Friday, March 24, 2006

Reason, Law, and Morality #2

Ok, back to that series of posts I started long ago.

The question for today is: What is the relationship between reason and law?

Before we begin, we should probably think back to what we worked through last time. The comments were tremendously helpful in sorting through what exactly "law" is. Keep in mind that the general consensus seems to be that law is something which controls, or at least attempts to control, people's actions. 'Control' is used in a very loose sense, because different people react differently to laws, and people can always choose to break the law (they'll just face consequences if caught). Ultimately, to be effective, a law must have the power to convince/motivate/bind people to certain actions.

Last time, we looked at the question of "bad" law. This time, to start the inquiry, I want to consider good law. The initial question I pose is: what makes a good law "good"?

In my mind, for a law to be good, it must have persuasive power. In my mind "persuasive" is different from "coercive". That is, if law is to be good law, people must want to follow it, or, even if they don't want to follow it, deep down they recognize that the law is correct. For example, a prohibition against murder is generally the type of thing that people want to submit their will to, because they know the good that such a law can secure for them. And, even when they get so angry that they might otherwise kill, they accede that the law is correct in it's prohibition, and therefore oblige, even though they might not want to. Furthermore, since our desires can change from moment to moment, it is the correctness of the law which is the most essential aspect.

The next step in this inquiry is to consider what people want, or what makes them think something is correct. If we're gonna have good law, we need to know what motivates people to decision and action. I suppose there are several things which can motivate people: Emotions (I was moved from love to propose to my wife), urges (I'm hungry so I'll get something to eat), and reason (I know that if I buy stamps I'll be able to pay my bills, which will enable me to keep my phone working, ergo, I'll buy stamps).

Of all of these things which motivate people to action, only one is primary. That one is reason. The reason reason is primary is because it helps us control our desires and move towards correct action. For example, say I have $3.90. Now say I have the option to buy one of 3 things which costs $3.90 - a flower for my wife, a sandwich, and a book of 10 stamps. Which should I purchase? Well emotions might tell me to buy the flower, and my urges may tell me to buy the sandwich (my urges may also tell me to buy the flower...), but my reason will make it clear to me that the best - the correct - purchase is the stamps. My reason will let me know that if I don't pay my bills I won't have my phone, and without stamps, I can't pay my bills, therefore I need to spend the $3.90 on stamps. The other things might be nice, and if I had more money perhaps I'd have reason to purchase them too. But reason dictates that I eat the food in my fridge and not spend more money, and instead of treating my wife to a lovely flower, I should probably spend the money on necessities. It is reason which leads us to this conclusion.

Yes, other things motivate us, but as the above example demonstrates, reason is the prime motivator. It is reason that sorts through our motivations and determines what we most desire, and it is reason which informs us of which decisions are correct. If law is to be good law, it must conform to reason. A law which agrees with peoples' reason is a law that will be followed, and a law which contravenes reason is a law which will be broken. (I should note here too that one of the great things about law is that it often informs people of what reason says, such that people don't have to come to the conclusion on their own, but rather can elect lawmakers whom they trust to reason through problems on their behalf).

Now, to throw a clinker into the equation, there are different levels of reason. The way I see it, reason breaks down 4 ways.

First off, there's perfect reason. Perfect reason is reason which is unbreakable. This is sort of like math, or syllogisms, or the laws of science. 2+2=4. Period. That's flawless reason. Or if A=B and B=C, then A=C. Or if you drop an object from a height it will fall towards Earth. Those are all objects of perfect reason, and can be considered laws because they motivate people. For example, people, in the fact of mathematical reason, are motivated to declare the truth of an equation. The correctness of these laws is experience through reason, And what's key about them is that they are unchanging and based on what is essentially truth. So the best "laws" are laws which are unchanging, and based on immutable truths. Are there any human "laws" based on such truth? It's hard to say. I don't think I can imagine a single law for which there isn't some exception to the rule (i.e. even killing can be excepted to when it is a necessary product of self-defense). I guess if you split hairs finely enough you could probably come up with some perfect laws based solely on reason. But that would be hard to do. The closest example would probably be a prohibition on killing except in cases of self defense, which is rationally derived from the concept that life is needed for all other goods to exist. Basically though, perfect law - especially in human, governmental terms, - is rare.

