The Moral Limits of Reason

(This is part 6/6 of the “Consequentialism and Godelian Incompleteness” series.)
  • (P5)  Much of the consequentialist literature is either immoral or consequentialism is false. (From P3 and P4)

Our consequentialist is now bleeding from cuts inflicted by her own sword.  While her wounds are not necessarily fatal, I suggest that she is significantly incapacitated by the fact that inasmuch as one of her more potent battle strategies is not morally sidelined altogether it seems to work against her.  To the extent that the consequentialist sword just is a tool for cutting down moral rules to their true size, the rules of liberal science which constitute the sword must themselves be cut down.  This is to say that according to consequentialism, the tools for preaching it will be cut down by the tools for practicing it rather than the other way around as Connie had hoped.

Given her strategy detailed in (P1), Connie has thus morally painted herself into a corner from which escape will be difficult.  She has asked the moderate to present strongly compelling rules which apparently constrain consequentialism.  Either such rules actually will constrain consequentialism, or the consequentialist will be morally compelled to act as if they did by endorsing them.  This Godelian predicament is the exact dilemma in which the consequentialist reader of this paper was placed in (P3).  Any attempt on her part to fully endorse the moral rules, as consequentialism requires, will constrain the rules of liberal science for clarity, etc.  On the other hand, any attempt to clearly constrain the moral rules, as any strong defense of consequentialism must, is morally forbidden.  Her defense against the moderate can be either consistent or complete, but not both.

We are thus pulled by charity of interpretation in two separate directions.  If we assume the consequentialist literature to be as true as possible then we are forced to conclude that it is to some degree immoral and deserving of neglect or perhaps censorship in order to isolate the bad consequences to which it leads.  If, on the other hand, we assume the consequentialist literature to be as moral as possible and worthy of widespread attention and careful consideration, then we are forced to conclude that the rules of liberal science morally constrain consequentialism, a claim which falsifies it.  I suggest, however, that both moral intuition and charitable inclinations alike rebel against our bringing any moral accusation against the consequentialist and her literature.  Indeed, since many of the claims made in this paper must, by consequentialist reasoning, be either true or good but not both, I would greatly prefer the reader to believe that, like the consequentialist, I too have tacitly committed myself to the falsity of consequentialism rather than the immorality of engaging it.  

How Truth Undermines Values

(This is part 5/6 of the “Consequentialism and Godelian Incompleteness” series.)
  • (P4)  In much of the consequentialist literature, the rules of liberal science constrain consequentialism rather than the other way around. (Empirical Claim)

Having turned the consequentialist’s sword back on its own master in (P3) I will now show that the very arm wielding the sword is the part most exposed to its blade.  To do this, I will demonstrate how good claims have actually come apart from true claims within the consequentialist literature as well as how the authors have made the latter rather than the former.  For example, in (P1) Connie followed the rules of liberal science in her defense even when doing so led by her own admission to bad consequences.  In other words, she did not practice what she preached.

Let us first begin with the effects which the consequentialist literature has upon its readership and the public in general.  I strongly suspect that those exposed to this literature have become less rather than more moral.  This is an empirical claim, very much open to falsification, however I would be very surprised if it turned out to be categorically false.

This hunch can, however, be rationally defended.  Within the consequentialist literature the tools for preaching the message have been used to cut down the tools for practicing the message in that the rules of liberal science have undermined other moral rules.  In (P1) we saw how Connie made it a point to illustrate the limitations of and exceptions to moral rules by pitting rules against each other and multiplying unlikely scenarios.  This disproportionate focus on exceptions rather than rules leads to bad consequences in three ways.  First, it provides material by which the immoral can intentionally justify their disregard for moral rules both to themselves and others.  Second, it provides material by which otherwise moral people can subconsciously excuse their immorality by way of their confirmation bias.  Most importantly, it makes exceptions to moral rules seem more frequent than they actually are, thereby undermining the reliability with which such tools are used as a guide to good consequences, as if they were skewed compasses.

The case of Sibling Sex illustrated this phenomenon remarkably well.  Recall that the moderate felt morally inclined to condemn the case because making an exception to the rule rather than endorsing it amounted to an act which led to bad consequences, likely by way of the three mechanisms just mentioned.  Connie then proceeded to do precisely what was morally forbidden and made an exception to the rule against Sibling Sex rather than endorsing it.  Note well the dilemma: While the rules of liberal science required her to approve of the case, consequentialist reasoning forbad her to.  The consequentialist could thus either preach her doctrine or practice it, but not both.  In fact, it was the very act of clearly drawing the distinction between morally good claims and true ones, a true distinction but a morally bad one, which forced her to grab the immoral horn of the dilemma which she herself had made.  This is why the consequentialist’s sword effectively cuts her own arm off.

