people’s actions, you explain them in terms of their desires, not yours.

Normative value-subjectivism, on the other hand, means that there are no objective values, that there is nothing to value over and above just whatever any person happens to want. There’s no right or wrong way to want things; you can’t be right or wrong about your ultimate desires.

So these are two different things, and you can see that at least it’s not obvious that explanatory value-subjectivism entails normative value-subjectivism. [1]

Danny:

The moral nihilist argues that moral reasons involve ascriptions of intrinsic value to certain objects, and that this is inconsistent with the subjectivity of value. The moral nihilist does not deny that valuing takes place; he just denies that there is any significance to this fact outside of the realm of subjective valuation.

and:

(…) it’s not clear why we would need a conception of “right” and “wrong” (as opposed to “desirable” and “undesirable”) to talk about virtues if they were really just the appropriate set of tools for achieving a good life. The moral nihilist has no problem with things being desirable or undesirable; he just denies that there is a separate property of “rightness” and “wrongness” that has anything to do with anything.

Both of these jump the gap between explanatory value subjectivism and normative value subjectivism without justifying this move.

Fictionalism vs. Praxeology

Danny wants to propose moral fictionalism as a sort of compromise between the way we use moral language and the, in his view, strong argument for literal moral nihilism.

As I argued, we can have good reason for adopting moral attitudes. And if we acknowledge that our values transform when we recognize certain connections between things, then arguing about values can make sense — if I lead a supporter of slavery to understand just how much like him are the slaves, he may be led to value them in a way that would make him not want to see them treated without regard for their interests. So as far as moral theories are fictionalistic road maps that show us how our values will change in light of certain features of a situation, they can be perfectly consistent with moral nihilism. It’s only when moral theories try to argue that there is something objective or objectively true about our values (as opposed to their being “impartial” or “natural for humans to accept”) that they run into trouble.

I’m not certain that this is not a distinction without a difference. I’m also confused about how we know that these reasons are “good” reasons if they are simply fictions. In fact, if I did not know that Danny was trying to propose fictionalism, I would think he was proposing indirect utilitarianism, the view that we should act “as if” we value certain moral propositions for their own sake when in fact we judge them by consequences. But this indirect approach has some problems. Rather than explain them here, I direct the reader to Long’s review of Yeager linked earlier.

To the extent that we are able to reach some level of agreement (or at least some limits on the range of disagreement) about “moral facts,” we can safely talk as if our evaluations are “impartial,” and therefore effectively the same as “normal reactions to intrinsically valuable objects.”

I suspect that fictionalism is a position in danger of sliding into indirect utilitarianism and once that happens, we no longer need to make the analogy; we can just point out the problems with indirect utilitarianism. In fact, at times, Danny seems to betray this slide:

Again, though, the moral nihilist doesn’t need to suggest that there aren’t ways to live together that are more or less conducive to our mutual happiness, or that we should not do things like create or enforce laws, generate customs, conventions, and norms, etc. The point is just that these will have nothing to do with considerations like “treating people the way they deserve to be treated” or “reflecting the intrinsic value of all human beings.” They’ll just be systems we adopt to promote our wellbeing, much the way that we enter into contractual arrangements to improve our lives.

Doesn’t it seem that Danny is describing the debate not between nihilism and realism, but rather between consequentialism and deontology?

Motivational Internalism vs. Externalism

Vichy:

The concept of value outside of a specific teleological entities actual values is nonsense; and unless something has the potential to actually motivate an actor with actual specific values it is irrelevant. That’s why you have the burden of proof.

But Long has something to say about that as well:

However, I think that what [Mises is] really arguing for here is better understood as a kind of ethical internalism rather than genuine normative value-subjectivism. Ethical internalism is the view that you can’t have any moral duties that you don’t have any motivation to pursue. Now that’s a broad family of theories, because according to some theories the moral duty just gives you a motivation, whereas for other theories, no, you’ve already got your motivations, and the moral duty can’t get its foot in the door unless you’ve already got one. Those are very different kinds of internalism. But still the internalists all agree that there are no moral duties without some corresponding motivation on your part. And I think that Mises is really arguing for that. But it’s important to see that that’s not the same thing as normative value-subjectivism, because it might be that, given your motive, and given some appropriate story, the moral duty really is an objective one. [1]

Morality vs. Self-Interest

Vichy:

And you can never answer the only important question, “Why should I care what is moral, if ‘morality’ conflicts with my interests?”

But from a eudaimonic perspective, I think I can or rather I can explain why I think the question is incoherent or begs the question: by definition, what is moral cannot conflict with your own interests and “no fundamental conflicts between two persons’ flourishing (i.e. no conflicts not in turn licensed by agent-neutral considerations) are possible” [5].

