Hierarchy and Integration (Not) in Action

 Posted by on 25 July 2006 at 7:23 am  Uncategorized
Jul 252006

Last week, I listened to Leonard Peikoff discuss hierarchy in his excellent Art of Thinking course as I drove up to Boulder for a meeting. That’s important, for reasons that you’ll see shortly.

When I arrived in Boulder, I first stopped by the grad lounge in the philosophy department to pick up my mail. As often happens, a few boxes filled with books free for the taking sat on one side of the room. The very first book I picked up was Morals and Ethics by Carl Wellman. It was of interest to me because I have a small but growing collection of old and new ethics texts.

I was completely blown away upon briefly surveying the table of contents: the organization of material was utterly anti-hierarchical. Here are the topics of the chapters, in order:

  1. Civil Disobedience
  2. Right and Wrong
  3. Marijuana
  4. The Good
  5. Premarital Sex
  6. Moral Value
  7. Abortion
  8. The End of the Law
  9. Open Housing
  10. “A Right”
  11. Capital Punishment
  12. Moral Knowledge

While I’m all in favor of shuttling between abstractions and concretes, ethics cannot begin with a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of civil disobedience, not when the basic standards of morality, the proper purpose of law, and the idea of rights are discussed later. The same kinds of objections can be leveled against almost every other topic, including withholding the critical discussion of moral knowledge (including emotivism, skepticism, and relativism!) to the end. The whole structure exhibits about as much order as a fruit salad. (With all due apologies to all of the intentionally and deliciously disordered fruit salads of the world, of course!)

Notably, the book is not an anthology of philosophic texts, but rather an exposition of Dr. Wellman’s own views contrasted with alternative views. I strongly object that format in an introductory text, as the proper purpose of such texts is to survey the major views advanced in a field, not push students toward the author’s preferred positions.

I haven’t looked too closely at the individual chapters, although I’ve not been impressed by what I’ve seen so far. For example, I did find a real gem in the section on capital punishment last night. In the course of a discussion of whether capital punishment actually deters crime, after noting that the statistical evidence is inconclusive, Dr. Wellman writes:

Moreover, self-observation will reveal to any individual the psychological effectiveness of capital punishment. A person can learn most directly and more reliably about human nature by introspection; in looking into oneself one becomes aware of the human nature shared by all people. Upon sincere reflection, each person will find that he is terrified of death in any and all forms. What is true of one human being is true of all. The effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent is guaranteed by the powerful and abiding fear of death native to the human mind as revealed to reach of us by introspection.

To that, I say: Speak for yourself, brother! While I do think introspection is critical in philosophy, one person’s emotional response to death cannot serve as a basis for any universal and necessary inductions about human nature. No emotional responses are necessarily universal. That would presuppose determinism, yet such feelings obviously depend upon a person’s particular, variable, and chosen beliefs about the nature of death.

Indeed, if Dr. Wellman attempted to integrate his induction with his other knowledge, as Dr. Peikoff discusses in detail in Art of Thinking, he should have been overwhelmed by counter-examples. He might have considered warriors welcoming the honor of a glorious death in battle, terminally-ill people seeking death’s respite from suffering, religious zealous seeking union with God through death, and perhaps even Socrates welcoming the freedom of his soul from its bodily prison with his own death penalty.

In this case, the attempted induction is particularly egregious since Dr. Wellman cites no facts about death to show it even objectively terrifying to humans. For example, I would say that the prospect of having one’s leg gnawed off by a tiger is objectively terrifying: not only would the process be enormously painful, but one’s life would be in grave danger. (However, even that would not imply that everyone would feel terror at that prospect. Some very strange situations might justify some other feelings, although I can’t imagine any. More likely, some people are so far detached from reality that they might joyfully welcome a tiger gnawing on their leg, as part of a martyr’s death, for example.) Dr. Wellman cites no such facts about death that would render death objectively terrifying — and for good reason: death is not necessarily painful nor even unwelcome. Instead, our fear of death is supposed to be some kind of universal Freudian primary.

Also, did you notice the small argument from intimidation tucked into the middle of the passage? Since any person willing to engage in “sincere reflection” will grasp the terror of death, those who disagree with Dr. Wellman are not engaged in “sincere reflection.” Lovely, no?

Oh well, at least I also picked up a very nice copy of John Hospers’ Human Conduct.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha