Saturday, December 31, 2016

Refining Welfarism & Moral Fallibilism

Refining Welfarism & Moral Fallibilism

A Renewed Look At Interests And Judgments

Semi poetic opener:

"Ask not what we can do for goodness, ask what goodness can do for us"

But more contentiously:

"Ask not what victimizers can do for rightness, ask what rightness can do for victims"

Now soak in the reversal:

"Ask not what goodness can do for us, ask what we can do for goodness"

And the corollary:

     "Ask not what rightness can do for victims, ask what victimizers can do for rightness"

The first set of quotes is foundationally suitable. That is to say; when reason-giving and explication bottoms out, as all things do, the initial set of quotes can be declared superior to the inverted set. The ideal analyzer has permission to declare them as superior even if the only way to get there is by fiat. No doubt, fiat is analytically icky, but it is rarely taken to be an invalidator of virtues like intellectual honesty. Do we arrive at intellectual honesty through something other than fiat? If so, what exactly? How might we prove to someone that they ought to value intellectual honesty over its competition?

You might think that a truth-seeker proclaiming the superiority of intellectual honesty –– and with it the inferiority of intellectual dishonesty –– is disanalogous to my proclaiming the initial set of quotes as superior to the inverted set. But what makes these proclamations disanalogous? Empiricism? Come now. It can't be that. The call to science is itself a non-empirical endeavour. Denial of this manifests in the circularity of a truth-seeker applying evidence to dissuade someone against their apathy or hostility towards evidence.

When it comes to intellectual honesty, the only competitor in town is intellectual dishonesty. Value the former, disvalue the latter. Simple as. The fiat, however icky, is left standing. The verdict stands tall despite its offputtingly unempirical [evaluative] origin. So it is with the above quotes, notably the first set. The only competition in town, after all, is the second set of quotes. The reversals. And they seem rather backwards, for goodness and rightness aren't persons or relational entities that can be harmed/benefitted in the first place. They are communicational tools, they are doxastic tools, and tools of all stripes should not be aggrandised as Something More.

To view them as something more makes me harken back to the theologian who holds that something is good because God wills it, not that god wills it because it is Good. Any such theologian confuses The Map for The Territory. The second set of quotes strike me as being guilty of the same.

If you are nodding along so far, we likely enjoy adequate overlap on core suppositions and other noteworthy things. If 'backwards' seems harsh, and you would rather see the second set of quotes declared reasonable by fiat, you will encounter harshness in what's to come.

The four quotes are fictional, for the record. A playful spinoff attributable to this unforgettable quote. This disclaimer is probably unnecessary, but including it can't hurt.

Priorities In Motion

At the risk of philosophic tackiness, I propose that everyone rank their primary areas of inquiry based on how interesting and underdiscussed each area is considered to be by the ranker. This should probably be done annually.

We're nearing the end of 2016, so here's my rank-ordering for the year:

I. Axiology

II. Morality

III. Realpolitik

IV. Metaphysics

V. Epistemology

Axiology > Morality > Realpolitik > Metaphysics > Epistemology

I. Axiology is at its best, so I contend, when it concerns itself not so much with investigations of moral or aesthetic value, but rather with enclosing or reducing gaps between duelling criterions of goodness. This settled, hyper-detailed systematizations of The Good take over with no apologies. The systems I take most seriously in this writeup contain the sort of blueprints that make them inseparable from creaturely interests. This may be too heterodox a picture of 'goodness' for some, and that's more or less the point. I look at some of the alternatives towards the end, but devote less time to them.

II. Morality = Resolving or dissolving rivalling criterions of rightness and/or betterness.

III. Political Methodology = Actively securing civility-upkeep by pacifying competing theories of fairness, justice, equality, desert... ideally in line with the criterions of axiology and morality.

IV. Metaphysics... too many items to mention here, but notably Determinism vs. Indeterminism.

V. Epistemology = Resolving or dissolving competing theories of knowledge-acquisition and belief-justification.

If your interpretations or priorities vary drastically from what I've put together here, let me know. I'm eager to revise and accommodate possible missing pieces.