It can be objected that all rules have exceptions, even those rules regarding the endorsement of moral rules.  This might be true, but the consequentialist does not get to simply declare herself an exception to the rules which her moderate readers must follow.  It must be empirically demonstrated, as in the case of Sibling Sex, how her breaking the rules of endorsing moral rules actually does lead to good consequences.  To suggest otherwise would surely give far too much room for ideologues and fundamentalists to operate.  This objection can perhaps best be handled by running the exact same argument again at the meta-level which the consequentialist has introduced by asking if she is morally permitted to endorse such exceptions to the rules for endorsing moral rules?

When Truth Clashes with Goodness

(This is part 4/6 of the “Consequentialism and Godelian Incompleteness” series.)
  • (P3) If consequentialism is true, the rules of liberal science are constrained by it and not the other way around. (From P1 and P2)

Having sharpened the consequentialist sword to a clean point (P2) I will now describe what happens when we turn that blade back upon the arm that wields it.  If the consequentialist sword truly admits no exceptions then it must be that Connie is morally permitted to use it and the rules of liberal science which constitute it to the extent that doing so leads to good consequences and no further.  In other words, if Connie is to practice what she preaches, everything she preaches must not be true rather than false, but good rather than bad.  Unfortunately, the rules which reliably track truth are under no obligation to reliably track goodness nor vice versa.  Indeed, we have no more reason to suppose that those claims which are not disallowed by consequentialism should be any more consistent or true than those which are not disallowed by the laws of physics.  It is therefore doubtful that that one can always practice and preach consequentialism in the same breath.

This point can conveniently be unpacked further in the form of a sign post, for the practicing consequentialist finds herself morally committed by her own doctrine to a rather peculiar mode of intellectual engagement.  If the consequentialist’s blade is used to cut down the rules of liberal science, then she is morally committed to critically engage and object to this very paper only if doing so leads to good consequences.  More uncomfortably, the reader is morally required to put forth any and all claims which lead to good consequences no matter how unclear, equivocating, inconsistent or demonstrably false they might be.  This point is especially strong in the case of agreeing or disagreeing with moral rules.

No doubt Connie will want to avoid any and all territory where truth and goodness might come apart by way of careful wording, but the idea that she can both eat her consequentialist cake while having her liberal science too is very suspect.  To be fully consistent we cannot ask whether Connie can have it both ways but whether she ought to:  Is she is morally compelled to follow truth as closely and clearly as possible or not?  Does pursuing truth as closely and clearly as possible always lead to good consequences or not?  I will soon argue that consequentialist have frequently been morally obligated not to do so, an obligation which has not been heeded.

Another path of escape for Connie would be to maintain that liberal science does reliably albeit fallibly lead to good consequences in the long run by effectively closing the door on various types of ideology, fundamentalism, etc.  A tempting reply to this would be to isolate the consequentialist literature and ask how it in particular has prevented such things.  This, however, would only distract us from the self-defeating logic of the Connie’s objection, for her objection is the exact same one the moderate brought against her in the case of Sibling Sex.  The best reply will therefore be yet another swipe with the consequentialist sword: such an approval of liberal science is good, but not true.  Because the rules of liberal science reliably but fallibly lead to good consequences they should be endorsed, but not always followed.

The Nature of “True” Claims

(This is part 3/6 of the “Consequentialism and Godelian Incompleteness” series.)
  • (P2)  The rules of liberal science, as followed in the consequentialist literature, are moral rules. (Empirical Claim)

Having described the consequentialist and the battle in which she is engaged (P1) I will now describe the weapon by which she defends herself.  In particular, Connie’s view of moral rules as reliable but fallible tools which guide us toward good consequences commits her to two important claims:  First, inasmuch as following a rule leads to good consequences it can be integrated within consequentialism by what has been called the consequentialist vacuum cleaner. [i]   Second, inasmuch as following a rule does not lead to good consequences it carries no moral obligation at all, and can therefore be cut down to its true size by what I will call the consequentialist sword.  More clearly, the consequentialist sword is the rules of liberal science by which the truth concerning the constrained nature of moral rules is clearly demonstrated.  Since this sword must be razor sharp, allowing no exceptions, we can thus reframe the moderate’s onus as one of providing a moral rule which does not bleed under this sword.

We have already seen how this sword was able to cut down rules in the cases of the Nosey Nazi and Sibling Sex.  Of particular interest was the way in which it carved a distinction between an act and the interpersonal judgment of that act.  Furthermore, since these public claims themselves have consequences, the sword was then able to carve out another distinction between true claims and good claims.  Such distinctions wrought by the consequentialist sword are important if only because public acts of judgment very nearly define the literature in which the consequentialist wages battle.

