Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Good and Clouds

A couple from C. Ewing. First, he asks about the nature of goodness.

"Is good (or "goodness" to utilize the "-ness" fixation) natural or non-natural? Explain."
We begin with Aristotle's distinction between "good for" (the chair is good for sitting) and "good in itself" (helping that old lady across the street was good of you). We'll assume you are talking about the latter moral conception.

The usual line is that there are "is sentences" that describe how things are and "ought sentences" that describe how things should be, and that since ethical claims are of the ought variety, you cannot use is claims to justify them since the only thing is sentences do is describe how the world is and the ethical propositions run beyond that. Others have said that ethical claims can be justified with is claims because ethical statements are facts about personal preferences (ethical emotivism) or about the state of the world as a result of the action (ethical consequentualists).

I think the problem here is that the term "morally right" or "good" is an umbrella term, we have a cluster of concepts that we use a single word for. Usually, these concepts all point to the same thing, but occassionally they don't. These are our moral conundrums, the problems that seem irreconcilable. Unlike "bank" which has two meanings (a financial institution and the side of a river) and when we use the word, we mean only one or the other, the tricky part about "morally right" is that we simultaneoously apply the different senses as a single meaning. Look at the ways we rationally argue about moral issues -- there are several recognizable templates, each lining up with a traditional ethical system (virtue, duty, utility, rights, care) and each connecting with a different part of the ethical situation (who did it, what did they do, what are the effects of having done it, who did they do it to, and did they have relationships with special moral obligations).

So, the answer to the question is yes and no. There are some meanings in which moral rightness is built on natural properties and others in which it is not. Which is operative depends on the case and the context.

Next, he asks about vagueness.
In looking into vagueness, I stumbled upon Sorites Paradox. There seems to be an issue here, especially when it's used in relation to vagueness/the problem of the many.

1 grain of wheat does not make a heap.
If 1 grain of wheat does not make a heap then 2 grains of wheat do not.
If 2 grains of wheat do not make a heap then 3 grains do not.

If 9,999 grains of wheat do not make a heap then 10,000 do not.
-------------------------------------------------- ------------------
10,000 grains of wheat do not make a heap.

Thus, if we're using this to investigate what makes a heap or cloud, etc., then it seems we are already assuming we have some notion of what a heap/cloud is or--at the least--what does not qualify. That bit seems fine. If we hadn't the foggiest what we were attempting to discuss, then we wouldn't be able to discuss it, but as presented, this seems deceptive (there seems to be a hidden element not established nor presented in the argument/example) and circular.

Am I looking at this wrong? Maybe this is more of a logic question and I should toss it Hanno's way, but you're both welcome to respond.
Hanno would be a fine resource here. Indeed, the answer lies in a pair of articles that Hanno and I wrote a few years back. We looked at tautologies -- sentences that should always be true and therefore be vacuous, say nothing about the world -- which are used as if they have content. It turns out that there is a class of these sentences that do have content, those in which the operative term has two meanings, one which is well defined like "gross" and one that is not well defined like "bald" (a concept Hanno and I are both increasingly qualified to discuss). We use tautologies to demonstrate that we are using the word in its well-defined sense because this is the sense governed by standard two-valued logic in which it has to be true or false that "A has property P." When we talk of that which has degrees or for which there is a gray area where it is not clear whether to consider A to have or not have P, the usual means of reasoning need to be augmented.

The problem you pick up is trying to apply the forms of reasoning that work on clearly delimited properties and apply them to those that are not. It's the classical problem of the beard -- how many hairs does it take to have a beard. There may be no specific number, but that doens't mean that some people absolutely have beards and others clearly do not. It just means that there is a semantically mushy middle.

How do we deal with these? Often it is funcitonally. What do we want A to do and if it has enough of P can it do it? Can it rain? It's a cloud. Can it block sunlight enough to make it overcast? It's a cloud. If you are foggy about what makes a cloud, there is a reason (and a really nice pun), but if you feel the pressing need to decide for some random area of water density whether it is or is not a cloud, I'd (a) determine what the term cloud is doing for you, and (b) seek medication.