Re: Science and Philosophy
Thu, 9 Sep 1999 18:58:40 -0700

Dan Fabulich, <>, writes:
> However, as regards ethics, it is certainly wrong, ethically speaking, to
> conclude that ethics is a circular/pointless endeavor. I've made this
> argument several times on this list before; Eliezer uses a similar
> argument as the underpinning of his theory of the Interim Meaning of Life.
> Basically, the idea is this: ethical theories describe what action we
> should perform. So suppose we're trying to decide between action A and
> action B. Let's also suppose that we have an Ethical Theory (tm) which
> claims that we should perform action A.

An ethical theory "E" can then be considered a way of ranking actions, given the circumstances. E is perhaps an algorithm or formula which, given the situation, can tell which action is ranked highest.

Note that this is a fairly permissive definition, since it would include a number of rankings which do not have anything to do with ethics. However I am not sure how to tighten it up without making it circular (i.e. saying that E tells how "ethical" things are doesn't seem to help).

> Now consider the possibility that the whole ethical question is
> necessarily circular in nature, and that therefore it does not matter what
> we decide.

The way I see this is, we hope that there is a "best" ethical theory out there, which we might call E* (E-star). Our ethical theories E1, E2, E3, ... are, we hope, converging on E*. As we learn more we improve our ethical theories and eventually we may come up with the perfect one.

If this is not the case, there is no E*. There is no best ethical theory, and any ranking is as good as any other ranking.

> Well, the possibility that "it doesn't matter" does not
> provide me with any reason to make any decision over any other; if my
> theory tells me to choose A, I'm not going to choose B simply because it
> doesn't matter which I choose. More to the point, the claim that "it
> doesn't matter" will NEVER give me ANY reason to change my mind either
> way; thus, when making a decision, this possibility drops out of the
> equation. Thus, I can always ACT as if (ie assume that) the ethical
> question is not pointless, as long as there is some possibility that it
> isn't.

It seems to me that if you go back to your first point, if you are following an ethical theory E, you have a ranking and you know what to do. If your justification in following E was the hope that it is an approximation to E*, and you now deny that hope, then you are no longer justified in following E. You suggest that you might as well follow E anyway, because:

If E* exists, and E is a good approximation to it, then what E selects is a good thing to do; if E* doesn't exist, then what E selects is no worse than anything else.

The problem I see with this is that if you are willing to consider the possibility that E* doesn't exist, it would follow that your whole program of believing in E was so fundamentally misguided. If you are willing to consider such a big leap from your premises, isn't it incumbent upon you to consider the smaller leap that says that E is not a good approximation to E*?

You are arguing that the possibility that there is no E* should not change you from following E. But if you consider that as a realistic possibility, you must consider the possibility that E is a totally incorrect ethical system as an even more realistic possibility. In that case you should certainly not follow E.

What evidence do we have, really, that E or any other ethical system is an approximation to E*? It seems to me that whatever reasoning would eventually establish the existence of E*, it is far beyond anything philosophers have come by to date. It may be that E* is simply ultimate selfishness, or a devotion to total destruction. We have no evidence one way or the other.

So I don't see that the potential existence of E* gives us any reason to follow any particular ethical system today.

> Thus, unless you are absolutely certain that no action is better than any
> other, even if it's only better from your perspective, (which is a pretty
> implausible view to take, IMO,) you should not conclude that ethics is a
> pointless endeavor. And, thus, we can safely assume that the question of
> ethics is not circular.

Isn't it possible that studying ethics is objectivelly bad, according to E*? How can you justify any course of action, not knowing what E* says?

> Of course, this proof doesn't tell you which theory of ethics is actually
> correct, but it does at least show that the project is not hopeless.

This all smacks of Pascal's wager. He worshiped God so that he would be rewarded if God existed, knowing that all was pointless anyway if God didn't exist. The flaw is that he may be worshiping the wrong God. It seems that your reasoning is in danger of the same loophole.