Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Sophistry and Subjectivity

Dear Mr Wright,

Moving on from our discussion of your spurious notions of virtue and vice in our previous letter, we were most amused by your attempt to magic morality into objectivity by a sleight-of-hand bootstrapping. Let us consider your argument, such that it is. Basically, you ask whether we ought to be honest or dishonest when we make an inquiry as to whether morals are subjective. According to your logic:

If the answer is that we ought to make this inquiry dishonestly, then (a fortiori) we are not bound the results. For a dishonest thinker is under no moral obligation to accept a conclusion to which his logic drives him; even if he loses the argument, a dishonest thinker is not under a duty to change his mind or mend his ways. For what will impose the moral duty upon the dishonest thinker to conform his thoughts to the conclusions dictated by reason? Why must he be truthful even to himself? Why listen to his conscience?

For the most part this is just badly thought-through. If our inquirer's logic drives him to a conclusion that he would be dishonest not to accept, then the honesty of his inquiry is not the problem. If his reason leads him to a conclusion dictated by logic that he would be dishonest not to confrom his thoughts to, again the problem is not with the honesty of the inquiry. The problem is with a dishonest response to its results, a refusal to "listen to his conscience" in accepting the outcome. And given that we're positing an inquiry, the notion that our thinker is concerned with losing arguments, changing his mind or mending his ways is simply irrelevant to the issue at hand. In short these ramblings bear no relation to the issue, the only relevant problem being that which you articulate in the penultimate rhetorical question. Which is to say, if we are not bound by the results, it is because we canot assume our inquirer -- call him Mr Wrong -- has been truthful to himself in the process of the inquiry.

This is to say, we cannot assume that Mr Wrong has even reached the right conclusion, that Mr Wrong's logic has driven him anywhere other than round in circles, that Mr Wrong even knows he has lost the argument, that Mr Wrong would have any reason to change his mind or mend his ways, that Mr Wrong will not, in fact, be conforming his thoughts to an utterly specious conclusion dictated by entirely a self-deluding reason, that Mr Wrong will not be "listening to his conscience" and yet still be entirely untrustworthy because the lies he tells himself utterly undermine any ability Mr Wrong has to make a rational inquiry.

This is the actual result of the first answer. We do hope you appreciate us making your argument for you properly, Mr Wright. We will be puncturing it shortly; it's just that we hate to see this sort of ham-fisted blather left in such a sorry state that it invites certain unfortunate comparisons with the very Mr Wrong it describes. But on to the other option:

If the answer is that we ought to make this inquiry honestly, we necessarily thereby acknowledge at least one universal moral duty: the duty to think honestly. This duty is universal because the only other possibility, that we have no duty to think honestly, is not something we honestly can think... So we can at the minimum conclude that there is at least one moral duty to which the conscience prompts us, and this duty is a universal, which means it is an absolute, which means that the statement that all moral duties are relative is false.

Unfortunately, this is also rather badly thought-through. If the answer is that we ought to make this inquiry honestly, we do indeed assert a duty to think honestly in this case, but this does not constitute an assertion of a universal moral imperative. We have asserted only that we have a duty to think honestly in regards to this inquiry. Where you attempt to unversalise this as a duty to think honestly at all times, we are afraid to say you rather run off the rails into another episode of bootstrapping, with the spliced-in additional premise that we cannot honestly think that we have no duty to think honestly. Unfortunately this is both an entirely separate assertion... and one that is completely spurious.

We think dishonestly all the time when we make up works of fiction, when we daydream, when we think in metaphors -- which we do constantly at a basic level of our language. We can think quite honestly that the root metaphors of language render the majority of abstract thought literally untrue but figuratively relevant even in its dishonesty, where for example we use the time=money metaphor or any number of similar systems (as identifed in the work of Lakoff). We can think quite honestly that much of our thought is figurative or symbolic and/or rhapsodic in such a way that honesty is not a relevant measure. Even in more mundane circumstances, we can think quite honestly that we are under no obligation not to fantasise. We can think quite honestly that we have no duty not to be Walter Mitty. We can think quite honestly that when we do think honestly, as we do habitually, it is not because we have a moral obligation but because it is a pragmatic imperative. We can think quite honestly that there are only pragmatic imperatives we discern as the logic of necessity, aesthetic imperatives we discern as desires for coherence and comprehensiveness of understanding, desires that predicate for honest thought, even individual ethical imperatives that translate such aesthetic evaluations of behaviour into an ideal self-image, asserting a personally-chosen obligation that we do not project onto others. We can think quite honestly that all purportedly universal moral duties are simply individual ethics formed in very same way, but expounded as essential absolutes by infantile moralists incapable of the post-conventional / autonomous ethics others live by, the sort of ethics that actually generates maxims of a more sophisticated form than, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," or, "Don't step on the grass."