This is a regular blog post, so some type of commitment to briefness seems appropriate. Thus, everything below contains "I. Axiology" only. I plan to add "II. Morality", "III. Realpolitik", "IV. Metaphysics" and "V. Epistemology" in the near distant future, as separate posts. As you may have guessed, I am in the midst of writing a book. The five sections I'm outlining here will comprise the book's five chapters. Axiology will be chapter one, such that the posts' chronology isn't merely tokenistic. I'm looking to have each chapter (in the works) undergo constructive criticism so that all five are in topnotch condition when the time comes to have them formalized.

Goodness Rightness

Axiology is not a highfalutin term for morality, nor is morality a redundant term for axiology. To speak of ethics without axiology, as public intellectuals are prompted to do, is to confine your commentary and worldly ire to behavioural and agential boundaries. Being preoccupied with the agent as well as the patient, to the equal degree that I have been, is an altogether different affair. Imagine having peculiar taste buds that dispose you to relish apples and oranges evenly. So much so that the two are not distinctive to the tongue in any way. Their unique tastes are blended together from the outset. When apples and oranges taste identically from day one, perceiving them as distinct items on the shelf becomes more and more difficult with the passage of time. After a certain point, their separateness is chalked up to a color-adjusted abstraction. The purchaser's papered acknowledgement of the difference is relegated to background noise.

The taster is still capable of phoning in accurate remarks about the disjunction, but he does this mostly out of reputational concerns. The fact remains though that apples and oranges are technically different fruits, just as axiology and morality are technically different disciplines (if I may call them that). This flag planted, some of my previous posts on ethics effortlessly jumbled the two, just as the above taster jumbles applies and oranges. I will atone for that jumbling here.

When you are in an evaluative mood, you may look squarely to the middle (axiology) for guidance and classification. If you're in a strikingly different mood, one that sees the brain yearning to cast judgments on agential affairs, perhaps even deontic affairs, you must look to the top (morality) for guidance and classification. Accordingly, axiological questions/answers will be amoral with respect to their expository grounding. What the enterprise of morality chooses to do with them from there on out is for professional and armchair ethicists to sort out.

The evaluator is not concomitantly the judger, nor is the judger necessarily working atop an evaluator's benchmark(s). When I'm in the mood to evaluate, I fixate on the acceptability or unacceptability of a given state of affairs. When I'm itching to cast judgments, I fixate on the acts and behaviors of fellow humans, dubbing their individual inputs as right/wrong or better/worse.

Internalizing discontinuities between the good and the right is easier said than done. This is certainly the case for those of us who promote suffering-focused ethics. For all I know, my coming to grips with this discontinuity was more of a slow-burn process than my blotchy memory presently has me thinking. There are several ways to speed up the process, assuming you even care to. One way is to recurrently posit a world where idyllic bliss-for-all is at its apex while pure viciousness makes its way into the hearts of everyone who draws breath. A masterfully proficient serendipity, this state of affairs.

The good/right discontinuity can be inversed so that nonstop hellishness is reserved for all persons despite agential virtuousness being everlastingly universalizable. This flipped case would be indicative of a bad/wrong discontinuity. No matter how you slice it, a kind of disjointedness between the good and the right starts to seem palpable. This of course doesn't mean that we are barred from arguing that the good is prior to the right, it just means that the good does not categorically engulf the right.

Nothing in our conceptual repertoires makes these "≠" cases impossible or implausible. This is one technique you can use to internalize good/right discontinuities; picturing them at their most trenchant. Another technique might be to recall the following on a daily basis:


Fortunateness ≠ Praiseworthiness

Unfortunateness ≠ Blameworthiness


Goodness ≠ Rightness

Badness ≠ Wrongness

A brisk nod to these "≠" pointers will prove insufficient however. To make the most of what's being put forth here, cognitive internalization of the discontinuities is a must. I want the "≠" symbol incised onto the mind, much like the crucifix has been with the minds of the devout. Momentary lip-service, or type-service, simply won't do. If I believed otherwise, I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of setting up niftily illustrative diagrams:

Take the fairly banal statement "Reality doesn't prescribe" as a starting point. Supplement it with "All prescriptions are notional". Pile on any other zinger you feel astutely conveys the factuality of descriptive/prescriptive segmentations. Attempts at pushback will consist of word-games and stock sophisms, typically rehashed from the confused past. Rarely do such manoeuvers leave the initiated in a speechless state. Indeed, there is no ought-making feature to any fabric of reality as we know it. However, none of this erases the reality and recognisability of interests qua interests. To outmanoeuver the non-descriptiveness of a moral judgment, simply fess up to its non-factual origins. This is not enough to undercut the evaluative status of interests. The trueness of interests is not up for grabs.