I sincerely hope that Danny and Vichy find this analysis interesting and are open to exploring some of these dichotomies, both the ones where I think they have chosen the wrong side and the ones that I  think are better suited to dialectical third ways. I’m sure there will be disagreement but I welcome the challenge as a learning process.

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12 Responses to “Pulp Non-Fiction”


  1. Thank you for pointing out Danny’s confusion between explanatory value-subjectivism and normative value-subjectivism. I found this to be a major flaw in his posts.

    However, I do not understand your “circularity” objection:

    To take a more direct approach, however, I should point out that Danny uses “wrong” in way that creates a circularity. If by “X is wrong” we really mean “I feel like X is wrong”, then we also mean (substituting the “correct” interpretation whenever we discover the concept “X is wrong”) “I feel like I feel like X is wrong” and on and on in that manner forever.

    While I do not identify as an “emotivist” nor as a “logical positivist,” this objection seems like a linguistic trick. Why does the circularity necessarily entail that emotivism is false?

    I can use this techinique to do a similar “objection” to “moral cognitivism”:

    If by “X is wrong” we really mean “it is true that X is wrong”, then we also mean (substituting the “correct” interpretation whenever we discover the concept “X is wrong”) “it is true that it is true that X is wrong” and on and on in that manner forever: “it is true that it is true that it is true that X is wrong.”

  2. Neverfox Says:

    The problem is not the recursive nature of the relation alone. Recursivity per se isn’t problematic if the elements are not psychologistic. Eventually the “psychologistician” has to be able to describe what they are feeling without reference to more feelings. The cognitivist however has no problem because he is dealing with recursive logical operators that can axiomatically be reduced back to identity. “I feel” is not a logical operator the way “it is true” is. In other words, how does the emotivist know that his feeling is one of wrongness?

  3. Brainpolice Says:

    Interesting post.

  4. Vichy Says:

    I have to be honest, I didn’t go over most of Long’s stuff but I have listened/read him before. So, if I should critique him, it wont be precise because I’m too lazy to read another Prophet right now.
    “Ludwig kicked the baby.”
    For inspiring the image of Ludwig von Mises kicking a baby in my mind, you get two points. I don’t know what these points are good for, but you earned them.

    “But from a eudaimonic perspective, I think I can or rather I can explain why I think the question is incoherent or begs the question: by definition, what is moral cannot conflict with your own interests and “no fundamental conflicts between two persons’ flourishing (i.e. no conflicts not in turn licensed by agent-neutral considerations) are possible””
    Yeah, I just think eudaimonia is clearly contingent on a specific construction of human beings that may not (is probably not) true; and whose actual results and requirements could vary as wildly as you, I and the ants me crush. Value is just a result of someone having an actual interest in something, only interests particular people feel produce values, only interests particular people have are real interests. The idea that there is some golden mean is just psychologically and physiologically…unlikely. And certainly unproven. Human beings are composite, and there are always foregone costs and competing ends. There is no ‘ultimate’ end which secretely lurks around our cognitive processes; what we have is a body and a brain which responds in different ways to different stimulai and has all sorts of ingenious and not always compatible motivations.

    Aristotle was a biologist himself, and I think it’s time to get with the program and accept that virtue-ethics fall apart on the crooked material that is man. We’re never really anything in particular, we are instead a lot of different particular things that are not always happy with one another.


  5. Thank you for the clarifying the argument. However, I found two major ideas in the argument that I will critique below.

    Eventually the “psychologistician” has to be able to describe what they are feeling without reference to more feelings.

    This resembles a similar argument made by G. E. Moore. Moore, in his open question argument, states the impossibility of defining affections, desires, and emotions. As a consequence, Moore argues that we cannot define the words “right” or “wrong”.

    Moore self-describes himself as a “ethical non-naturalist”. “Ethical non-naturalists” argue that we cannot define “right” or “wrong” from affections, desires, and emotions.

    You also identify yourself as a “ethical non-naturalist”. The above quoted argument rejects “emotivism” because you believe that one cannot define “right” or “wrong” in reference to feelings.

    However, I reject Moore’s open question argument. I can define “right” or “wrong” from feelings.

    We will make another objection: Even if we assume that we cannot define “feelings” from non-feelings, its indefinability does not necessarily refute “emotivism”. Just because we cannot express it verbally, it does not refute that we do not experience feelings.

    In other words, how does the emotivist know that his feeling is one of wrongness?

    It depends on the definition of “wrongless”.

    If a person senses “wrongless” he or she will experience a gut-feelings of “wrongless”. This may fit in the propositions such as “murder is wrong” and “rape is wrong”. Normal human beings will empathsize with the victim and the relatives of the victim. Thus “emotivism” may hold true for murder or rape.

