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Moral Absolutes, Slippery Slopes, Two-Headed Horses...


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17 replies to this topic

#1
onyomi

onyomi

  • 138 posts

I understand Stef's argument that the existence of a bizarre exception doesn't necessarily invalidate a general moral principle in the same way the existence of a two-headed horse doesn't require biology to redefine "horse."


What I don't think I've heard him address is the more fundamental point I think some critics who raise such hypotheticals are getting at:


There's an old joke: "A man asks a woman: 'hey, would you sleep with me for a million dollars?' She says, 'sure.' Then he says, 'okay, would you sleep with me for a hundred dollars?' She slaps him and says 'what kind of a person do you think I am?' The man says, 'We've already established the principle, now we're just haggling over the particulars.'"


That is, if you posit some moral absolute like, "it's always wrong to initiate coercion," then, so long as it is truly absolute, you can stand on the principle, just as the woman in the example might have stood on the principle "it is wrong to sleep with people for money." However, once you accept the idea that the principle is malleable in extreme cases, like, "don't initiate coercion unless it's really, really important," then it stops being a "principle" and instead becomes more of a guideline, the borders of which are open to negotiation. In the joke, for example, the woman already admitted that she wasn't really working with an absolute principle "it's wrong to sleep with someone for money"; instead, she was working with a general guideline: "it's wrong to sleep with someone for money, unless it's a whole lot of money." But once she's conceeded that, then it's totally subjective as to where the cuttoff should be: "is it wrong to sleep with someone for 100,000? 200,000?" Maybe if you're really hard up, it's okay to sleep with someone for 100 dollars. 


By extension, if we concede there are exceptions to the non-agression principle, such as "it's okay to coerce if it's really, really important," or "it's okay to coerce if it saves somebody's life" (I would not include, "it's okay to use violence in self-defense" among "exceptions," since the principle is generally understood as prohibiting initiation of force, not all force), then, we've established that the "principle" is actually somewhat flexible and open to negotiation. 


But if we conced that the non-agression principle is open to negotiation, then how do we draw an objective line in the sand where we say "this is not important enough to justify coercion," or "that's too much coercion, regardless of the necessity." If we concede coercion's okay with stealing a penny to save the world, then how do we draw a hard and fast line between that and stealing a thousand dollars from a millionaire to give it to a poor person? Or between stealing a thousand from a millionaire to give to a poor person and a generalized system of taxation-funded welfare? I may argue that in A, we need to make an exception, but in situation B, that's too much, or that a penny to save the world is a good time to make an exception, but a whole tax-funded welfare system is going too far, but once we've conceded the principle, we can no longer cite it as an objective standard, but instead are thrown into the messy particulars of arguing why "this much coercion is okay, but that much coercion goes too far."


Personally, my only take on it is to say, "it's still wrong from the perspective of a strict interpretation of ethics to steal a penny to save the world, but in real life, everyone works with a combination of ethical and practial/utilitarian considerations--no one acts in strict accordance to ethical principles or strict utility maximization." I think Stef is implicitly making a similar concession when he says ethical rules are more like biological definitions (the boundaries of which are negotiable and porous), than like axioms of physics. But once we concede that the boundaries of ethical rules are negotiable, doesn't that leave the door open to negotiation as to what degree we should stand on principle and to what degree we should be utilitarian? Once we concede we have to make that principle-utility negotiation, how can we claim objectivity? 


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#2
DoubtingThomas

DoubtingThomas
  • 241 posts

I would argue the "steal a penny," hypothetical is preposterous on the ground that, if the world were to be saved by a penny, people would be showering you with pennies. Theft implies that someone isn't going to give you a penny. If the world is at risk, it's rediculous to assume that -nobody- will give you a penny. I think it comes around as the same kind of trap as "what if voluntaryism created mass misery for everyone?" Implicit in the question/hypothetical is that the debate has been decided against you. It doesn't supply a critique of anything. It simply asserts you are wrong and asks you to show you are willing to waffle on your logical principles with someone who has no such principles.