Condemnatory thoughts and utterances aim to capture rightness by shedding light on perceived wrongness. Interests, when realized, imperceptibly map onto goodness. If this much is allowed, it follows that the infamous is/ought gap is not the gap anyone should wage analytical wars over. A duly gapped take on interests and judgments persists in the wake of it. Reframing the matter in this way alleviates the speaker of moral dogmatism without obliterating realist understandings of intermediately 'good' and 'bad' states of affairs, shaped by earthly interests. The unbridgeable gap, in this respect, is the good/right gap.

Judgments, be they prescriptive or proscriptive, are uniquely ought-inducing. Interests observably carved into the world. We do not judge the existence of an interest, we detachedly spot it. Its presence is as spottable as the existence of the external world is. The evaluator can proceed in this fashion and still rebuff na├»ve realism, as I happily do. The indirect realist doesn't hold back on the external world's existence, for Indirect Realism parts ways with Direct Realism only in its affirmation of the perceptual intermediaries that arise between perceivers and objects. The lacuna at play is almost trivial and poses no real problem for our interest-spotting capacities, and certainly not for interest-manifesting realities. Such problems are posed by the lacunas of Idealism, Phenomenalism and Solipsism, but that's a separate post.

If you follow me in analogizing consciousness and perceptiveness to a blank paper for writing on, you will require a pen for certain assignments and a pencil for others. We might say of all STEM assignments that they mandate Penned Work, and of all philosophical assignments that they mandate Penciled Work. One is entitled to more boldness than the other. When our fallible ideas are penciled in, all we need to modify them –– or rid ourselves of them altogether –– is the eraser. With pens, only whiteout will do. Whiting out previous works is a chore. Positivists and Verificationists know.

The axiological-pencil doesn't come with an eraser on the back, which cannot be said of all pencils. Any moral-pencil is deflated by the monstrous size of its eraser. The starkest contrast between interests and judgments is observable here. Moral judgments being ontologically erasable at all times. Interests being... recognizably interests; etched in phenomena. Inerasable, as long as someone is drawing breath.

Moral judgments are chained to conative and affective mentation, meaning the judger's pencil is always at odds with an eraser that's attached to some other judger's pencil. Judgments being notoriously fast-paced compared to nonjudgmental/empirical modes of mentation. While mind-dependency cannot on its own devastate the possibility of moral wisdom, it should at least cast doubt on every thick version of metaethical realism; the belief that morality is truth-apt and falsity-apt (distinct from morality-as-thinly-wise + immorality-as-thinly-unwise).

Side Note: Oddly, a handful of semantic forms of realism snuck into metaethics during the latter stages of the Twentieth Century. These might be ignorable realisms, but they are said to have gained appreciable notoriety. I'm not so sure. On anecdotal counts, semantic-only realisms are staunchly underrepresented, especially once you venture outside (the academic bubble of) metaethics. At any rate, these recalibrations of 'moral truth' bear minimal resemblance to their classical predecessors, and are more akin to philosophical programs, i.e. Blackburn's quasi-realism. Programs that disavow metaphysical moral reality every bit as much as generic antirealisms do. In that sense, I see no reason to boycott what they're selling. The Deflationary Theory Of Truth seems to be doing some of the legwork here, programming 'moral realism' semantically much in the way representationalists and dispositionalists are free to program 'color realism' into validly projected terminological use. The deflationist appreciates thinness-over-robustness in other talks touching on (indirect) realism. I'd be shocked if supporters of deflationist-adjusted realism in metaethics came anywhere near a relative majority of meta-theorists, much less an absolute majority. The lion's share of metaethical realists are (on my readings) no truth-deflationists. They fixate on moral metaphysics and moral ontology, unapologetically forgoing thin conceptualizations in favour of thick ones. [End Note]

Is axiological realism doomed to draw from the same metaphysical dubiousness? Not in the slightest. The moment interests qua interests are accepted as provably descriptive, axiology is free to count itself among truth-apt domains. At least, in the foreseeable future. Axiologists may, then, dispense with antirealist leashes just as the trendoid does with any piece of outmoded attire. Keep just one set of interests neatly non-rivalrous across two or more parties (easily achievable) and axiological antirealism becomes axiological obscurantism. Shoo.

