Supervenience and Hume’s Law

I have yet another criticism of contemporary ethics.

Hume pointed out that prescriptions do not follow logically from descriptions.

Most contemporary ethicists assume that they do.

Most contemporary ethicists derive prescriptions from descriptions by means of the hypothesis that moral properties are supervenient properties.

This moral property supervenes on these natural properties.  These natural properties obtain.  Therefore, this moral property obtains.

The first premise is a description, not a prescription.  It is not the kind of moral principle that shows up in elementary textbooks to illustrate Hume’s observation.

Worse, there is no evidence of any sort that any claim of the type is true.  There is no empirical evidence, no logical proof, and no conceptual analysis that shows that it is true.

I am aware that if two actions are otherwise identical, then it is impossible for one to be right and the other wrong, say.

But it does not follow that moral properties are supervenient properties.

Instead, it could be the case that it is impossible for one action to be right and the other wrong because it is impossible for both to be compatible with a moral principle.  (More precisely perhaps, it is impossible for their true descriptions both to be compatible.)   A legal analogy helps here.  If a new statute is enacted, actions are either compatible with it or not.  But we never say that the lawfulness (or unlawfulness) of the actions supervenes on their non-legal properties.  If supervenience talk is superfluous in the legal case (and it is), it could be superfluous in the moral case as well.  Furthermore, if “supervenience” is defined so broadly (and its meaning is stipulated by philosophers) that it includes the consistency case, then it is defined so broadly that it mystifies rather than clarifies.

Mystification enables the implausible to abstract credibility from the plausible. It is no virtue.

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Ways in which philosophy depends on ignorance of evolution

Not all philosophical cleverness and sophistication is relevant to an understanding of the actual world.


Natural selection is destructive.  If being ethical reduces fitness, it will destroy any ethical organism.  So, if your ethical theory does not explain how ethical beings endure in a biologically hostile environment, it is worthless.  Bentham, Aquinas, Kant, and Aristotle – none of them provides a useful starting point.  Contemporary philosophers who follow in their footsteps contribute nothing of value.

Freedom and Responsibility

Do we have free will?  The question is whether organisms with specific properties, including an evolutionary and an individual history, are free.  The boundaries of the organism are determined by its skin.  You cannot use its own properties or its own histories to prove that it is not free.  With arguments that appeal to either excluded, it is obvious that we are free enough to be morally responsible.  You can get started on an argument against free will only if you reduce individuals to something less than an organism, only if you philosophically alienate their bodies.


Beliefs are not adaptations.  There is no natural selection for the beliefs we acquire throughout our lives.  What is an adaptation is the capacity to acquire beliefs.  The beliefs have to be advantageous to the organism.  But advantageousness is not always revealed at the time of acquisition.  Instead, it is revealed in the future.  Since advantageousness is not detectable in the present, we need a proxy for it.  The only plausible proxy is truth as correspondence.  Therefore, the correspondence theory of truth is true.

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Geocentric Politics in a Heliocentric World

The normative content of my moral theory boils down to this:  we have to minimize the losses (deaths or significant injuries) suffered by other members of the moral community, but we do not have to do so by ourselves suffering death or significant injury, and we must not act as though we are worth more than any other member of the moral community.

The equality provision entails that free riders are wrongdoers.

I will now speculate.  I suspect that people on the left emphasize the importance of minimizing losses in the community while people on the right emphasize minimizing the number of free riders.  I suspect that people on the right think that people on the left are abetting the free riders out of a misplaced sympathy for them.  If so, the more people on the left attack people on the right, the more the latter will be disposed to resist and reject the positions advanced by people on the left.

One question that now arises is whether, if there are free riders, people on the right have correctly identified them.

In the old days, when we were hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers, it was fairly easy.  Free-riders were individuals who could support themselves but who did not.  They were people who did not hunt, gather, or farm.  They were people who did not work.

