More Philosophical, but not Mathematical, Inquiry

So I was reading Harry Browne’s argument against “The Unselfishness Trap”, which might I propose is ludicrous. He argues that everybody’s happiness is greater if one disposes of the injunction to sacrifice oneself for others. It’s easy to refute this by acknowledging that happiness is not a conserved quantity; one’s kind act for another can have positive consequences disproportionately greater than the sacrifice the act entailed. I would go on and propose a mathematical formula for this phenomenon but the restrictions in this post are already set.

Why I mention Browne is because he makes a fundamental logical error. He asserts that because we more or less acts selfishly when we are free, we as a species ought to remain free and discard notions that we ought to help others (and instead only do so when we ourselves benefit as a result). Well first of all acting selfishly is a tendency not an axiom. If we are truly free we have all option to do the opposite – act against ourselves and for the benefit of others. In fact one could argue that being free in his context means the exact opposite. If we are free such that maximize our own happiness as he says then aren’t we actually bound by our own selfishness? Anyway, I digress [again; I’m pretty passionate about refuting his ideology]. The logical error is in the following. Let’s say his axiom is correct, and that we as humans act for ourselves unless compelled to do otherwise by “the unselfishness trap”. He claims that, partly because of that, we ought to truly free ourselves and act selfishly.

But ought we? Couldn’t one argue that “the unselfishness trap” should exist regardless?

Before we go on, let me make some clarifications. What ought to be true is not the same as what is most likely to be true. It is the same as what should ideally be true. What can be true is what the truth potentially results in.

Here’s the upshot. What is true cannot be logically followed by what ought to be true. What is true, however, can be logically followed by what can be true.  The former fallacy has justified Social Darwinism, among others which I’m too lazy to recall right now. Like, I’ve never taken a logic class but I’m almost certain that people commit this fallacy often. Example: natural selection exists in nature so it follows that it should also exist among humans. Or, sex is natural/sex is needed for reproduction/lust is intrinsic in our biology so it follows that sex and lust should be uncensored and unrestricted. Or, a lower impoverished class has always existed since the dawn of labor specialization so it follows that we should leave the poor alone. Or, quoting from Nietzsche:

God is introduced everywhere, and utility is withdrawn; the natural origin in morality is denied everywhere …. What do I protest against? That people should regard this paltry and peaceful mediocrity, this spiritual equilibrium which knows nothing of the fine impulses of the great accumulations of strength, as something high, or possibly as the standard of all things.

In essence, what Nietzsche claims is that because strength exist as fundamentals in human nature, Christianity and its fundamentals (servitude, sacrifice, loving enemies, etc.) should be discarded.

As an aside, Mark Twain specifically warns against this type of thinking in Huck Finn, that one should sometimes discard the acts of the majority if they go against what obviously is not correct. Well a history is a type of majority truth. What ought to be true does not follow from it, and can be markedly different from it. This is the notion of the ideal.

What ought to be true can only be logically followed from 1) what can be true, and 2) what we will to be true if given the opportunity. Number 2 sounds like a restatement but it really isn’t. It really means “if we had a magic pill that would make the world as we like it, what we would do to the world.” Number 1 really means “this, this, and this might result from some truth. That does that, that, and that to the world.” Number 1 sounds consequentialist because it is. Number 2 is psuedo-Kantian, based on rational principles and duties. I won’t expound on this because I’m tired and too lazy to do so. Number 1 implies that a truth can lead to an ideal if a logical consequent intermediate between them exists. Integrated, we can say that an ideal follows from a truth if and only if the truth leads to a consequence which in principle is rationally optimal.

So what am I saying? Out of all moral theories and justifications for what is moral, i.e. what ought to be true, consequentialism and Kantian deontology are the only ones that make logical sense. More importantly, morality based on what has historically happened, or what happens in nature, or human nature itself, is not only dangerous, but logically incorrect.

And sadly, I am reminded that this is a logically fallacy I have committed, and often.

Reminder for future posts: Nietzsche, jack-of-all-trades, stoplights

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