Sunday, March 30, 2008

Derivative Objections

[I'm adding a new sidebar category on 'methodology', for posts where I assess certain forms of reasoning, or what I take to be common mistakes in philosophical methodology.]

Suppose I propose an analysis of X (welfare, say) in terms of some more basic phenomenon Y (e.g. desire satisfaction). One might try to object to this by pointing to various paradoxes that result. But it is important to check whether the analysis is really contributing to the alleged problem here. Often, I find, it is not. The problem derives from the underlying phenomena, and is nothing to do with the proposed analysis. The analysis merely enables us to redescribe an old problem in new terms. It doesn't really introduce any new problems. So it is unobjectionable (at least in this respect).

Here's a test: If we can replace all instances of 'X' with the proposed reduction basis 'Y', and the paradox still remains, then there's no objection to the analysis here. What's problematic is the underlying phenomenon Y, but that's going to be a problem for everyone who accepts the existence of Y, regardless of whether they believe that Y can ground X or not.

Examples of this fallacy in action:
(1) Claims that the desire paradox is a special problem for preferentist analyses of wellbeing. "I desire to be poorly off", if we accept preferentism, is just a redescription of the more basic paradox, "I desire that most of my desires be thwarted." It's clearly no objection to a view that it allows old paradoxes to be restated in new terms. It's only objectionable if a view introduces new paradoxes!

(2) All those objections to consequentialism that really derive from the difficulty of evaluating certain states of affairs (see, e.g., infinite spheres of utility, the population paradox, etc.). The consequentialist claim that right action maximizes the good does not add any further paradoxicality to our theorizing about the good. As R.M. Hare once wrote:

It is worth saying right at the beginning that this is not a problem peculiarly for utilitarians... The fact, if it is one, that there are other independent virtues and duties as well [as beneficence] makes no difference to this requirement. Only a theory which allowed no place at all to beneficence... could escape this demand. Anybody, therefore, who is tempted to bring up this objection against utilitarians should ask himself whether he is himself attracted by a theory which leaves out such considerations entirely.

So here's a handy methodological principle: when faced with an objection to a theory that relates X to Y, first check - via my above test - whether it isn't really just a "derivative objection" to Y itself. The theory of X may be a red herring, distracting the discussants from what's really at issue.


  1. I would have thought that the charitable interpretation of this kind of objection was something like this: don't try to analyze X in terms of Y, because Y is a confused concept.

  2. That would be a fine objection. I'm instead talking about those who don't want to reject Y.

  3. Hmm...

    But is it bad to expand the scope of a paradox? You might face an argument along the lines of the following:

    Y carries a paradox P. P causes problems for Y, but, all things considered, we still ought to accept Y.

    I have an analysis of X in which X isn't threatened by P.

    Your analysis of X in terms of Y means X is threatened by P.

    An analysis in which only Y is threatened by P is better than an analysis in which X and Y are threatened by P.

    Ergo, we should choose my analysis of X.

  4. Hey Richard,
    I propose a test for whether your line of defense works. Suppose we solve the paradox of desire in some way, and suppose desire satisfactionism is true. Do we get any results that are unacceptable? I say probably yes. For example, suppose the solution to the paradox of desire inolves the claim that there cannot be a desire to have most of one's desires frustrated. If desire satisfactionism is true, then it follows that there cannot be a desire to have one's life go badly. But there can (I say).

  5. Paul - I'm not sure what to make of that. I guess "expanding the scope of a paradox" might be slightly unfortunate. So it might tip the balance towards an alternative analysis if all else were equal. But all else is rarely equal, so I'm doubtful that it will often be a significant consideration.

    Ben - that's interesting. I think you're suggesting a new form of argument, actually. It's not that the analysis leads to unacceptable paradox. It's that the analysis implies a surprising result (the analysandum inherits a feature we would not expect it to have, from the analysans). But I don't think this has much independent weight. In particular, I don't think the analysis adds much (if any) further unacceptability to what's already there. It may simply highlight that we don't yet have an acceptable solution to the underlying paradox!

  6. Let me try to be clearer.

    A paradox is a reason to reject a concept. It might not bring us to reject the concept, because we might come to an all-things-considered judgment that the concept is worth keeping for other reasons. (Perhaps we can't do without it, or perhaps we think the paradox will be resolved in time.) But the paradox doubtless counts against the concept.

    One sensible way to do philosophy would be to minimize the number of reasons we have to reject a given concept (if we accept the concept, of course). So if we analyze X in terms of Y, and we pick up a paradox, that's one more reason to reject X than we'd otherwise have if we analyzed X in terms of Z. All else being equal, we should prefer the analysis in terms of Z.

    Perhaps preference isn't the right way to describe it though. Rather, it is philosophically useful be able to see that X can either be firm or shaky (by shaky I mean "accepted only tentatively, pending resolution of this damn paradox"), depending on whether it's analyzed in terms of Y or Z. But seeing that depends on recognizing that the paradox for Y also causes problems for things analyzed in terms of Y.

    So we gain insight on the problem of Y by pointing to the derivative objection.

  7. (that is, we gain insight on the problem of X)


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