Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Role of Social Science in Moral Philosophy

EconLog's wise Bryan Caplan had a few interesting thoughts on hypotheticals while I was travelling recently (here and here). Like him, I believe hypotheticals are of vital importance to understanding the world in situations in which reality is too complex for understanding to be reached in any other way. This post is to clarify one point of contention which I believe prevents sound thinking on the issue, namely when "obviously unreal" assumptions may be used in a thought experiment. In short, the assumptions must not themselves imply logical contradictions, or imply other things which make them impossible or prevent an assumed outcome from being reached.
Hypotheticals are to be used when they establish logically equivalent or near-equivalent scenarios in which morally (im)permissible courses of action are more easily seen. For example, if it is permissible for two consenting homosexuals to live together in a romantic relationship because they both so desire, why is it not permissible for two people to engage in a business transaction which they both desire? This example serves to isolate the aspect of consent. To argue against the implication that the business transaction should still be subject to regulation while the former should not - or that the former should be subject to the same set of regulations - requires that some aspect other than the one of consent be found which may differ between the cases.

However, hypotheticals must not violate the laws of logic or of social science (or any other established set of laws - i.e. natural laws as opposed to legislation). Just like one cannot assume that it neither rains nor does not rain (for one of them must be true), one must not assume things that are known to violate laws of science, social or natural. For example, it is not permissible to reason that, since the "dole" (or "resources") is available to anyone, all have a moral right to be fed by it sans working. This is in error because it requires that scarcity not be a feature of the world, but scarcity is an established fact of economics (and of commonsense, really). Incidentally, this is a problem with positive rights in general. Similarly, one cannot argue that prices in markets are more or less "just" (except for fraud), due to the workings of supply and demand.

If the last point is not clear, here is another example: Some might reason that it is permissible to fend off threatening individuals such as armed robbers by use of force even though resultant stray bullets may hit innocent persons, and that, by analogy, it is permissible to join the cause of some freedom fighter and use force - which could spill over unto innocent civilians - in order to remove a (sufficiently) bloodthirsty tyrant. However, as I have argued many times before on this blog (see, for instance, here, here or here, but here for some doubts), it may be a fact of social science that political outcomes are fairly robust because maximizing leaders tend to be sensitive to the underlying conditions of the political jurisdiction and are therefore required to pursue a particular set of policies. If so, the reasoning by analogy is false: joining the revolution is not permissible because nothing comes out of the revolution except more of the same and endangering innocent civilians is thus the only effect of the action.

Sometimes, there is no knowledge about whether the premises of hypothetical examples violate laws or not, and sometimes - as in the aforementioned example - the evidence is a little short of conclusive. Here, an example is offered by John Rawls' innovative Theory of Justice, which asks us to imagine ourselves behind a veil of ignorance where we do not know which position we are to take in society. I would say that we do not choose into which circumstances we are born (which maybe comes sufficiently close to Rawls' premises), but, on the other hand, perhaps the reincarnationists are right and those circumstances are rewards or punishments for what we did in previous lives (though maybe one did not choose before the first life?)? Or maybe we were "spirits" but forgot about it at birth?

One may wonder what happens to hypotheticals if social science becomes so advanced that its laws expand to include (almost) any social phenomenon. I believe such developments will never reach a stage in which accurate predictions can be made, but if society were found to function deterministically, no hypotheticals regarding society-wide phenomena would be allowed. However, hypotheticals would and should still be used to inform individuals of their morally optimal behaviour.

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