In the contemporary world, however, employable people who do not work are not necessarily free riders.  The government maintains what is called the natural rate of unemployment in order to keep the system functioning.  If too many people get jobs, the government raises interest rates to throw some of them out of work again.  The interaction of government policy and employer preferences results in people literally becoming unemployable.  Such unemployables are not exploiters but the exploited.  They deserve compensation because they have been sacrificed to keep the system running.

I will now speculate a bit more.  The problem with the contemporary right is not their principle but their overemphasis on it and their application of it.  The problem is that they think that it is possible to identify free riders using a criterion that is inappropriate in the contemporary collectivist world of the market economy, whose institutions and operations they do not understand.

Misguided righteous indignation is a potent political weapon.

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Not Fit for Purpose

Here are two questions for moral theorists.

1)  Could people do wrong if your moral theory was true?

2)  Could people do right if your moral theory was true?

It is obvious that most moral theorists would answer both questions in the affirmative.

But if people could do wrong, then there could also be natural selection for a disposition to do wrong when doing wrong would increase the wrongdoer’s fitness.  (There are obviously cases in which doing wrong could increase the wrongdoer’s fitness.  For example, stealing food during a famine could make the thief more viable and committing rape in wartime could make it more probable that the rapist would have offspring.  Biological fitness is a function of viability, fertility, and the trade-offs between them.)

If there were natural selection for a disposition to do wrong when doing wrong would increase the wrongdoer’s fitness, the disposition would tend to render people unable to do right.

So, in a world in which people are products of evolution by heritable variation and natural selection, if people could do wrong, then they would tend to be unable to do right.

Conversely, there would be selection for a disposition to do right when doing right increased fitness.  In such cases, people would tend to be unable to do wrong.

We take it as obvious that the answers to the questions set out at the beginning are both affirmative.  In an evolutionary world, however, the answers should both be negative.  Hence, moral theorists have to explain how the answers could be affirmative in the actual world, which is an evolutionary world.  Therefore, moral theorists have to engage with the theory of evolution and have to explain how their moral worldview can be compatible with evolution by heritable variation and natural selection.

As a matter of fact, most moral theories are not fit for purpose.

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The Uselessness of Utilitarianism

Why do philosophy courses still include utilitarianism?  Why is it regarded as a contender?

There is literally no evidence that any utilitarian principle is true.  There never has been and, after hundreds of years of its failing to appear, there is no reason to think that there ever will be.

Bentham attacked a straw man to make his own theory appear credible in comparison.  His bete noir was intuitionism.  He contended that there was no way to distinguish reliable from unreliable intuitions.  But he ignored the intuitionist explanation that intuitions were unreliable when they were contaminated by error or ignorance with respect to what lawyers call material facts.

It is impossible for utilitarians to undermine that reply to his objection because utilitarian judgments can also be contaminated by error or ignorance.  They have the same problem, and need the same solution, as intuitionists.

The best explanation for the rise of utilitarianism is English politics:  parliament found its “alternative facts” useful in its struggle with the judiciary over whether judges could invalidate legislation.

Utilitarians like Peter Singer declare that we should reason with ourselves.  But there is a difference between using reason to apply the utilitarian calculus and using it to justify its application.  It is easy to do the former but impossible to do the latter.

Utilitarianism has counter-intuitive results.  In the trolley cases, our intuitions tell us to direct the trolley so that it kills one stranger on one track rather than five on another but that we should not throw a fat man in front of the trolley to stop it.  Even if we can convince ourselves that we should sacrifice the fat man, we cannot convince ourselves that we should throw ourselves or our children in front of the trolley.  But utilitarianism is just as insistent that we sacrifice ourselves or our children as it is that we sacrifice corpulent strangers.

The fact that utilitarians see no difference between the two types of trolley cases reveals the crudeness of their thinking.  We have a different relationship to the fat man than we have to the stranger on the track.  If we throw the former onto the track, we commit ourselves to conceding that it would be all right for others to do the same to us or our offspring.  We do not acquire the same commitment when we switch the trolley to a different set of tracks.  Given the odds and our ignorance of the identity of the individuals involved, we are happy to commit ourselves straightforwardly to minimizing the loss of human life in those circumstances.

