Monday, January 07, 2008

The virtues of logic

The moral theory I'm trying to describe in this blog relies heavily upon a parallel between the norms of assertion (logic) and the norms of practice/morality. In this post, I'll be reflecting on the role of the logician, what expectations we have of her, and to what degree we expect non-logicians to respond to the norms of logic. Drawing the parallel to moral norms reveals some interesting assumptions that aren't always recognized.

In an ideal world, every logician would be as competent or more competent than Gödel, but we don't hold every logician to this standard. Logic is hard and not everyone is brilliant. Instead, we expect logicians to be able to understand and acknowledge many proofs and disproofs when presented with them and also to be able to identify errors in many unsuccessful purported proofs.

The expectations aren't much different when we extend our consideration beyond the current standard domain of logic (i.e., formal systems) to arguments in natural languages. We still expect experts to be able to identify logically persuasive arguments and to be able to identify fallacies.

But what do we expect (logically) from the average non-logician? We certainly don't expect them to have mastered logic and argument. We don't even always expect them to follow logical arguments given by other people. It seems, instead, that our expectations are quite limited. We expect average people to be willing and able to follow simple inferences when given an appropriate amount of explanation or guidance.

Now, what if our moral expectations ought to mirror our logical expectations? In that case, persons who excel at moral practice are rare but important, as Gödel is for logical practice. Analogous to the average professional logician would be a moral practitioner who is capable of identifying many appropriate things to do when presented with demonstrations supporting them and also to be able to identify improprieties in unsuccessful demonstrations. We would expect the average person to be willing and able to find very simple and general demonstrations persuasive when given an appropriate amount of explanation or guidance.

But the claims in the preceding paragraph are under the assumption that our logical expectations are already what they should be, and we have no reason to believe that assumption. The logical-moral parallel still works even if we ought to hold people to stricter logical standards than we currently do. The fact that we have high moral expectations might lead us, in light of the parallel, to increase our logical expectations, rather than to decrease our moral expectations.

There are several interesting ways in which contemporary moral philosophy and logical philosophy have diverted significantly, even if none of these divergences proves the analogy/parallel to be incorrect:

  • The right-thing-to-think/say vs. the right-thing-to-do: If moral norms function in the same way that logical norms function, then notions of the-right-thing-to-do make no more or less sense than notions of the-right-thing-to-think-or-say. While we certainly can make sense of the-right-thing-to-say in light of a certain purported argument, very little can be made of the notion the-right-thing-to-say simplicitir. Even if we can imagine such a thing, it certainly wouldn't involve an actual expectation that we would have of anyone. Even if there is a best thing to say at a given time, no one has a normative expectation that the person say it. Perhaps, contrary to much contemporary moral philosophy, the idea of the-right-thing-to-do is just as extraordinary a notion. Maybe even if there is such a thing as the-right-thing-to-do, no one can be reasonably expected to do it.
  • The amoralist vs. the alogicist: Much contemporary discussion has been given to issues involving the possibility or impossibility of an amoralist, whether an amoralist could be rational, what kinds of reasons could persuade an amoralist to act from moral considerations, and so on. I am aware of no similar discussions regarding the possibility of an alogicist, a person whose discourse is genuinely independent of all logico-linguistic normative considerations. There is no obvious reason why the alogicist is illogical, or at least, no more reason than there is why the amoralist is immoral. The parallel between logical norms and ethical norms that I've indicated can be correct if the amoralist ought to be as disregarded as the alogicist is or it can be correct if the alogicist ought to be given as much consideration as we've given the amoralist, but we have some reason to believe it can't be correct if we've given the alogicist and the amoralist each just as much attention as they deserve.
  • Ability to do logic/good vs. actual performance of lots of logic/good: In much of our classical and contemporary moral literature, it is taken as a platitude that we ought to do as much good as we can. This is much different from the situation in logic, where no individuals are expected to conclude (soundly) as much as they can. Instead, for logicians, what matters is the ability to reach those conclusions and perhaps also the tendency to reach just those conclusions that are called for. If our moral norms function like our logical norms, then perhaps what really matters for the moral practitioner is the ability to do good things and perhaps also the tendency to do just those good things that are called for. This suggests some virtue theoretic account, and if I am right about the publicity requirements I blogged about on 12/15/07, then the virtue theoretic account in question is the Socratic intellectualist one. All the practical virtues are one, aimed at being able to identify and demonstrate goods, just as all the logical virtues are one, aimed at being able to identify and demonstrate truths. (Now, just because we don't hold individual logicians accountable for concluding soundly as much as they can, this doesn't mean that we don't expect from logical/linguistic practice that it will increase the number and variety of sound conclusions over time. The same will also hold true of our expectations of moral practice, as I will explain in my next post. The expectations from logicians/practicioners and the expectations from the practices themselves are very different.)

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