Still, we will again pare away your illogic and help you out with your argument. Because, yes, if the answer is that we ought to make this inquiry into the subjectivity of morals honestly, we can at the actual minimum "conclude" that there is a duty to think honestly when we make an inquiry into the subjectivity of morals. This is called a tautology. Since we are feeling generous we'll grant, for the moment, that the answer is offered as a generalised answer to a generalised question, that the question is whether anyone and everyone who is making such an inquiry should, in all cases, do so honestly. We'll grant that if the answer is yes, this asserts a universal moral duty to make such inquiries honestly -- an essential absolute, a moral duty that is not relative.

Unfortunately, even if we accept this, it does not prove that all moral duties are objective, only that there is one objective moral duty: to be honest when we inquire into whether morals are subjective.

As far as the Elders of Sodom are concerned, working on an assumption that this principle, as a general rule, also applies specifically to each and every individual moral in turn, we rather think that by your logic we have a moral duty to actually apply it thus. The imperative to think honestly when we make such an inquiry means that it is a moral imperative to discover the truth about those morals presented as objective. This means that it is a moral imperative not to simply accept that claim on face value on the basis of another's word. That it is a moral imperative to reconsider any conviction born of a previous inquiry with each new set of circumstances -- i.e. in each situation where the imperative may be applied. That it is a moral imperative to discover any potential caveats and contingencies born of possibilities that were not previously considered. That we must treat each moral dictum's universality as unproven in order to evaluate it objectively -- i.e. honestly. That we must meet any such challenge with the honesty of engagement rather than a dishonest denial that this or that rule could possibly be other than objective. That those who do so are righteous given that they are following this one moral duty we have established as objective. That those who do not are wicked given that they are failing to adhere to this one moral dictum we've established as an essential absolute.

That ultimately this very moral imperative taken as absolute requires that we should treat all other moral imperatives as relative until, by a process of honest inquiry, we can decide, to our honest satisfaction, that, to the best of our knowledge, the action predicated by this imperative is indeed essentially capable of being universalised.

This is, we note, an argument that brings us, by way of Kant's Categorical Imperative, a substantial part of the way towards the exact ethics adhered to by the Elders of Sodom, in which the "the standard over-riding all others is that one must, with empathy in mind, use all one's ethical faculties in every situation in a passionate but reasoned attempt to make the best possible evaluation of the most ethical course of action."

We are heartened to see that your "proof" that "the statement that all moral duties are relative is false" is not just weakly constructed, but constructed so as to unravel under scrutiny into an outright demolition of absolutist morality so straightforward that we might almost think you an agent provocateur, a secret ally of ours bent on satirical sabotage of reactionary ideologies (in much the same way that some of us suspect Anne Coulter of being a radical leftist comedian after the manner of Sarah Silverman... only more so,) were it not for the fact that you do seem to think your arguments are sound. You do seem quite sincere. We do therefore rather wonder if perhaps there is an agent provocateur working away in your unconscious, playing merry havoc with your reason and blinding you to the gaping holes and logic-loops in your arguments. We can only hope that there is a part of you somewhere deep inside that sees the nonsense in your ethics and is doing its best to render it obvious, if not to you then to the sort of Good Sodomite who might be willing to highlight them.

(An aside. Ah, yes; the Good Sodomite. You know, there are those among the Elders of Sodom who claim the Good Samaritan was one of us. Sodomite, Samaritan, Sidonian -- it's all about the stranger, you see, the heathen, the infidel, the hated and feared Other whose morés are anathema, whose lifestyle seems debauched, whose cities seem dens of iniquity. The stranger who will nonetheless stop and help a wounded man even as that man's pious brethren pass him by, simply because we consider empathy to all a foundation-stone of ethics. In our version of the Great Destruction, you see, and in is the Jewish interpretation too, actually, the traditional one, inhospitability to strangers was the true crime for which our city was laid waste. And we learned our lesson, we did, in our exile as outcasts, from that day on swearing to spread our message of empathy for those we do not know and do not understand, throughout the cities of the world, to rebuild our Sodom in the interstices of every other city, every town and village, in the bars and cafés, in our words and works. We take our cue from Ezekial 16:53, you know. The restoration of our beloved Sodom is promised by your God. But I digress.)

The sad thing is that we're pretty sure you don't see the flaws in your arguments. You simply do not see, we think, the fact that your whole argument here -- even if we do not let it crumble into the implicit advocacy of honest interrogation of morals, even if we read it as you apparently intended, as a logical double-bind in which the question of whether we ought to be honest or dishonest when we make an inquiry as to whether morals are subjective leads either to an admonition of dishonesty that invalidates the inquiry or an admonition of honesty that amounts to an affirmation of an essential and absolute moral duty, even if we take the latter as "proof" that not all moral imperatives are subjective -- the whole argument is still sophistry.

We can see what you're trying to do here, but we're afraid you're not doing it very successfuly at all. You see, it's patently clear that the term "ought to" in the question renders it a question of the form "Have you stopped beating your wife?" It is a question designed so as to have only two possible answers, "We ought to be dishonest," or "We ought to be honest," both of which carry that same "ought to" and therefore accept the premise that we "ought to" do one or other, which is of course an acceptance that we "ought to" do something. Just as answering "Yes," or "No," to the question "Have you stopped beating your wife?" accepts the implicit premise that one was at some point beating one's wife, answering "Honest," or "Dishonest" to your question accepts the implicit premise that we are obliged to some form of action (whether it be one way or the other).