So while I agree that shifting the focus to utilitarian consideration wasn't ideal, I think it was an attempt to give an obvoius utilitarian an answer he understood than a compromise of principle. I felt the same way about the water in the desert and flagpole situation. So what if the circumstances were impossibly dire and the person who would have died now owes someone a lot of his wealth? My first response would be, "well, he isn't dead." While I do agree that nobody would take seriously the contract of "all your stuff for this bottle of water," (or broken window) if you look at it from the point of view of: this person is going to die and they have a way out because of the other person or their property, then some kind of conditional response to that repreive doesn't seem so immoral. It may have been sheer circumstance rather than a sought voluntary exchange, but why in the world is it unjust for someone to want -some- compensation for their water or their window? I don't see any moral hazards there.


Hopefully it wasn't just me being incredibly annoyed at the endless concern-trolling. I must give Stef all due credit for keeping his cool and staying mostly on point.


 


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#3
Pepin

Pepin

  • 542 posts

What do these situations have to do with ethics? Another way of asking the question is, how do we know when the concept of ethics does not apply?


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#4
Kawlinz

Kawlinz

    An emcee that despises legalese

  • 640 posts

By extension, if we concede there are exceptions to the non-agression principle, such as "it's okay to coerce if it's really, really important," or "it's okay to coerce if it saves somebody's life" (I would not include, "it's okay to use violence in self-defense" among "exceptions," since the principle is generally understood as prohibiting initiation of force, not all force), then, we've established that the "principle" is actually somewhat flexible and open to negotiation. 

I think I've solved it... there are no exceptions. If you put forward a theory of how humans should behave, it has to be consistant and universal. You can't make the theory consistant or universal if you include the initiation force.


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#5
Stefan Molyneux

Stefan Molyneux
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 Well, but if a woman sleeps with a man to save her child, she is not a prostitute.


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#6
Guest_darkskyabove_*

Guest_darkskyabove_*

So, some guy is lost in the woods for a few days. He stumbles upon my property and finds my garden. I look out my window to see this haggard, and obviously starving, man eating my tomatoes. Is this a violation of the non-aggression principle?


Hard-liners will say yes. No exceptions.


The soft-hearted will try to justify that, no, this is a valid exception.


Everyone seems to have something or other to say.


What about what I say. It's my property. Why does everyone seem to think its okay to pontificate on how I should react?


It's the worst of both worlds. First we have this proclivity to make up the most extreme possibilities to poke holes in a good idea, combined with this nannytarianism that people think they can tell others how to act, think, and feel. (Which is the opposite of liberty. Any who claim to have figured it all out for others are not liberty-minded, they are armchair dictators.)


If you want absolutes, study mathematics. Life is messy. I thought the idea was to find a better way to live, not quibble about million-dollar bottles of water in the desert.


As for our hungry guy eating my tomatoes: he gets to come in the house and have a proper meal. And it's not up to any of the rest of you.


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#7
Pepin

Pepin

  • 542 posts

I think it is somewhat fun to reframe these questions to make them even more abstract. Like, would it be the right thing to steal a penny to save the world from a mildly annoying ear infection. Or maybe, if you don't steal the penny, humanity will never be able to find their keys for at least the first five minutes of looking for them. There could be an interesting game in determining where you'd draw the line in what you'd save the world  from.


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#8
Pepin

Pepin

  • 542 posts

I think I've solved it... there are no exceptions. If you put forward a theory of how humans should behave, it has to be consistant and universal. You can't make the theory consistant or universal if you include the initiation force.

This would disqualify scenarios where a consistent universal principal cannot be extrapolated. This wouldn't mean there might not be an answer in regard to the situation, but that if the answer could not be generalized to other scenarios, it would not be apart of the same class as ethics.

Does that sound right?


