Re: Is/Ought boundary (was Re: Trans-extropian principles)

Eric Watt Forste (
Wed, 31 Jul 1996 01:56:02 -0700

>Thanks! Makes sense, with a few fuzzy spots that probably stem from
>my own ignorance. I like the idea that the next step in a long term
>plan to accomplish a goal doesn't change much when you change the
>goal. I'm not too clear on the distinction between extrinsic and
>intrinsic goals, though.

Intrinsic goal: get some honey. Why? Because you just happen to want some

Extrinsic goal: raise bees. You don't really care about the bees, you just
want the honey. This is why Aristotle said that extrinsic goals partake of
drudgery. Of course, this is a specifically extrinsic goal (it doesn't help
you with anything other than getting honey), not a generalizably extrinsic
goal like seeking truth or dealing justly with your fellows.

Not having to change the next step in your long term plan when your long
term goal changes is especially helpful when you have no idea exactly what
it is you're going to be doing in two centuries. ;) A nice aspect of
generalizable extrinsicity is that it makes it possible to live rationally
without any specific long-term goals.

>I think I make a smaller whimsical decision than you do. If I run
>around chopping off people's heads, then eventually they'll get
>together and stop me, probably by doing something functionally
>equivalent to chopping off my head. (We're talking unfriendly human
>interaction here, not neurosuspension. :-) Thus running around
>chopping off people's heads isn't part of any long-term plan. So
>instead of whimsically deciding to constrain your goals to accord to
>natural law, you can whimsically decide to have a long-term plan.
>This (to me) feels like a smaller assumption, especially because I
>don't know what you mean by "natural law".

It sounds like you and I are talking about the same thing, except that I
wasn't able to wash off all the technical jargon implicit in the
complicated (but, I hope, precise) argument that I may be trying to make

"Natural law" is the sticking point you run into when people start saying
"good and bad are entirely subjective". Nobody worth discussing these
things with really believes, deep down inside, that the wrongness of murder
is entirely subjective. To me, natural law means the stuff that human
societies have universally found it wise to prohibit, through trial and
error over the course of history. This is a fuzzy set, of course. It's the
kind of thing you'd find on the law books of extreme minarchist
libertarians (like maybe Rothbard). It's a weird idea, but it's an
important one to me.

I'm beginning to suspect that values are on a tree-like spectrum, and at
one end you have mere matters of taste and mood, twigs branching and waving
and changing from person to person and time to time, and at the other end
you have the "trunk" of the "natural law": the prohibitions against murder
and plunder, the stuff that *everyone* really knows is wrong. The middle
branches in between these two extremes are what I think most people tend to
mean by "morality", especially when they're inveighing against it. But the
sort of morality that I'm interested in is the stuff at the trunk, which it
seems can neither be wished away nor adequately explained. Yet.

They're weird ideas, sure, but I don't really know how to get away from
them. So I keep thinking about them from time to time. It's a hobby.

>Sounds interesting. Can you post a reference?

Um, Gauthier deals with justice only, I think. The review I wrote of his
book is up on the web at

He comes at this problem from two directions: the prisoner's dilemma and
the problem of externalities in economics, and he comes up with a newish
theory of rational behavior (contra Harsanyi and the classical game theory
crowd), a "constrained maximization" that seeks optimal outcomes instead of
equilibrium outcomes in those situations in which the optimum and the
equilibrium don't coincide. The easiest way to try to sum up his theory, I
think, is that it represents a solution to the prisoner's dilemma which is
midway between Axelrod's TIT-FOR-TAT (which can't be demonstrated rational
in one-shot interactions) and Hofstadter's "superrationality" from
Metamagical Themas, which ethical skeptics have a hard time with.

Eric Watt Forste <>