When a set of interests turn rivalrous, realist talk loses some or most or all of its justificatory force. But it is not axiological realism that must be surrendered at this juncture. It is instead metaethical realism that shall go, seeing as the axiologist has unjustly been recruited to play ethicist. The ethicist is the idealized resolver; the tiebreaker. If axiologists are cornered with assignments urging them to resolve tradeoffs, they are no longer just axiologists.


The moral dilemmas that continue to haunt my brain tend to be ones that bear similarities to distributive dilemmas, and resolving them concretely should not be the axiologist's trade. When you wrap your head around just how difficult lifeboat-style decisions can be in principle, the assignment is analogous to solving a postulatory unempirical puzzle. Chapter 2 supplies exhaustively detailed arguments as to why this is so.

Tradeoffs mandate contemplating, calculating and ultimately justifying a winning set interests under crudely imbalanced tug-of-war schemes (i.e. in accordance to betterness and worseness, for scalar theorists). Here the axiologist is past the point of merely establishing the good. Any post-established stage of interest-weighing shoves the spectator into the role of the moral decider, oceans away from goodness tout court. The original plausibility, and indeed provability, of interests qua interests remains unblemished, despite ensuing (moral) complications borne of tradeoff irresolvability.

Permit me now just one more painless analogy in two easily digestible parts. (1) axiology straightforwardly representing a written exam that procures the measure of a pupil's attained knowledge. (2) morality representing a percentage point that arbitrarily demarcates between a "passing grade" and a "failing grade". i.e. 49.9% makes for a "failing grade" whereas 50.0% makes for a "passing grade". The pupil's exam score and knowledge level is on the whole gatherable, despite the unempirical arbitrariness of our Pass/Fail frontiers.

As long as the exam is not forged along 'Multiple Choice' lines, crafty guesswork will not do the pupil any good. The specificity of traditional 'Essay' testing methods does wonders here. The epistemic purpose of the exam is served, in the realest sense of real. Nothing turns on its head due to the undeniable arbitrariness in settling on a minimally adequate "score threshold" that makes a passing grade passable and a failing grade failable. A certain performance level is picked, for no reason other than one has to be picked. As with axiology, recalling the initial amoral features of the task is always a thought away. Nothing turns on its head.

If the reader wishes to pass on my splintered approach to axiology and morality, fair enough. I can still, rather stubbornly, provide a backup framework that integrates the two and retains the gist of my point (on paper). Embed axiology into the first half of the North American alphabet, and morality into the second half.

Axiological Realism  =  A B C D E F G H I J K L M

Metaethical Antirealism  =  N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Nothing turns on its head during evaluations of letters A through M.

Everything is descriptively moot when it comes to letters N through Z.


I'll wrap up this (introductory?) section with an example that popularized the topic, if somewhat sloppily: A trip down memory lane to 2010 sees The Moral Landscape screaming out for some kind of mention. What did Sam Harris accomplish with TML? Did he shed light on some of the hardest, most complex moral stalemates and reset them for public consumption? Did he set out to debunk oppositional theories so as to show moral utterances producing true/false verdicts for layfolk to chew on? Did TML give off any indication that its author even considered such a task obligatory? I'm afraid not.

What Harris did in 2010 was articulate perfectly that every sentient brain has interests of some sort. Harris' big mistake was titling the book "The Moral Landscape" as opposed to "The Axiological Landscape" and applying moral rhetoric to non-agential circumstances, i.e. cosmic misfortune generating the "Worst Possible Misery For Everyone" versus cosmic fortune generating Something Way Better.

We The Creatures will always opt for something way better, seeing as we tend to not be myopically masochistic. But this fate is a cosmic procedure, not a decisional one. When it comes to grand impacts like these, we are not in the driver's seat. The "Something Way Better" world is clearly a more fortuitous world, axiologically speaking. Morally speaking, we know nothing of it. Harris could delve into more detail in his next big offering, but I'm not holding my breath. Based on recent podcasts and interviews, Harris' metaethical faith persists to this day. This is most unfortunate, because his intent was and remains pure; dispelling tired assumptions about irreligion and nihilism marching in lockstep. And I do mean tired assumptions.

