I get to be interviewed tonight on aspects of desire utilitarianism. In this case, my interviewer, Luke Muehlhauser, sent me some study questions so that I can prepare for this evening's pop quiz. These study questions actually came from members of his audience.
(Note: This is not a live interview but a taped interview for a future podcast. I will let you know how to get to the podcast once it becomes available.)
One set of the issues that Luke's audience seem particularly interested in are issues of definition. Many of the study questions pertain to definitions.
It is true that public discussions of morality have focused heavily on questions of definitions. One question I often hear is, "Why should I accept your definition of what good is?” One form of rebuttal I often encounter is, "That's true under your definition but that's not necessarily true under this other definition over there."
When it comes to moral theory, I consider questions about definition to be the great distraction. Questions of definition are this ichthyosaurus sized red herring that derails far too many conversations about morality and gets people wasting huge amounts of time dealing with issues that are not legitimate issues.
If a theory is sound, then it should be a theory that can be translated into any language. Einstein’s theory should be translatable into Chinese, Spanish, Croatian, and any other language on Earth without damaging the theory at all. Speakers of a language might need to invent a few new terms to conveniently handle all of the concepts. However, languages are inventions anyway. In any given language, new terms are invented for conveniently discussing new subjects every day.
Imagine somebody presenting a theory at a conference, and presenting it in English. Then imagine, after the presentation, somebody says, "Okay, your theory sounds great in English, but why should I accept English as my primary language? You have not given me one single, solitary piece of evidence as to why I should change my primary language from French into English."
The response to that type of question would be to ask the speaker, "What on earth are you talking about?"
The problem in ethics – the "great distraction" – is that a lot of people have gotten it into their heads that this type of response actually makes sense. The moral theorist delivers his theory, then somebody in the audience asks, "Why should I accept your language as my primary language?" and far too many people in the audience turn to the speaker as if that person has just asked an intelligible question that the speaker should be able to answer. If the speaker cannot answer it, this is taken as reason to throw out the theory.
Of course, no speaker has an answer to that question. It does not matter if we are talking about the theory of evolution, atomic theory, a theory of gravity – no speaker can ever answer the question, "Why should I accept the language you gave your theory in as my primary language?" So, if this were a valid reason to throw out a theory, then we need to throw out every theory ever invented.
If I could make one change in our moral discourse, it would be to get people who discuss morality to realize that the question, "Why should I adopt your language as my primary language?" is not a legitimate question. They should not turn to the speaker and expect an answer (because they can never have one). They should dismiss the question and move on to real issues.
The question, "Why should I accept your definition of good?" is no different than the question, "Why should I adopt your language as my primary language." I have no answer. If you want to speak French or Chinese, that’s up to you. If you want to accept a different family of definitions, then we need to translate the theory from my native language to yours. That's all.
This is why, when somebody objects to my definitions, I merely answer, "Fine. Give me the definitions you like and we will translate the theory into your language." Translating the theory into the language of somebody who wants to assign different meanings to words is exactly the same exercise, with exactly the same implications, as translating it into French or Chinese.
Which is to say . . . none at all.
This is the great distraction in discussing moral theory. It is people who stand up and say, "You have not provided a single reason as to why I should adopt your language as my primary language. So, you haven't given me any reason to accept your theory," and people who then turn to the presenter as if the questioner raised a valid point.