The fact that utilitarians are committed to sacrificing themselves or their children for strangers puts them at odds with evolution.  The commitment would reduce their viability or fertility – their fitness – and utilitarians need to explain how morality could persist in an evolutionary world if their theory were true.  In other words, they need to explain why they are not as crazy as creationists.

The one thing utilitarians are good at is churning out results by applying their theory.  Thus, it provides jobs for philosophers – easy jobs.  And keeping it on the curriculum gives philosophers something to talk about in classes.  But the jobs are not worth doing.  And the teaching is counter-productive insofar as it serves to discredit morality as an idea and to make it easier for psychopaths to pass.

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A Victim of the System

I attended a social event at which another guest expressed indignation about injustices he had suffered or would suffer.

First, he was indignant that the gay man who spoke to Ivanka Kushner on an airplane had not been arrested.  He was certain that the man would have been arrested if he had not be gay.  I investigated later and the witnesses said that he did not raise his voice.   It sounded as though he was nervous and steeled himself to speak up but he did not shout.   Consequently, I do not know what the hypothetical heterosexual would have been arrested for.

Second, he was indignant that Canada’s health care system treated people for knee replacements on a first come/first served basis so that sometimes undeserving individuals got repaired before deserving individuals.  I believe he needed a knee replacement and regarded himself as deserving because he worked at a well-paid job.

He regarded these complaints as legitimate grievances.  If the privileged can regard themselves as hard done by, it is no wonder that politics can become bizarre.

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The Wrong Role Model

Some ethicists argue that we have obligations in virtue of our nature.

“You are a rational being.  Rational beings are consistent.  Therefore, you ought to be consistent.”

I suspect that they think they are modelling their argument on the following kind of argument.

“You are a trustee.  Trustees act in the best interests of the beneficiaries.  Therefore, you ought to act in the best interests of your beneficiaries.”

But I think their argument actually resembles the following kind of argument.

“You are Japanese.  Japanese exhibit gaman (我慢).  Therefore, you ought to exhibit gaman (我慢).”

The second argument is plausible because the role of a trustee is a creation of the law and that is in the background.  The third argument is implausible because we do not have the same kind of normative background.

Some ethicists are no more rational than Japanese nationalists.

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The Kantian Slaveholder

Immorality is not reducible to inconsistency:   a Kantian can consistently own slaves as long as he doesn’t believe that they are ends in themselves.

If this isn’t the final word, we must distinguish between actual consistency and what we can call ideal consistency, concede that the Kantian slave-owner is actually consistent, and maintain that he is ideally inconsistent.

It is easy enough to make the distinction and the concession but we cannot show that he is ideally inconsistent.

To prove that the Kantian slave-owner is ideally inconsistent despite being actually consistent, we must establish both 1) that he morally ought to believe, or logically must believe, or willy-nilly ends up believing, and 2) that what he believes ought to be true, or must be true, or willy-nilly ends up being true.

The reason we must establish both is that someone can maintain actual consistency either by failing to add an inconsistency-causing belief to his repertoire or by adding its negation.  This is a general point about consistency. For any consistent set of propositions and for any proposition that would render the set inconsistent if it were added to the set, the consistency of the set can be maintained either by not adding the proposition at all or by adding its negation. This set is consistent: {If we are in Saskatoon, we are in Saskatchewan; If we are in Saskatchewan, we are in Canada; We are in Saskatoon}.  Adding “We are not in Canada” would render the set inconsistent.  We maintain consistency if either we don’t add “We are not in Canada” or we do add “It is not true that we are not in Canada.”

But it is impossible to establish both that the Kantian slaveholder ought to believe and that his beliefs ought to be true on the ground that he would be inconsistent unless he believed and unless his beliefs were true.  You need some other grounds to prove that he ought to believe and that he ought to believe truly.  There is the same problem with the logical and causal options.  Therefore, immorality is not merely inconsistency.