    However, you may argue that not all propositions of “wrongless” evoke an gut-feeling. For example, psychopaths, who lack empathy, do not experience get-feelings to murder and rape. Petty crimes do not evoke such gut-feelings as in murder or rape, and some do not evoke these gut-feelings at all.

    In the below paragraphs, we will demonstrate that “wrongless” also depends on “rational foresight” or “systematic judgement”, not merely gut feelings.

    Let us imagine two persons, one called Alice, and another called Bob. Suppose that Bob killed Alice.

    Bob could legitimately kill Alice, thus we should not label it as “wrong.” If Bob killed in self-defense of his life, then we could say that Bob did not “wrongly” kill Alice.

    Bob could also illegitimately kill Alice. Examples include killing Alice because he gains pleasure in doing so, or killing Alice in the commission of Bob’s robbery.

    How do we determine whether if Bob legitimately or illegitimately killed Alice? Whether legitimate or not depends on a “rational” or systematic analysis of this scenario, such as whether Bob killed in self-defense or not, not merely based on the knee-jerk intuitions, gut-feelings, “emotions”, or “feelings”.

    However, these above arguments depend on the definition of “feeling”. G. E. Moore seemed to have defined “feelings” as gut-feelings. A. J. Ayer, the “emotivist”, appeared to have defined “feelings” in the broader sense as in values, interests, and desires.

  6. Neverfox Says:

    Vichy, it’s an honor that you stopped by.

    For inspiring the image of Ludwig von Mises kicking a baby in my mind, you get two points. I don’t know what these points are good for, but you earned them.

    LOL. Thanks. I won’t spend them all in one place.

    Value is just a result of someone having an actual interest in something, only interests particular people feel produce values, only interests particular people have are real interests.

    For the sake of argument, suppose value is objective and is not the result of your actual interest and is, as Peter Koslowski described Max Scheler’s conception of value, “the value-quality exists and is preferred and actualized by the subjectivity of the person”. How would this reality differ from the one you describe in the way you experience it?

    There is no ‘ultimate’ end which secretely lurks around our cognitive processes; what we have is a body and a brain which responds in different ways to different stimulai and has all sorts of ingenious and not always compatible motivations.

    In the spirit of this post, which was to relate one particular conception of virtue ethics, I can tell you that Dr. Long thinks we are committed to thinking we have one ultimate end and all deliberate action betrays this. You can find it described here.


  7. [...] Austro-Athenian Virtue Ethics versus Moral Fictionalism. Neverfox, Instead of a Blog (2009-05-17): Pulp Non-Fiction [...]


  8. [...] claims about the ontology of abstract objects, especially in mathematical applications (if not in ethics); no one has ever “seen” pi either. What matters, it seems to me, is demonstrating [...]

  9. Neverfox Says:

    A-M,

    Moore thought that goodness is a “simple, indefinable, unanalysable object of thought” (similar to “yellowness”) and “good is a subjective psychological entity and not an objective feature of the world”. I am arguing from an anti-psychologistic stance that does not hold goodness as an object of thought or, for that matter, an objective feature of the world. I’m exploring the possibility that it is neither something discovered in the world nor imposed upon the world by our psychology. I’m rejecting the impositionist-reflectionist dichotomy. Hume is an another example of the impositionist view:

    (…) when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or a sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compar’d to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which (…) are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind.

    So rather than thinking goodness is like “sounds, colours, heat and cold” or “a feeling or a sentiment”, I’m think more along the lines of the type of ontology belonging to logic and mathematics. Not that morality is like logic but that it shares an ontology that exists as a “third way”. I suppose you might say a way that is neither reductive nor dependent on non-natural properties. I don’t have an argument for this yet but, as you can tell from my approach in this post, I’m looking at why current approaches leave me unsatisfied and why some part of my foot seems to be “in the door”.

  10. Vichy Says:

    “In the spirit of this post, which was to relate one particular conception of virtue ethics, I can tell you that Dr. Long thinks we are committed to thinking we have one ultimate end and all deliberate action betrays this. You can find it described here.”
    I would say that is because Long is failing to take into account the fact that 1) agents are generalizations for complex molecular structures with recursive, synchronic and reproductive features, 2) there is no singular ‘I’, there are instead a massive multiplex of these molecular structures which (because of their recursive and semi-synchronic systematic features) give a coherence of pattern organization. Nonetheless this ‘self’ is in no way monadal, but is a generalization which flits in and out of existence in a rather Hericlitan fashion and 3) people do not have ‘values’ that they rank, this is simply logical short-hand for actual, mechanical interest-domination which exists in a particular agent.

    It’s also overly rationalistic.


  11. [...] channels me in order to combat Danny Shahar on [...]


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