As noted, Connie’s strategy for defending consequentialism is one of cutting down all attacks which the moderate brings against it with the consequentialist sword, the rules of liberal science which have been found to reliably track truth.  (P1) provided a number of clear illustrations of how this is done:  Consequentialism was presented as clearly as possible.  Careful distinctions such as those between true claims and morally good claims were drawn in order to avoid equivocation.  Consequentialism was applied across actual and hypothetical scenarios in ways which were consistent both with each other and with experience.  No rule, not even consequentialism itself was placed beyond skeptical inquiry.  Significantly, all such things are typically done in public settings (classrooms, conferences, literature, etc.) so as to allow for the interpersonal application of these rules.[ii]  All of these public acts made in the pursuit of truth according to the rules of liberal science have practical consequences in the world which may or may not be good.

The objection can be raised that it is at least possible to be a consequentialist without doing any of the things which might expose her to the blade of her own sword.  Inasmuch as this is a claim regarding the degree to which Connie is morally compelled to isolate her defining belief from any consequences it might lead to, the objector has simply arrived at the destination to which I am cautiously driving.  By her own reasoning she is morally required to not only actively isolate but also expose her defining doctrine to the world inasmuch as doing so leads to good consequences.  So far, however, I have not questioned whether she should allow her defining doctrine to have consequences in the world.  Rather, I’ve simply argued that she actually does allow it.

[i] David McNaughton and Piers Rawling in Deontology and Agency, (93, 97)  I take the consequentialist sword and vacuum cleaner to be two sides of the same coin.

[ii] Judith Jarvis Thomson: The Trolley Problem is a treasure trove of such examples.

The Nature of “Good” Claims

(This is part 2/6 of the “Consequentialism and Godelian Incompleteness” series.)
  • (P1)  If consequentialism is true, then moral rules are constrained by it and not the other way around. (By definition)

Consequentialism is the claim that the moral permissibility of an action depends only upon the goodness of its consequences.  Lying is generally immoral, not because of any laws or rules which we might have against it, but solely because it generally leads to worse consequences than telling the truth does.  Whereas moral rules can be seen as instrumental sources of moral obligation, consequences are the unique source of intrinsic moral obligation.[i]  This point can be illustrated by examples in which we feel morally compelled to lie.  Suppose our consequentialist, let us call her Connie, lives in Nazi Germany and the Gestapo have just knocked on her door looking for the Jews which they (rightly) suspect her to be hiding.  In this case the rule for telling the truth is clearly constrained by the badness of the consequences which would result if she followed it.  The case of the Nosey Nazi thus illustrates the difference between making a true claim and making a good claim (a claim which leads to good consequences) as well as how in some cases consequentialism requires that the latter constrain the former and not the other way around.

A more moderate approach to moral rules would be to object that while many are indeed constrained by the goodness of their consequences, there are some rules which are simply inviolable in the sense that we are never morally justified in breaking them regardless of the consequences.  Consider a case in which a pair of siblings is isolated from the rest of the world and somehow learn that their lives will end in a half-hours time.  The two, having a particularly close and intimate relationship and knowing that any long-term or unintended consequences will certainly go unrealized, decide to engage in sexual relations which they thoroughly and profoundly enjoy for the brief remainder of their lives.  Most people would at this point object to any consequentialist justification to this case of Sibling Sex, saying that the rules against such are inviolable and therefore constrain any consequentialist justification rather than the other way around as Connie would suggest.  The same can be said for any other rules, rights, etc. which we take to be inviolable.

To such objections Connie has a rather subtle yet ingenious reply in which she further entrenches the distinction we have already noted between making a true claim and making a good claim.  First, a difference must be drawn between the act of Sibling Sex itself and our judgment of that act.  It must then be kept in mind that the very act of publicly approving or disapproving of the case in question is itself an act which will in turn have good/bad consequences.  Finally, since the rule against incest is a reliable albeit imperfect and instrumental source of moral obligation, we are morally required to endorse the rule by condemning the act independent of whether the siblings were justified in their act.  Our hesitation to approve of Sibling Sex should not, therefore, be construed as intuition rebelling against consequentialism, but rather as a moral inclination to disapprove of the case as required by consequentialism.[ii]  As in the case of the Nosey Nazi, the moderate’s claim about Sibling Sex is the morally good one, even though it is not the true one.  To jump ahead, much of this paper will be dedicated to showing how this reply by the consequentialist, if true, is by its very own logic a morally bad one.