Some try to appeal to the contention that beliefs necessarily aim at the truth.  But it will not get us what we need. First, it does not show that the Kantian slave-owner ought to believe, must believe, or willy-nilly ends up believing the relevant propositions.  Second, even if he has a propositional attitude that is like a belief in all other respects but that does not aim at the truth, it does not follow that it is a defective belief that ought to be replaced. What follows is that either it is a defective belief or it is a perfectly good specimen of a different kind of thing – it is impossible both to use an essential property to categorize things and to use its absence to criticize the same things.  But if we can’t establish that it is a defective belief, we can’t establish that it ought to be true.

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Ptolemaic Ethics

It would be scandalous if there were university departments in which Ptolemaic cosmology still predominated, if there were journals devoted to publishing clever papers by Ptolemaic scholars, and if Ptolemaic scholars were oblivious to the challenge posed by Copernican cosmology.

An even more scandalous situation exists with respect to ethical theory.  It has been more than 150 years since Darwin published On the Origin of Species but ethicists are still grinding out papers about the theories advanced by Bentham and Kant, and their intellectual descendants.   And many ethicists who lost hope that either of those approaches would ever succeed have responded by returning to Aristotle.  They are all oblivious to the challenge posed by the theory of evolution by heritable variation and natural selection, as are proponents of the divine command theory and Thomistic natural law.

In the long run, natural selection would destroy the lineages of people who tried to live according to any of those theories.  First, people can violate the obligations the theories hypothesize.  Consequently, evolution can create dispositions to act discordantly with the theories.   Second, the theories require their adherents to do something other than try to maximize their genetic legacies.  Thus, trying to live according to the theories would reduce fitness to a significant extent.  And, third, ‘strongly inadaptive features hold little prospect for an evolutionary legacy because natural selection must soon eliminate them.’  [Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA:  Belknap Press, 2002), p. 1247.]   The upshot is that if any non-evolutionary theory were true, humanity would have ended up being amoral.  Since humanity still cares about morality, the non-evolutionary theories must all be false.

The question that arises in these circumstances is why people continue to promote these theories.  One factor, I suspect, is the availability error.  The theories are regular fodder in courses on ethics, which results in people taking them more seriously than they should, which results in their being taught in ethics courses.  Another is probably that you can make a good living contributing to these intellectual traditions.  You can be hired by other devotees of the tradition and you can be published in the journals they edit.  As Upton Sinclair pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”  [Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor:  And How I Got Licked (Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press, 1994), p. 109.]   Finally, these traditions have massive defenses in the form of the literature.  Critics can be dismissed when they have not read and rebutted a great deal of theoretical bumf.

But the fact remains that a great deal of philosophical ethics is no better than theology.

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Naked Usurpation

The limited liability corporation is a wonderful invention, which has made us collectively much richer than we would have been otherwise.

The limited liability corporation is a legal person.  As a legal person, it cannot have all the rights of a natural person, that is, a human being.  It cannot enter into marriage, for instance.

The limited liability corporation is the creation of legislation.  As the creation of legislation, it cannot be other than a person for commercial purposes only.  It is a person so that it can enter into contracts, for instance, and so that lawsuits can be brought against it.

Under our system of law, the role of judges is not to legislate but to interpret legislation.

I submit that judges who decide that corporations are persons for purposes other than commercial ones are engaged in “a naked usurpation of the legislative function under the thin disguise of interpretation,” to quote Lord Simonds’ magnificent put-down of Lord Denning in Magor and St. Mellons [1952] A.C. 189.

I submit that any judge who would interpret the personhood of a corporation so as to attribute to it the right of free speech other than for commercial purposes, say, is as daft – and acts as unlawfully – as a judge who would give corporations the right to marry.

I submit that it is the duty of superior courts to quash extravagant interpretations of corporate personhood by lower courts and that, if it is the highest court that has been extravagant, then it is its duty to reverse itself.  It is the duty of the legislature to explicitly reject the extravagant interpretations.

“Realists” will retort that these things will never happen but sometimes the first step in achieving a goal is stating what ought to be the case.


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