Against Pointless Reduction

Theoretical reduction--the reducing of one theory to the postulates and theorems of some other theory from which it can be logically derived--is possible in lots of areas, but it is not always advisable. Biology, for example, can be reduced to particle physics, but it is not clear what the motivation would be for translating talk of cells and DNA molecules into talk of muons and quarks. Surely that kind of thing would not make biology more accessible. One could refer to me as the great-great-great grandson of Walter Carson, but why do that when it is simpler just to refer to me by my own name? Indeed, there are certain kinds of cases where reduction is not merely pointless, it is downright mistaken. In biology proper, for example, we may insist that the unit of selection is anything from the allele to the herd, but if we choose the wrong level we will exclude possible explanations for phenomena such as altruistic behavior.

In ethics, too, reduction is often a temptation that ought to be avoided on pain of mistaken analysis. In an interesting post at Waka Waka Waka, Malcolm Pollack responds to my post on torture with this:
although Carson’s post is intended as a critique of the prevalence of the conventional utilitarian view these days, it seems to me that all he is doing is substituting different variables into the same utilitarian formula – the spiritual wound suffered by the torturer outweighs, in his equation, the merely physical suffering of those we would seek to protect by a coercive interrogation. He is certainly entitled to his belief. But is it appropriate as government policy, when the first job of government is to defend the people, many of whom do not agree with this religious perspective?
This is an interesting idea, that my view is ultimately just utilitarianism in disguise. But there are three problems with this analysis, each of them, I'm afraid, severe enough to vitiate the analysis.

Let me begin with a relatively benign problem. Pollack appears to attribute my position to an essentially religious sentiment, but that is quite mistaken. While it is true that the position I have staked out is consistent with my religious views, it is not the case that the position I have staked out follows from my, or any, religious point of view. The view that I stake out is essentially the Socratic/Platonic one, as I indicated in my post. Neither Socrates nor Plato was motivated by primarily religious considerations. The idea is that there is a highest good for humans, and that this highest good is connected to objective human flourishing, not to any particular religious dogma. Further, this objective human flourishing is not to be identified with physical or material well being. The idea that human flourishing is identical with physical well being or even pleasure is more closely associated with hedonism than utilitarianism, but certainly utilitarians are friends of the so-called pleasure principle, another point that I made in my first post.

Secondly, suppose, for the sake of argument, that my view was essentially grounded in my religious view. It is telling that Pollack finds this possibility worrisome on the grounds that not everyone in a particular polity will share the same religious views. That alone appears to make the view unsuitable as grounds for policy as far as Pollack is concerned. And yet such a starting point is entirely unreasonable. Suppose a particular polity were to adopt the utilitarian approach to solving questions such as this. Not everyone in the polity will share utilitarian sentiments either, so why should that kind of theoretical underpinning be grounds for policy? The fact of the matter is that all of politics is a matter of coercion in a certain sense, because it is always a matter of obtaining some degree of consensus and the process of obtaining consensus almost always involves somebody somewhere along the line compromising some aspect of their deeply held convictions. There is no reason to think that religious convictions are not on the same level as non-religious convictions in this regard. Just so long as I can provide an argument in favor of my policy that does not require that everyone subscribe to my religion--that is, as long as my arguments are grounded in theologically neutral starting points, starting points that any rational person could accept in principle--then there is no reason to suppose that having a religious reason for holding the view is a violation of the Constitution. To take a rather silly example, the Constitution mandates democracy; I might myself thing that God also mandates democracy, but it is not a violation of Constitutional principles if I advocate democracy using theologically neutral arguments even though I personally accept it for religious reasons. (Some people make a similar mistake when they assert that opponents of abortion are attempting to mandate conformity to their religious views; a person may oppose abortion for religious reasons but that does not mean that there are not perfectly good, non-religious arguments against abortion that a religious person can appeal to.)

The third problem with Pollack's analysis is much more serious. The third problem is that he mistakenly assumes that the moral position I stake out is essentially reducible to a kind of utilitarianism, in which the central value is a certain spiritual relationship with God. Putting aside for a moment the fact that this problem is closely related to the first problem, let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Pollack is right. The difficulty now is that every moral theory is essentially a variety of utilitarianism, and that seems highly implausible. For example, if Pollack were right, then even Kantianism, the anti-utilitarian moral theory par excellence, would actually be a variety of utilitarianism in which the central value is conformity with a formal principle of reasoning.

The central thesis, however, not only of Kantianism but of the position that I staked out, is that there are certain things that ought not to be done regardless of the consequences that follow upon not doing the things in question. Utilitarianism is essentially consequentialist: torture is morally justified just in case better consequences result from doing it than from not doing it. What I am saying is that it is better to refrain from torture even if we could obtain better consequences from using it. There is no way the two positions can be reconciled. Similarly, Kantianism explicitly says that consequences have nothing whatsoever to do with the moral rightness or wrongness of our actions and, indeed, goes so far as to say that moral goodness is independent of our passions and desires. According to both Kant and Plato, it is entirely possible that we may be mistaken about what the good is and even about what we truly desire; this is not possible according to the utilitarian who, famously, actually defines desirability in terms of what is actually desired. It should only take a moment of rather straightforward reflection to see what is wrong with this. Suppose I am addicted to cigarettes. I have an actual desire, right now, to smoke one; but only a moron would say that it is desirable in a Socratic sense to smoke cigarettes. What is desirable according to the utilitarian is not always what is desirable according to the Platonist.

So it is not merely pointless to reduce my view to a variety of utilitarianism: it is a theoretical mistake of the first order. All moral views are not logically compatible and, hence, are not theoretically reducible to some single explanatory account.


Malcolm Pollack said…
Thanks very much for your response, Dr. Carson. You quite rightly point out some sloppiness in my remarks, and I have made an effort to be clearer in a subsequent post.

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