Tuesday, July 16, 2013

[PHI 2200] I don't want to impose but...

Over at Steinblog, Jesse Steinberg discusses an interesting argument from Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of Ethics that goes like this:
  1. If there were a universal ethic, then that would make it okay for some people to impose their views on others.
  2. But that's not okay at all.
  3. Therefore, there is no universal ethic.
I think that the term 'impose' is problematic here.

So what if we replace it with 'persuade'. Then the argument would run as follows:
  1. If there were a universal ethic, then that would make it okay for some people to (or at least try to) persuade others that their moral views are worthy of acceptance.
  2. But that's not okay at all.
  3. Therefore, there is no universal ethic.
This argument is also formally valid. But do the premises seem more or less plausible now?


  1. I think the problems with this argument are far greater than just the problem with premise 1, Professor. As a matter of fact I believe this argument is not even deductively valid.

    Starting with the first premise, the existence of a universal ethic does not mean that it is OK for people to impose their views on others. In fact imposing one's views on others, regardless of whether one's views are true or not, may be immoral according to the universal ethic.

    The second premise is far more problematic. The only way in which we can say that something is definitely NOT moral is if a universal ethic exists. If we don't assume a universal ethic exists, then premise two has to be paraphrased in one of two ways: "I think that doing so is immoral" or "according to my culture that is immoral". Now if we think of premise 2 as the declaration of an opinion, the argument is no longer persuasive at all. Merely stating an opinion does not in any way jeopardize the existence of a universal ethic.

    So the argument assumes the thing it intends to disprove. I have seen this done sometimes before, but isn't this a huge fallacy? If it is a fallacy, then I am surprised the professional philosopher would not notice it when he was creating the argument. Professor, do you think this remark of mine is accurate and if so is it a fallacy?

    1. Hi Arturo, thanks very much for your comment. I think you are right that the argument would be fallacious if it were to assume what it is trying to prove. So perhaps there is a better way to state this argument; a way that makes it not obviously fallacious. Maybe the argument is meant to be a reductio (http://www.iep.utm.edu/reductio) that goes something like this:

      Suppose that (1) there is a universal ethic.
      If (1), then (2) It is okay to impose one's views on others.
      But (2) is false.
      Therefore, (1) is false.

      Do you think this restatement of the argument is better?

    2. Yes, I see much more clearly what the philosopher is trying to do now. As I see it, he's trying to argue against a universal ethic on the basis that accepting such belief would derive in a logical inconsistency. But I'm still not sure if I understand the argument.

      I think the premise "But (2) is false" is more clear if we state "But assuming a universal ethic, (2) is false" for he is making a statement that is relevant only if a universal ethic is assumed. Again, if this premise doesn't assume this, it is just an irrelevant opinion. But if this is the case, didn't the author just state that if we assume a universal ethic exists, it would be OK for people to impose their moral views? So what is the author saying? That if we assume a universal ethic exists, then it is both moral and immoral to impose our views on people (a result which is illogical and consequently universal ethics are illogical)?

      If that is what the author argues, the argument is very interesting. But I don't think it demonstrates much because the author still needs to verify the premise that assuming a universal ethic exists, it is okay to impose (Impose here meaning forcing others into a particular belief. If impose means "persuade", what is so immoral about that?) one's views on others. As the premise right after states, that actually seems immoral. And there is no particular reason to believe that the universal ethic would disagree with my perception and his perception on the issue.

      Have I misunderstood the argument?

    3. Arturo, I think you have a fairly good grasp of the argument. In a reductio, one supposes a claim (but does not assert it) in order to derive an absurd consequence from it. The absurd consequence is supposed to show that the initial claim must be false (see this: http://youtu.be/sVUMAqMmy7o).

      I think you do make a good point, however, that from "there is a universal ethics" it doesn't necessarily follow that "it's okay for some to impose their views on others." As I propose in the post, perhaps all that follows from "there is a universal ethics" is that "it's okay for some to persuade others." But then that doesn't seem so objectionable.

    4. Exactly, it is not clear what is immoral about trying to persuade others into a true belief. Indeed the author is persuading us into the "true belief" that a universal ethic does not exist, so the argument is immoral by the standard here expounded.

      Not that that observation deems the argument fallacious, but it goes to question whether the author truly believes premise 1 to be true.


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