Materialists needn't rely on the super-specialness of Metaethical Realism to quell unfounded fears about their unseemly ability to slide into moral apathy or worse, for it is chiefly through axiological disregard –– the unreasonableness of which I just covered –– that moral disinterest sets in. And so the abovesaid fears exemplify philosophic rashness, usually bolstered by theological supernaturalism. This preternatural affectation –– much like mysticism, transcendentalism or irrationalism –– does diddly squat in undermining welfare-guided axiologies.

Axiological Welfarism = Criterion Of Goodness (over Badness)

A systematized handling of welfare must, on my reenergized view, be construed as a twofold program for establishing human and nonhuman interests according to naturalistic and materialistic understandings of the world. Show welfare-minded axiologists the classificatory menu above and they will land on a single flavour of welfarism. I believe anything less than two flavours is bound to sell humans or animals short, while anything beyond two postures or overcomplicates matters.

As such, two welfarisms will prove better than one:

Readers familiar with my earlier works will have predicted this balance act between hedonism and preferentism. This duality arises out of a partitioning of what I like to call Broad Welfarism (foundational preferentism) and Narrow Welfarism (foundational hedonism). The broadness of preferentism fits well with the nuts and bolts of civilizational life (the reflective pockets of it, anyway) while the narrowness of hedonism is appurtenant to the nuts and bolts of Darwinian life (instinctual life).

Note that Anti-frustrationism wasn't sent packing, nor was it given the green light, because it comes across as too much of an offshoot –– arguably a synthesisation –– of hedonism and preferentism, both of which have already been selected. The paragraph above summarizes why hedonism and preferentism are best when they're kept apart rather than conjoined. That's strike one for any theory offering up a merger of the two. Antifrustrationism is more than a hybrid theory though; it attributes an axiological asymmetry to fulfilled/unfulfilled + created/uncreated preferences (and, one would think, to positive/negative hedonic states) such that badness (disvalue) of lives reigns and goodness (value) is nowhere to be found. Deprivationalism evidently checkmarks many of the same boxes. The validity/invalidity of these asymmetries is not germane to the purposes of this chapter. Even if Antifrustrationism or Deprivationalism are shown to be valid in some crucial sense, their input can only be constitutively fitting when our attentional zest is turned to pre-natal evaluations. Contrarily, this chapter aims to evaluate goodness/badness for extant persons only. The interests of "the unborn" will be considered in Chapter 2. For now, I'll stick with hedonism and preferentism as advertised, keeping in mind that we need not accept Antifrustrationism or Deprivationalism in order to understand with clarity that the so-called "unborn" cannot be harmed by remaining unborn, regardless of how full or empty the world happens to be at any moment.

Worse yet, treating Antifrustrationism as being more valid than plain Hedonism or plain Preferentism are (not just for pre-natal hypothetical patients, but for post-natal fleshspace patients as well) opens the door to the stringency of global promortalism. The longer you exist, the more frustrated your preferences become, day in and day out, with nothing good to show for it. No matter how minimally frustrated one's preferences are, the one-sidedness holds. It is possible to bypass this stringency without embracing global anti-mortalism or life-affirmation; simply downgrade conventional pro-mortalism so that its reach is local/particular rather than global/universal. If you decline and it remains steadfastly global, the luckiest person who ever lived would have been benefitted by an earlier death, since even he was unable to escape the frustration of some preferences or a subset of preferences. No matter who you are or how well your life goes, premature death must be welcomed on this view.

It can be argued that pro-death inferences of this stripe stem from inordinately wooden interpretations of Antifrustrationism. I will not engage objections from interpretive leeway at this time, and will simply take it as a given that global promortalism is the ideological cousin of Antifrustrationism commonly understood. Considering that I have criticized non-local promortalism –– aka promortalism-for-all –– numerous times over the years, I will proceed from here without the (ostensible) baggage of Antifrustrationism.

On that note, the renewed classificatory overview:


Hedonism vs. Preferentism vs. Asceticism vs. Perfectionism vs. Objective List Theories

[The remainder of this chapter scrutinizes the bottom three theories. Unfortunately, it will have to be published as a separate post. I made one too many adjustments and the chapter ran incredibly long as a result. Here's hoping that this is the only chapter I will have to split into multiple posts in the interest of brevity.

Part Two will be posted in a few days weeks months. I will provide a "Follow Up" link to it right here. If you have positive/negative feedback on any of the above, feel free to comment now. The rest of the chapter doesn't enhance any of the arguments put forth so far, so reading the rest is not necessary if you care to remark on anything from here.]