Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The Neurathian Procedure for Moral Justification

The Neurathian Procedure applies to attempts to answer the question of how we can know something to be true. If "It is wrong to lie under oath" is true (or, more precisely, under conditions where it is true), the Neurathian Procedure gives us a way of demonstrating that it is true.

The example gets its name from the fact that Otto Neurath invented the following simile:

Imagine you are on a boat at sea. You depend on your boat for survival. Some of the planks on the boat are rotting and in need of repair. In addition, you can well imagine improvements that you can make. However, you cannot dismantle the boat entirely and build a new boat from scratch. Your only option is to make your improvements one step at a time - removing a plank (for example) and putting a new plank in its place, fastening it to the old frame that, itself, will someday need to be replaced.

The same is true with knowledge. We cannot build a new system of knowledge from scratch. The best that we can do is to replace one belief at a time, attaching it to our existing beliefs which, themselves, may ultimately need to be replaced. We can, over time, improve our overall system of beliefs, but we can only do so one step at a time in a way that can never ignore the fact that we are making changes to a larger system that, at each step, is left substantially intact. Eventually, over time, we may turn our rowboat into a 21st century cruise ship - but it will take time.

Rosalind Hursthouse wants to use this procedure to defend her theory of virtue ethics. She argues that we cannot build an ethics from scratch. Instead, all we can do is to take our existing ship of moral beliefs and start looking for ways to improve upon it. The objection that we are not able to completely leave an ethical system to build a new ethical system from scratch is no objection. The Neurathian Procedure represents our best way of proceeding. This admits to the fact that we are going to continue to have some moral statements in our argument. We are not going to build our ethics from pure, value-free, scientific facts.

My question, regarding this way of proceeding, is, "Why are we building two boats?"

Why are we building a science boat and a completely different ethics boat?

If this is, indeed, the correct procedure, then it seems that we should be building one boat, and we need to find some way to secure the normaltive/moral planks onto a frame of objective scientific fact.

In her defense of virtue ethics, Hursthouse defends a number of naturalistic ends. She starts with the evaluation of plants, where she states:

So, in the evaluation of individual plants, we find that we evaluate two aspects - parts and operations - in relation to two ends. A good x is one that is well fitted or endowed with respect to its parts and operations; whether it is thus well fitted or endowed is determined by whether its parts and operations serve its individual survival and the continuance of its species well,
in the way characteristic of xs.

I deny the existence of any "naturalistic ends," and I further hold that a proper understanding of evolution will provide a powerful argument to explain why no natural ends exist.

My view is that there are no ends but that desiring makes them so, and no plant desires the continuation of its species. In fact, no plant desires anything, so no plant has an end of any type. When we evaluate plants, it is our ends that we appeal to - not the plant's ends, or any "naturalistic end" that can be discovered by pure reason.

The continuation of the species, where it exists, is not an "end," it is an unintended side effect. Indeed, when humans have sex, pregnancy is not the end or goal of that activity. It is often an unintended side effect. This is even more obvious when sex results in spreading a sexually transmitted disease.

As it turns out, the plants that we come across are those that happen to have characteristics that - at least in their past environments - resulted in species survival. If they didn't, we would not be finding their species in the world today. To say that species survival is an end is to add something to this state that is quite literally false.

Hursthouse also states that if an animal or plant must act in a characteristic way for that species.

There is no sense to being attached to saying that polar bears would be better fitted to flourish in a characteristically polar bear way, to live well, as polar bears, if the males were different, or indeed, if males and females banded together to hunt. Polar bears just don't act that way and thereby cannot - unless they mutate - and that is all there is to it.

The first point to make is that we do have an account of a genetic defect. What if a genetic change happens to result in a polar bear acting in a way uncharacteristic of polar bears - forming pair-bonds with its mate, for example, the way eagles do. We must remember that every species-wide mutation began with a mutation in a single member of the species and spread over time, as those with the mutation survived and those without it died out (or those with the mutation became isolated from those that did not, etc.). In no case in evolution was the "survival of the species" a reason for a particular mutation. That mutation either brought about the survival and genetic replication of those who had it, or the mutation ceased to exist, but genetic replication never was an end.

The second point to make is that her statement could be wrong. Bear cubs learn certain aspects of their behavior from their parents. It may well be the case that, if the parents were to behave differently, so would their cubs. However, due to blind chance, bears just never happened upon a form of behavior built around males and females hunting together - because females kept driving off the males and the males, so isolated from their cubs, came to see the cubs as potential food. Hursthouse can give us no reason to insist that a characteristic polar-bear behavior could not have been different.

The third and most important point to make is that, if one understands evolution, one would see that the ends that any creature adopts is a matter of random genetic selection and contingent interactions with one's environment. There may be a characteristically polar-bear way of behaving, but you cannot get from this statistical norm to the conclusion that all polar bears ought to behave that way. If a polar bear behaves differently, even if it should fail to genetically reproduce and die off, no naturalistic moral ought has been violated. This is just a fact about how the real world works . . . nothing more.

Evolution has given us desires, and dispositions to learn new desires based on our interactions with our environment. In this sense, each of us has ends. The ends we have acquired are, in themselves, neither "correct" or "incorrect". They merely exist as they do as a result of random and contingent facts.

There is, in the real world, no ends but that desiring makes them so.

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