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#9
Kawlinz

Kawlinz

    An emcee that despises legalese

  • 640 posts

I think I've solved it... there are no exceptions. If you put forward a theory of how humans should behave, it has to be consistant and universal. You can't make the theory consistant or universal if you include the initiation force.

This would disqualify scenarios where a consistent universal principal cannot be extrapolated. This wouldn't mean there might not be an answer in regard to the situation, but that if the answer could not be generalized to other scenarios, it would not be apart of the same class as ethics.

Does that sound right?

Could yuo expand on what you mean? like do you have an example in mind?


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#10
Pepin

Pepin

  • 542 posts

So in context to a situation involving murder, you are able to derive an universal principal from the situation, and you can generalize the theory to where it is true of many different situations.

Joe kills Jeff against his will

[proof that murder is wrong]

Murder is wrong

Murder is the initiation of force

The initiation of force is wrong

In the case of a lifeboat scenario, there is no generalization that can occur, even provided that there might be an answer. So if we assume it is the right action to steal a penny to save the world, what sort of generalized universal rule can be made? I would propose none, as any rule stated must contain a reiteration of the scenario.

"If you are in a situation where you must perform an immoral action to save the world, the moral thing to do is the save the world".

If no universal moral principal can be derived from the scenario, then no universal moral principal can be applied to the scenario, and this also apply to whatever immoral action within the scenario. If we establish that universal ethics do not apply to situation X, then asking if it is wrong to do some immoral action established by the theory in a situation X would not make much sense.

Speaking of making sense, I hope I am.


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#11
fingolfin

fingolfin
  • 2001 posts

That is, if you posit some moral absolute like, "it's always wrong to initiate coercion," then, so long as it is truly absolute, you can stand on the principle, just as the woman in the example might have stood on the principle "it is wrong to sleep with people for money." However, once you accept the idea that the principle is malleable in extreme cases, like, "don't initiate coercion unless it's really, really important," then it stops being a "principle" and instead becomes more of a guideline, the borders of which are open to negotiation.

Isn't that what a principle is though; a guideline or general rule you deem worthy of acquiescence to?

But if we conced that the non-agression principle is open to
negotiation, then how do we draw an objective line in the sand where we
say "this is not important enough to justify coercion," or "that's too
much coercion, regardless of the necessity." If we concede coercion's
okay with stealing a penny to save the world, then how do we draw a hard
and fast line between that and stealing a thousand dollars from a
millionaire to give it to a poor person?

I think it just comes down to personal decisions based on the context of the moment. Just because a principle might resolve to opinion, that doesn't make it less of a principle; it's just what it is: a guiding rule, no? One might always follow it or only sometimes, or find "contradictions" or not in the rule when applied in reality, but that's why I consider all principles to be loose guidelines based on personal values. What else could they be?

I generally prefer/value peaceful society and interactions, so my "principle" is that of peaceful relations with people.


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#12
TheRobin

TheRobin

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"If you are in a situation where you must perform an immoral action to save the world, the moral thing to do is the save the world".


I think the premise is already flawed. How could it ever be considered immoral to defend yourself against aggression (which this case is phrased as "save the world")? 




Generally speaking: I think moral rules don't say what you must never ever ever do, but rather what the implications are IF you do it. If you steal or break someones window, they have a right to demand restitution (by force if necessary), so if someone is in an emergency scenario where he has to trespass the rule to survive or get away from huge damage, this doesn't mean what they do is moral. But it doesn't mean it's the wrong descision either as they basically chose to rather pay restitution instead of dying.


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#13
onyomi

onyomi

  • 138 posts

That is, if you posit some moral absolute like, "it's always wrong to initiate coercion," then, so long as it is truly absolute, you can stand on the principle, just as the woman in the example might have stood on the principle "it is wrong to sleep with people for money." However, once you accept the idea that the principle is malleable in extreme cases, like, "don't initiate coercion unless it's really, really important," then it stops being a "principle" and instead becomes more of a guideline, the borders of which are open to negotiation.