At this point, Connie’s strategy largely consists in shifting the burden of proof onto the moderate.[iii]  The former has shown how consequentialism is able to adjudicate cases of conflicting moral rules as well as provide a proper context in which rules do and do not morally compel us.  She has also shown how our moral inclination to inviolably endorse a moral rule cannot by itself prove the inviolability of the rule in question.  It is now the responsibility of the moderate to provide some reason why such an approach to ethics is misguided in the form of a rule which is a source of intrinsic moral obligation, a rule that we are not only compelled to endorse but actually follow regardless of the consequences.

[i] Shelly Kagan: Normative Ethics, 55

[ii] See J. C. C. Smart: Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism and R. M. Hare: What is Wrong with Slavery

[iii] Shelly Kagan: The Limits of Morality, 32

Consequentialism and Godelian Incompleteness

(This is part 1/6 of another paper which has become rather central to my thinking as of late.  While its explicit focus is on the tension between truth and goodness as it applies to Consequentialism, it seems clear to me that this tension generalizes to all of philosophy.  In particular, I see this paper as implicitly being about the tension between factual truth and adaptive truth, epistemological rationality and economic rationality, science and faith.)

The purpose of this paper will roughly be to ask (and answer in the negative) the following question: Does every claim made by the consequentialist lead to good consequences?  In order to unpack the question, I will argue the following points in order:

·         (P1)  If consequentialism is true, then moral rules are constrained by it and not the other way around. (By definition)

·         (P2)  The rules of liberal science, as found in the consequentialist literature, are moral rules. (Empirical Claim)

·         (P3)  If consequentialism is true, then the rules of liberal science are constrained by it and not the other way around. (From P1 and P2)

·         (P4)  In much of the consequentialist literature, the rules of liberal science constrain consequentialism rather than the other way around. (Empirical Claim)

·         (P5)  Much of the consequentialist literature is either immoral or false. (From P3 and P4)

Historical, Logical and Metaphysical Darwinism

(This is part 12/12 in the Dennett’s Difficult Idea series.  Click the DDI category in the sidebar to access the other parts.)

The machines and their purposes are the historical products of natural selection. (143-144, 216-219) No person would ever think that complex patterns such as those found in our network of machines could have simply sprung into existence in this world of entropy.  Consequently, in our story the network was built up by the “cranes” of human beings, knowledge, various mechanical parts, etc. each of which must also have been the historical product of still earlier reliable patterns in the world.  Dennett, however, is committed to something stronger still than this.  For the story to truly be naturalistic, the machines must have reliably done some kind of work (education in this case) which made it worth the cost for the combination of humans, knowledge, mechanical parts, etc. to work toward replicating these machines in the first place rather than some other more beneficial project.  A similar story must then be told as to how the complex patterns of humans, knowledge, mechanical parts, etc. were each able to pay the original price of their own creation as types of patterns and so on.  According to Historical Darwinism no complex pattern can go unexplained in the sense of being something other than the ultimately unintended historical product of the complex patterns which came before it, all the way back to a time when there were no such patterns.

The purposes of the machines are the logical products of natural selection. (402-406) Complex patterns, such as those found in our inorganic network, are under no more obligation to resist entropy by replicating in the same way than a coffee mug is to maintain the same height above the ground by resting upon the same desk.  In our example, the machines were first replicated by a combination of humans, knowledge, mechanical parts, etc. but eventually came to be replicated in ways which had nothing to do with such things.  According to Logical Darwinism this just is the account of how the machines went from objectively having the purpose of being teaching tools to objectively having the purposes of harvester, transporter, etc. however gradual and indefinite this process might be.  This is a concrete illustration of how the purpose or meaning of a pattern logically tracks the work which it does toward the end of its own replication as well as how neither is under any obligation to be immutable or definite.

The machines are not primarily or ultimately “for” anything other than their own replication. (66-67) The rise of the machines presents a case in which Design comes to exist in a world without humans, genes or memes of any kind and is thus a clear illustration of how the former are not “for” the latter in any deep sense which we might be tempted to attach to them.  This should come as no large surprise, for if the process of natural selection is both the historical and logical source of all purpose, then it makes no sense to ask what the purpose of this source is.  For the same reasons that the process of accumulative design cannot be guided, it is also logically inconsistent to ask what greater purpose the set of all purposes has.  All purpose logically follows from, and thus is ultimately for, its own replication and nothing else.  We could say that the network of machines was “for” humans or their genes in that the former contributed to the replication of the latter, but this was only because of the proximate role which the latter played in ultimate replication of the former.  However, as mentioned above, the question of whether the relationship between a particular type of machine and humans is mutual, commensal or parasitic in nature is an open and empirical question.  Put another way, to say that the machines in the network were ultimately for genes, memes, humans or anything other than their own replication would simply be to view Mother Nature as taking the wrong multiple choice test.


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