Convergent Assumptions

One of the features of fact-based discourse is that it tends to barely depend on which premises you start from. The two most common abstract moral systems, categorial morality and utilitarianism, are about as different as two can get; and yet in practice there is little difference between the political and economic conclusions they yield.

This suggests that assumptions are only necessary as a starting point, but can later be discarded once one knows enough facts to proceed. Of course in abstract ethical arguments assumptions are very important – Peter Singer’s animal rights arguments are very closely wedded to his utilitarianism. But on more concrete political, social, and economic questions, arguments tend to be settled on empirical facts.

The only time an abstract model ever has political relevance is in the form of theory. But a theory is not an assumption, but rather a hypothesis that passes many testable predictions. Social scientific theories have a nasty tendency to be ridden with exceptions and special cases, but the serious ones are empirical enough to stand on the facts rather than on any moral premise.

4 Responses to Convergent Assumptions

  1. Stentor says:

    I think the convergence is more easily explained as a process of rationalization — we know what conclusions we want to end up with, so we (often unconsciously) work backwards to get the “right” answers.

  2. KH says:

    On some views, ethics isn’t a descriptive naturalistic enterprise, & it’s not at all clear that deontological & consequentialist theories always necessarily converge in concrete cases.

    The main line of Anglo-American philosophy since mid-century raises all sort of questions about the presumption that rational fact-based discourse converges. Many people hold out the possibility that there might be >1 incommensurable, empirically adequate discourse in any given domain. The foundationalist assumption that there are non-theory laden observations is itself questioned by serious people. Etc, etc. These are among the main themes of philosophy of science, no?

    I certainly agree that scientific theories (including social scientific ones) don’t stand on moral premises.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    KH, the reason that presumption is reasonable is that there has yet to be a discussion with incommensurable points of view that isn’t far removed from reality. I know that some philosophers have questions that presumption, but those I’ve read haven’t done so adequately; for example, scientific research is largely cumulative, though in a broader sense than the one Kuhn attacks.

    The closest serious proposition to “there are no non-theory laden observations” is the observation that people choose what to observe based on their underlying assumptions; but even granting that, subsequent discourse can be perfectly productive without talking about these assumptions, but rather concentrating on the facts they reveal.

  4. KH says:

    When unexamined folk intuitions about any matter – economics, ethics, physical theory, whatever – are left unarticulated, discourse may not turn on them. But the fact that developed formal moral reasoning is absent from much concrete political, social & economic discourse isn’t evidence that such reasoning, when it is present, doesn’t have important effects, or that there’s rational warrant for whatever moral consensus is concerted on the basis of purely nonmoral considerations.

    Moral realists do claim that moral disagreement isn’t widespread among untutored subjects, but their claims are disputed & in any event don’t bear on the practical significance of disagreement between formal moral theories (or on the rationality of the purported naïve moral consensus).

    Do you think that the accumulation of new nonmoral facts rationally warrants a new, convergent understanding of moral facts (if you think there are moral facts)? If so, how? Or do you accept the distinction between moral & nonmoral facts? If moral premises are merely a starting point to be discarded as our knowledge of nonmoral facts increases, what are they replaced with? New, convergent moral premises, or only nonmoral facts? Can moral inferences be drawn from purely nonmoral factual premises?

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