Isn't that what a principle is though; a guideline or general rule you deem worthy of acquiescence to?

But if we conced that the non-agression principle is open to
negotiation, then how do we draw an objective line in the sand where we
say "this is not important enough to justify coercion," or "that's too
much coercion, regardless of the necessity." If we concede coercion's
okay with stealing a penny to save the world, then how do we draw a hard
and fast line between that and stealing a thousand dollars from a
millionaire to give it to a poor person?

I think it just comes down to personal decisions based on the context of the moment. Just because a principle might resolve to opinion, that doesn't make it less of a principle; it's just what it is: a guiding rule, no? One might always follow it or only sometimes, or find "contradictions" or not in the rule when applied in reality, but that's why I consider all principles to be loose guidelines based on personal values. What else could they be?

I generally prefer/value peaceful society and interactions, so my "principle" is that of peaceful relations with people.

Personally, I agree with you: I think the world would be a better place if everybody endeavored to live by the NAP as much as possible. However, that's just my opinion of what would be nice, not an objective fact. I think Stef's goal with UPB is to show that the NAP is not just a good idea, but an idea everyone implicitly endorses by their actions. Otherwise, it's just an opinion. Therefore, to not follow the NAP is hypocritical or even, "incorrect." But that doesn't prove that it's "good" to be correct or "evil" to be incorrect. It doesn't bridge "is" and "ought."

I could be wrong, but thinking about it again lately, it doesn't seem to me that UPB so much bridges "is" and "ought," as it throws out "ought" altogether, along with holy writ and parental/governmental privilege and infallibility. There's no external basis for "ought" in the words of a god, parent, or government. Given that parents, government officials, and authors of holy texts are all just humans like you and me, they can't create "oughts" that somehow act as "meta-rules" for human actions and preferences. Thus, the only guidelines that can exist are revealed by those behaviors which we can deem "universally preferable," by virtue of everyone engaging in them. It seems to me that, in some sense, UPB replaces "good" and "bad" with "right" and "wrong" or "consistent" and "hypocritical." 

The only problem with that is, it still leaves you with the problem: I might say to a statist "taxation is wrong because it applies a different set of moral standards to different people," and the statist, seemingly, can just say, "I'm okay with sacrificing the principle that 'all men are created equal' if the result is a more even distribution of wealth." This, then, seems similar to the idea "I'm willing to sacrifice the principle 'don't steal' in cases where stealing is necessary to prevent some awful catastrophe." That is, if people can, and do, decide to make exceptions to NAP (generally in very implausible, weird situations not likely to come up in real life, admittedly) based on some calculus of the "greater good" (better to steal a hair than let the world explode), then that would seem to allow the statist to make exceptions to the NAP, or to "all men are created equal" when he feels some other goal, like economic equality, is more important. 


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#14
DoubtingThomas

DoubtingThomas
  • 241 posts

The only problem with that is, it still leaves you with the problem: I
might say to a statist "taxation is wrong because it applies a different
set of moral standards to different people," and the statist,
seemingly, can just say, "I'm okay with sacrificing the principle that
'all men are created equal' if the result is a more even distribution of
wealth." This, then, seems similar to the idea "I'm willing to
sacrifice the principle 'don't steal' in cases where stealing is
necessary to prevent some awful catastrophe." That is, if people can,
and do, decide to make exceptions to NAP (generally in very implausible,
weird situations not likely to come up in real life, admittedly) based
on some calculus of the "greater good" (better to steal a hair than let
the world explode), then that would seem to allow the statist to make
exceptions to the NAP, or to "all men are created equal" when he feels
some other goal, like economic equality, is more important.

In most cases the "greater good," is a puppet used to represent the interest of a few (with political power), so outside the once-a-millenia scenario you can safely conclude that calculus for a "greater good," translates into "central planning and misery."

If people are still so irrational that central planning and coercion are still so popoular there's no point in wondering what it would be like in a stateless society because: it wouldn't be a stateless society if there were central planners funded by coercion.


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#15
onyomi

onyomi

  • 138 posts

The only problem with that is, it still leaves you with the problem: I
might say to a statist "taxation is wrong because it applies a different
set of moral standards to different people," and the statist,
seemingly, can just say, "I'm okay with sacrificing the principle that
'all men are created equal' if the result is a more even distribution of
wealth." This, then, seems similar to the idea "I'm willing to
sacrifice the principle 'don't steal' in cases where stealing is
necessary to prevent some awful catastrophe." That is, if people can,
and do, decide to make exceptions to NAP (generally in very implausible,
weird situations not likely to come up in real life, admittedly) based
on some calculus of the "greater good" (better to steal a hair than let
the world explode), then that would seem to allow the statist to make
exceptions to the NAP, or to "all men are created equal" when he feels
some other goal, like economic equality, is more important.

In most cases the "greater good," is a puppet used to represent the interest of a few (with political power), so outside the once-a-millenia scenario you can safely conclude that calculus for a "greater good," translates into "central planning and misery."

I agree. I hate it when people take something like "well, you would steal a hair to save the world wouldn't you???" and then run with it to "therefore, taxation is justified." I'm just trying to figure out if there's any objective line we can draw somewhere on that slippery slope between "it's okay to steal to save the world" and "it's okay to steal to help the poor."


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#16
DoubtingThomas

DoubtingThomas
  • 241 posts

I agree. I hate it when people take something like "well, you would steal a hair to save the world wouldn't you???" and then run with it to "therefore, taxation is justified." I'm just trying to figure out if there's any objective line we can draw somewhere on that slippery slope between "it's okay to steal to save the world" and "it's okay to steal to help the poor."

Personally, I would stick with "stealing cannot in-fact help the poor, but does victimize them and create a culture of entitlement and servitude to political masters."

The problem with such hypotheticals, and especially in this case, is that they're engineered specifically to get a utilitarian response. It would be like asking a statist if it was ok to abolish government in order to save the world. Despite the fact some would agree that would indeed save the world, it's not a helpful or instructive way to convey the validity or invalidity of statism at any level. You're simply asking someone if they value the lives of everyone on earth more than than whatever issue is being questioned.


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#17
onyomi

onyomi

  • 138 posts

 

I think Mike Huemer's point beginning around 20:00 in this video is a more satisfactory rebuttal to the "lifeboat" scenarios than strict adherence to NAP, or simply stating that the NAP doesn't apply in extreme circumstances. (Or, put another way, here is an argument for where to draw the line between "steal a hair to save the world" and "welfare state").

 

Also, I highly recommend this whole video, and Mike's new book, "The Problem of Political Authority."


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#18
Hugh Akston

Hugh Akston

  • 53 posts

As I see it, most of these extreme cases that seem to challenge the NAP is typically a challenge based on perceived violations of the NAP where an individual's survival is at stake.  The NAP is derived from the individual's right to life as a moral absolute.  So if I am dying of thirst in the desert and I forcefully take water from you that you refuse to give me, this is not a violation of the NAP.  This is exactly why the Sophists use these cases.  They understand that if they rationalize violence as an attempt to secure survival for others and themselves, they will have a plausible excuse for their immorality.  That is why they thrive on promotions of fear, why every policy must be painted as a defense against  some apocalyptic scenario.  This is why the statists are the true extremists.  Their justification rests on the extremes, on projecting the basest motivation and behaviour on your fellow man.  The war of all against all is the only possible outcome in the absence of their benevolent presence.


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All phenomena are real in some sense, unreal in some sense, meaningless in some sense, real and meaningless in some sense, unreal and meaningless in some sense, and real and unreal and meaningless in some sense.




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