Friday, April 27, 2007

Verificationism in Social Philosophy

This post continues our series in verificationism. If you're just jumping in and it's not clear to you, scroll down and start at the beginning.

Any society S has a set of values. Now consider whether S should reject that set and adopt a new set. Suppose that some members of S recommend a "progressive" attitude and the judgment that S should make progress to a new set. There is a way to fill in the details so that we can know without examining the progressives' arguments that they are unsound.

Suppose the following facts about S's values. First, they are a coherent set. This means that S's members can live lives and behave in ways that fulfill the values of the set without violating any. This assumes that where two values give contrary prescriptions in a specific case, there is an ordering of precedence that decides which of the two overrides. This is matter of common-sense practical rationality, in which one decides, for example, that the importance of avoiding nuisances is overridden by matters of life and death. By the same token, the values of liberty and security are coherent even though in certain cases they yield contrary prescriptions. And some values, such as liberty and security, are always more important than others, so the coherent set of values includes a hierarchy, as well as a pattern of decisions, like case law, that shows the ways in which values of comparable weight are applied in cases in which they diverge in prescription. In any event, we don't need a lecture about coherence in practical reasoning. Suppose S's value set can't be faulted for its degree of coherence.

Second, suppose that S's values are consistent with all non-moral facts. They don't place blame based upon errors about agency and responsibility for action. They don't assign statuses of S's members based upon false views about the differences in capacity to perform or to suffer amongst various kinds of members of S. They don't assign punishments for crimes based upon errors about whether punishment deters crime. They don't recommend ways of life based upon errors about which ways will make which people happy. Etc. S's values are free of error in their assumptions about the non-moral facts.

Therefore, S's set of values is the set that S prefers. By "prefers" I mean that S is devoted to its values and there is no inconsistency in them or non-moral fact that could be raised that would give S internal grounds to revise the set. By "internal grounds" I mean grounds to eject one value from the set on the basis of others more important or central to the structure of the set.

Given these two facts, S can have no reason to revise its values. This is the Humean view that there can be no external reason for S to revise the set. A corollary to this claim is that progressivism, if it is the claim that S should adopt a new set of values even though the old set is coherent and free of error about the non-moral facts, is always false.

The reason is verificationistic. There is nothing that would count as evidence that S's value set, as described above, was wrong (either immoral or otherwise practically irrational.) No one has any idea what would count as evidence that the progressivist's recommendation was the right one. "S prefers its values yet ought to reject them" is a claim for which no one has an idea what would count as evidence for it.

This counts not only for the progressivist but also for the theistic reactionary. The progressive usually recommends that the wealthy members of S give more goods than they already do to the poor members of S. Aside from attempts to demonstrate that this position rests upon a more coherent construal of S's own values than that embraced by S itself, there is never any evidence to be adduced for this progressive stance. Usually the progressive requires that members of S "just see" that their poor are treated unjustly or that they just understand that Kantian rationality or the Golden Rule requires this conclusion. The theistic reactionary claims that God requires the S change its values. There is never any evidence for this claim, and even if it were true, it would be irrelevant. "God prefers that S change its set of values" does not make it more likely that S should comply. We can usefully refer to God's recommendation when we think that He knows that our present values are in error about the non-moral facts of human nature or are incoherent. But if He wanted S to change its values even acknowledging that there were no such reason, then his preference would have no purchase. The theistic reactionary, after all, is the fellow who still subscribes to divine command theory, which was debunked long ago.

There is a lot more to say about this, such as that this view does not entail any vicious moral relativism. But the point here is that the verificationist approach to the matter gives this interesting result that progressivism and reactionary theism are non-starters.