Thursday, 7 May 2009

Moral versus rational and empirical justifications

My last post looked at the issue of first identifying and then defending versus eliminating double standards in society. One of the most popular, both past and present, forms of justification - to deny that a purported double standard is a double standard and thereby justify it as a single standard - are moral arguments. The question became to ask whether, in the process of answering or dismissing such moral support, is one taking a moral position, thereby leaving oneself open to the same criticism that one is using against those who use moral arguments. Can this be avoided?

An Caricatured Illustration
Let us consider a simplified and abstract economic dispute between two extreme and in this post caricatured poles. On the one side are Randians espousing a full free market as the best way to every individual's rights. On the other side are old style Revolutionary Communists espousing seizing the means of production as the best way to achieve everyone's rights.For our purposes here one side is defending or seeking to improve what they consider is a single standard - as a justified one - whereas the other side is claiming it is a double standard and can show, that it is unjustified. (The actual content of the dispute does not matter here and would only distract from the points being made).

What they have in common is that both claim a rational basis for their position, with empirical support. Both claim that what they espouse has not yet been realised anywhere historically.

A key area where they differ over is a position on morality. The Communists denies moral arguments, on the basis that these are only used to support the ruling classes, the bourgeoisie, to control the the proletariat. The Randian utilises a moral argument, saying that only way to have a moral society is by being rational in the full free market and individual narrow self-interested (selfishness as a virtue) sense.

Both sides would make points on the economic issue utilising rational, empirical and moral methods. In this case, the Communist would dismiss moral arguments as just explained - but is this itself a moral argument? The Randian would utilize a moral argument, but since they have identified moral with what is purely rational can make the same argument without utilising such terminology (although, in fact, Randians find this extremely difficult but this is the implication of their position). So it is theoretically possible (although unlikely in reality) for both sides to engage without invoking moral arguments at all. Now what is left?

What remains is that both have different positions over, whilst still extolling the virtues of, rational and empirical enquiry. The dispute could be over what are the rational and empirical norms underlying the economics at hand. This is why I used the phrase "extolling the virtues". I also say "could be" since the Randians would, in fact, assert that all norms are moral. Well the question is are they?

Rational and Empirical Norms
The most systematised empirical enquiry known as science has a dynamic, progressive standard built into it. When one makes a scientific claim this is open to review, revision, refutation or replacement. This is based on identifying and eliminating errors and minimising mistakes. Eliminating errors of reason and minimising mistakes of fact. If anyone makes a scientific claim and ignores or otherwise fails to deal with demonstrated errors or mistakes their claim does not satisfy this standard. Alternative medicine (and big pharma) would like to see this standard redcuced - allowing in errors and mistakes - that benefits themselves. Are they justified in doing so? These are questions of rational and empirical norms, quite regardless of any moral issues and motivations.

For example, if one wants to build a rocket to leave Earth then it is recommended to build a rocket that can travel faster than the Earth's escape velocity for enough time to travel a sufficient distance away from the centre of the Earth to get beyond it's gravitational pull. One can avoid this recommendation but then one would not succeed in one's task - the rocket would fail to leave Earth. This is what one ought or should do, if one does not one will fail. This employs facts of the matter such as Earth's mass and the law of gravitational attraction - the inverse square law. This also employs rational analysis in determining what the escape velocity is for this planet given such facts. Change the facts such as the mass of the planet to be left and the escape velocity changes. Accepting the recommendation also means avoiding errors of reason such as calculating of the scape velocity and mistakes of fact such as the measurement of the mass of the planet and so on.

The same goes for rational arguments. There are many fallacies - both formal and informal - which, if not avoided, mean that the conclusion one is arguing for does not, in fact, have the argued for support.

These and other such norms are not immune to or above criticism, indeed they are the result of repeated criticisms, they are norms because they are better able to survive criticism than their alternatives. One can examine any such norm and criticise it that is it can be reviewed, revised, replaced or rejected.

