I want to put two claims side by side:

One person’s need is a demand on another person’s energy/life.

One person’s need is not a demand on another person’s energy/life.

Which is correct? Based on classroom experience, what amazes me is the ubiquity of the following answer: the upper claim. What also amazes me is the speed of the verdict. Yet, what troubles me is how this ubiquity and rapidity unfold without the slightest hint of (or demand for) a justification.

When asked to pick, students are quick. When asked why, it is dead silence.

Unless I am missing something, the above juxtaposition does not present any reason(s) for why one ought to endorse either claim. Each claim might serve as a conclusion in an argument but, as things stand, we find no premises alongside them that supply any kind of support. That is okay: linguistic competence can be deployed without inference. Still, to endorse or privilege one claim over the other is either to assume that the truth or falsity of the claims is self-evident. Since the truth or falsity of the claims is not self-evident, I would really like to see some arguments being made.

Ideally, I would a decision should be postponed until such arguments are given and compared. Only once an argument is actually made can it be evaluated. Until that work has been done, the endorsement of a conclusion means next to nothing. Feeling really strongly about something is a bit like going over a textual passage with a yellow highlighter: it lets others know what you like, but it leaves them unable to determine why you like it—or why they should like it too.

“I like pizza.” “Good for you. I like sushi.” Then what?

An argument can be good or bad, but a conclusion itself is neither good nor bad. To see this, consider the following claims, side by side:

I should cut off my leg.

I should not cut off my leg.

Which is correct? Unsurprisingly, the following answer is ubiquitously and rapidly given: the bottom one. Yet, what if we graft the following before the upper claim: “I have gangrene in my leg” and “The gangrene in my leg will soon kill me” and “There is no other way to remove the gangrene in my leg than by cutting it” and (crucially) “I want to live” therefore “I should cut off my leg”?

What if we graft this string of claims before the bottom claim: “I have gangrene in my leg” and “The gangrene in my leg will soon kill me” and “There is no other way to remove the gangrene in my leg than by cutting it” and “Once, there was an inscription on a rock that said that one should never cut off one’s limb under any circumstance” and “The rock with the inscription was found near where I was born” and “My parents raised me to believe in the sacred nature of the inscription” therefore “I should not cut off my leg”?

In an open contest between these two arguments, which conclusion would win out? I do not need a vote to know which conclusion I would endorse.

Admittedly, the assessment of an argument can be complicated, but amid this complexity there are howlers which reliably brand an argument as worthless. Chief among these howlers is assuming the very thing you ought to prove. In giving reasons for a claim, one cannot at any point employ that claim as a reason, since it is the very idea being called into question. To use a claim as both premise and conclusion is saying things twice, which is no better than saying them loudly. Both tactics have rhetorical merit (they get kids to move, for instance), but if one is aiming to address a healthy adult mind, then repetition brings no support. So, any viable support for a claim must not be circular. Most people serious about ideas already know this. Yet, somehow, when it comes to ethics, amnesia sets in. “I like the top proposition.” “Good for you. I like the bottom proposition.” Then what?

There is nothing magical that makes a principle automatically orient one’s conduct. Rather, principles provide a guidance that is rendered possible by one’s actions. Apart from this real-world activity (and its success or failure, as the case may be), there is no reason to think that some propositions are inherently better-suited at being principles. Hence, you cannot recognize a principle just by reading a formulation of it in isolation—much less determine whether it is a good principle just by re-reading that formulation. To ascertain whether a given principle has any merit, more is needed.

Once we demystify principles and their fallible working, we realize that a principle, like any other claim, stands in need of a justification.

Now, as mentioned, the two claims that I have juxtaposed at the start do not contain any reasons for them. Even so, inclinations will kick in, so one is unlikely to stay indifferent to these incompatible views.

Well and good, but philosophy is not psychology.


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