Philosophical Musings

posted Dec 09, 2003
in Practical Epistemology

I tend to work on larger writing projects; deep down I don't believe that anybody cares to hear me say "[Link to something].... Hmmm...." on an hourly basis (w/ a tip o' the hat to Instapundit, who had two seperate "Hmm" messages on the front-page for me to choose). I think my next project is going to be "Critical Listening Fallacies"; these are the complement of the more traditional argument fallacies where the listener fails in their part of a debate. Much like my definition of dancing, a rhetorical argument fallacy where I had to make up the term because I don't know of anyone else talking about it, I'll have to make up names myself because as far as I can see, nobody's talking about these even though they happen all the time.

But I thought I'd float another idea, and give a sample of what it would be: "Philosophical self-examination for consistency questions". The idea is to help the reader examine whether what say they believe is consistent with what their actions
say they believe; people are often unaware that an inconsistency may exist. Here's a sample question from that work:

Do you believe that... the ends justify the means?

The standard question "Do the ends justify the means?" can be broken down into two parts: "How much evil can be justified if the end result is good?", and "Is the goodness of an action determine by its result, or the nature of the action itself?" They're interrelated but first is concerned with "collateral damage" and assumes the goodness and evilness of actions are known, where the second is concerned about how one determines whether actions are good or evil. For this section, we concern ourselves with the latter: How do we determine whether an action is good or evil, by the nature of the action itself or the results?

This is only an interesting question when the results are quite uncertain, which is very often.

Many people, including myself, would say that the nature of the action should figure in very heavily if the outcome is fairly uncertain. In rational terms, morality and common sense provide time-tested heuristics that have the net result of preventing disasterous outcomes, and ignoring this wisdom is just arrogance. Thus, if someone makes a moral or common-sense decision, we would still say in the abstract that that was the right decision.

In light of my stipulation that the results are very uncertain, there almost isn't another answer, rational or otherwise, short of requiring psychic powers to read the future.

Having answered that question in your mind, let me pose the following football scenario:

It's the College Championship game and the time is at zero. You are the coach, and your team just scored a touchdown to bring the score to 20-21, with you behind. You can either kick the extra point, to tie the game and potentially lose it in overtime, or you can try for the two-point conversion and win it with no chance for the other team to answer. Your offense is in good shape but your defense is exhausted, so you decide to go for it.

Unfortunately, the two-point conversion fails and you lose the championship game.

Was going for the two-point conversion a good decision?

I choose a football scenario here for its ethical neutrality.

Having seen this scenario play out a number of times in real life, I find it is inevitable that the announcers will claim that the coach made a bad decision. In other words, they measure the goodness of the decision based on the results. In the context of this section, they are using "the ends justify the means" in the second sense.

But if you agreed above that the nature of the action should be the primary determinant of goodness, then the specific outcome should not change your perception of the decision's goodness. All else being equal, as I laid out the scenario going for two points was almost certainly the right choice; the extra point may have missed and an exhausted defense in overtime is a formula for loss. To be consistent in this case, you should act as if the coach's decision was correct. Otherwise, your actions indicate that you do believe the ends justify the means in the second sense.

Of course, if you did not agree with me and believe that the results always matter, then you would agree that the coach made a bad decision. (But how valuable is your idea of a "bad decision" if all possible decisions are bad?)

I think if you asked most individuals which way they are, they would claim to not be ends-justify-the-means types. But we seem to collectively act as though we do believe in ends-justifies the means, from little things like the sports examples I gave to big mistakes made by governments. Even if the best possible decision is made, we tend to seek out someone to punish for their bad decisions.

(Update Dec. 2006: I never did get around to writing my "critical listening fallacies" because the idea kept mutating. Now it's part of my general interest in Practical Epistemology.)


Site Links


All Posts