All this serves to illustrate that there are plenty of rational and empirical norms and none of these are specifically moral in any conventional sense of the term nor are they above crticial review themselves. It is norms all the way down!

Societal Norms
When one is looking at a specific society or state it already has many norms -formal such as laws and informal such as customs - however this is where the term moral originated from - from the mores of societies. How can we evaluate or justify such standards? The same way as anywhere else.

We can look at the rational and empirical claims used to support a standard and see if these claims lend support. A double standard in rational enquiry is itself a fallacy and is often supported by other fallacies such as the argument from tradition. Now the argument from tradition is a very common justification for supporting an existing standard. However just because it is that way - due to tradition and habit - does not mean that it should or ought to be that way. This and similar arguments can be dismissed on rational and empirical grounds without recourse to moral arguments.

What about specifically moral arguments? "It is this way because it is the morally right thing to do"? Any such moral claim is in need of support that is it is require to answer why it is he morally right thing to do. Either a non-moral or pre-moral reason is given and this can be subjected to rational and empirical analysis like any other claim or no further foundation can be provided. What if anything can be done in the latter case?

Returning to our caricatured illustration, the Communist would need to empirically show that such moral claims be dismissed by demonstrating that they exist only to support the bourgeoisie. However, if they succeed then they have not used a moral argument in doing so, if they fail and still insist upon dismissing such moral arguments they have no grounds for doing so based on such an argument. On the other hand the Randian would criticise any moral claim if it is not in accordance with his own take on morality but the only way he could do this is by showing the empirical and rational grounds for their version of morality, if they cannot do that then they have no grounds to criticise any other moral view.

These two caricatured poles capture the challenge of moral claims, in general, in justifying a societal standard or norm. Indeed anyone making a moral claim, or dismissing others moral claims needs to provide rational and empirical support for their position, utilising rational and empirical norms and not moral norms. Whether they succeed or not in using those rational and empirical norms in making their case they are not relying on moral claims althouhgt his may well be their motivation, at least on the surface.

So where does this leave moral claim in support of a standard? On exactly the same ground as any other claim in support of a standard - cultural, economic, sociological, psychological, scientific or otherwise. They stand or fall based on rational and empirical enquiry.

If any or all moral claims fail it is not because, as the Communist supposes, this is due to them being made by the bourgeoisie to control the proletariat - this may well be the case but to dismiss it on this basis is to commit the genetic fallacy, since it is not axiomatic that because the rulers (deliberately or unwittingly) developed a standard that this is only to benefit themselves. Each claim has to be examined on a case by case basis.

The Randian is in the position of anyone else who makes a moral claim, they have to provide empirical and rational grounds for the claim or there is no basis for it to serve as a justification and needs to be discounted in evaluating the standard.

The Next Step
Having dealt with two extremes there is a third that now needs to be tackled, that of cultural relativism, in particular normative or judgemental relativists. This will be the subject of the next post.


The Barefoot Bum said...

As a revolutionary communist, I have to object to my position being caricatured. If you cannot frame your point without caricature, perhaps it is not as strong as you might prefer.

faithlessgod said...

I was only trying to create a contrast between two positions that both claim rationality on their side yet one rejects morality and the other has a specific moral position.

They were caricatures in the sense that they were not meant to represent specific positions of specific people, such as yourself, but extreme ideological and actually dogmatic (therefore not actually rational) oppositions.

Of course I disagree with both and have only dealt with Randianism in the past. I will get round to looking at communism and will only address you and db0 (since most communists I know are not rational whatever they claim - I think you have come across a few of those recently...)on this topic but not now.

Ken Watts said...

Very interesting post. Thank you.

(You might be interested in "Two Kinds of Ought")

Ken Watts

faithlessgod said...

Hi Ken

I looked at your site, interesting. However I have had my fill of dealing with theodiots, good luck to you in dealing with them.

More interested in ethics in the real world. I will continue this series of posts when I have time.

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