This is so transparent it's sophomoric.

A simple answer that knocks the whole house of cards down is that we are under no ethical obligation to be either honest or dishonest. We make no acknowledgement that there is a "moral duty" either way. We can be honest or dishonest as we choose. We can even do so according to the subjective morals we learned from our culture or the personal ethics we have selected for ourselves. We can say simply that, in our subjective opinion, we ought to do this or that, but that others will almost certainly think differently. In the "law and order" mentality in its most rigid form, the fundamental challenge to the social order often renders the very act of an inquiry into whether morals are subjective prohibited without exception. This is a dishonest denial, as far as we're concerned, because the question is always already asked, the inquiry always already begun, and this "moral" duty to defend the social order simply serves to silence that inquiry with a lie: that we must not ask that question. It is self-evident to us that our opinion that one it is right to ask honestly and their opinion that it is not (because it is not right to ask at all) are just that -- opinions. Subjective ethical evaluations.

Actually, as a writer, you should really be aware that even this criticism is unnecessary, as while you have set up a question where the only answers acceptable according to its form have a deontic modality written into them, you have selected the wrong deontic modality. Which is to say, in order to set your sophistic double-bind up properly, you would need to use "must" in the question rather than "ought to" since the latter, like "should," is only restrictive rather than prescriptive, the flip-side of the permissive "may". What I mean is, where the modality of the prescriptive "must" renders a statement an absolute imperative, a deontic necessity, the modality of restrictive "ought to" or "should" renders the action described in the statement preferred but not mandatory. If we "ought to" do something, this allows that we "may not". If we "ought not" to do something, this allows that we "may".

Had you asked the question in the form, "If the answer is yes, then must we make this inquiry honestly, or dishonestly?" then you would have had the sophistic double-bind you need to render the second answer the absolute moral duty you mean it to be -- "We must ask it honestly." This would not make it any more than a sophomoric, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" It would simply bring it up to that level. As it stands however it doesnt even work as that. Where you ask, "If the answer is yes, then ought we to make this inquiry honestly, or dishonestly?" the second answer only asserts a contingent restriction, "We ought to (but may not) ask it honestly." This simply does not articulate the absolute moral duty you appear to think it does.

Further, the deontic modality of "ought to" also functions as an imperative of practicality ("We ought to ask honestly (in order to achieve a true result.)") quite as easily as it works as an imperative of duty. Hell, it does so equally as easily as it functions as a boulomaic imperative, which is to say of desire, ("We ought to ask honestly (in the sense that we/I desire the inquiry to be honest)." One can, in fact, answer your question quite comfortably with the answer that "We ought to ask it honestly," taking both question and answer as an interrogation and assertion of the principle of honesty as regards such an inquiry on purely pragmatic and/or aesthetic grounds. Arguing the specifics of those grounds -- the pragmatic utility of finding the truth, of establishing a sound principle for future behaviour, the aesthetic preference for consistent theory, the pleasure of understanding, and so on, and so on, and so on, in an inexhaustable supply of reasons as to why honesty is simply "best practice" -- is, in fact, precisely what ethical evaluation is all about. What are the ramifications, the pros and cons, for us and others? And with empathy as a crucial weighting factor in that decision what should we do?

As far as we are concerned, on purely pragmatic and aesthetic grounds, your question is a no-brainer. Why must Mr Wrong be truthful even to himself? It is beyond staggering to the Elders of Sodom that you think this a sensible question, that you can see no reason for a man to be truthful to himself other than some spurious absolute essentialist universal moral dictum. Your modality of "must" is a bit more deserved here, but this is simply because it is a pragmatic necessity -- an epistemic imperative rather than a deontic imperative. Since the goal of inquiry is to establish truth, it stands to reason that the inquiry, to be a correctly formed inquiry, must be honest.

The utter vacuity of this pompous pretence of philosophy leaves us breathless. We take our hats off to you, Mr Wright, honest we do. In all the millennia we have roamed the earth since the Great Destruction, we have rarely seen such a gobsmackingly poor excuse for an argument. Do you seriously believe this? Do you honestly found your whole position on this sort of inchoate cross-wired illogic? If this is truly the basis of your beliefs, it is little wonder that those beliefs are so ethically addled. We would urge you to rethink your whole philosophy from the ground up, with a thorough -- and honest -- inquiry into the moralistic mindset that underpins it. We are trying our best to engage you as the "more rational man" than we, as you see it, make you out to be, to address your appeals for reasoned argument, but we are inclined to ape Hercules in his cleaning out of the Augean Stables, to be honest. There's seems little point in working our way through the whole sorry mess of manure, shovelling it out spadeful by spadeful, not when the whole construction is built on poisoned earth over a cess-pit of raw sewage.

Yours sincerely

The Elders of Sodom

Scribed by Hal Duncan


Blogger mbranesf said...

"In all the millennia we have roamed the earth since the Great Destruction, we have rarely seen such a gobsmackingly poor excuse for an argument."

Indeed, we have not. Fine work again. Hal!

3:24 am  

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