The second type of reason is good reason. Good reason is more or less reason which falls short of perfect, but about as close as we can practically get. Good reason leads to good laws. An example of good reason leading to good laws can be seen in a differentiating between the types of homicide (first degree, manslaughter, etc.). Start with a couple of correct principles: 1. Life is needed for all other goods to exist (from which is derived "thou shalt not kill"), and 2. People cannot be held accountable for what they cannot control (from which we derive various levels of intent). Working from these ideas it's not hard to get to a law which distinguishes first degree murder (in which intent and malice are key ingredients) from manslaughter (no intent to kill, but still liable because controlled the action which caused the death). This is a well-reasoned law. It works from a principled viewpoint, and then comes up with a legal regime which reflects those principles. Ideally human laws reflect good reason.

The third type of reason is weak reason. Weak reason usually happens when the conclusion does not connect to the principles, or when certain principles are ignored/forgotten about. Perhaps a good example of "weak reason" can be seen in some of the historical bad laws that our country has had. For example, prohibition, which was a completely ineffective law. Why was it ineffective? Largely because it was the product of weak reasoning. More or less the argument for prohibition started with a fairly solid (and uncontroversial) premise: The loss of self-control is a bad thing. Then, considering that alcohol can cause the loss of self-control, prohibitionists argued that alcohol should be banned all-together. Of course, the problem is that there is no perfect correlation between alcohol and the loss of self-control. People drink every day without getting drunk, and so this law was the product of poor reasoning. Prohibition was based on a faulty syllogism. If A (alcohol) = B (loss of control) and only B, then banning alcohol might make sense. But if A= either B or C (people still have self control), then banning alcohol doesn't make sense, because there is no necessary implication that people will lose self control. The reality of the situation was the second equation, but prohibitionists were taking the action recommended by the first equation. That faulty reasoning led to a bad law, and they over-restricted the consumption of alcohol because of it.

Now, the difference between Reason Type 2 (good reason) and Reason Type 3 (weak reason) is really one of gradation. And this can really be seen in the fact that when laws are proposed or enacted legislators give reasons for those laws. We all know that sometimes those reasons are great reasons, sometimes they're good, sometimes they're mediocre, sometimes they're bad, and sometimes they're awful. So in determining whether a law is a good law or a bad law, basically you just look to the reasons behind it. Good law will be based on correct reasoning, and will therefore be persuasive. Mediocre laws will be based on some good reasoning, but with something to be said against it, and may or may not be persuasive. Bad law will be based on weak reasoning, and will be unpersuasive.

Maybe this all seems obvious, but I think it's pretty important to consider. After all, we don't just want laws that reflect our emotive desires or our urges, but rather we want well-reasoned laws. We should demand of our legislators that they construct laws that are principled and therefore persuasive. Our laws shouldn't be constructed because they serve a constituency, but rather should be constructed because they are the product of reason, (and, if they are the product of good reasoning, they won't overlook any constituency).

The final kind of laws are laws which contradict reason. For example, a law which says 2+2 = 5. No one could accept that because our reason tells us it's false. Another great example of a law contradicting reason is slavery. Our reason tells us that all people have the same moral worth - we're all created equally. Yet a law like slavery denies that principled view. Instead of being based on reason, slavery was based on emotion (i.e. fear and hate) and urges (i.e. laziness, desire for wealth and control).

With this idea we return to the question of last time - is bad law law at all? Well, if the law is so bad that it contradicts reason, then arguably no, it's not law, because it is completely unpersuasive. Perhaps our emotions and urges would persuade us to accept a bad law, but that would be shameful. Reason is, and should be, the prime motivator. It should lead us to reject laws which contradict reason. And if we are completely unpersuaded by a law, then the law doesn't really accomplish what it sets out to do, and maybe in that sense isn't law at all.

Anyways, to close, I'd just sum up by saying that any type of law must rely on some reason. The best laws are ones which work from a principled view. The reasons which stand behind the best laws are reasons which our minds will understand as correct. And if the reasons behind the law are correct, then that law will be persuasive. Not because there is force in the law, but because there is force in reason. The law tries to motivate people to certain actions, but the prime motivator is reason itself. If a law contradicts reason, then it isn't really law. And if a law is constructed of perfect reason, then that law is unbreakable (like laws of nature). The better the reason behind a law, the effective that law will be. Why? Because reason controls our actions and motivates us to behave a certain way.

In that sense, reason is law.

Give me one reason to stay here, and I'll turn right back around

19 comments:

emnovak said...

Can't a law have good reasoning but still be a bad law? I can't really think of any, except perhaps abortion, which is legal for women's rights issues (good reasoning) but the law is still bad because there is better reasoning (right to life)?

Jeff said...

Here's a thought. Reason is based on premises, and premises are different from one person to another.

Laws may derive from reason, but I posit that this reason must be derived from a shared set of premises for laws to be universally thought of as "good." The premises used to hatch a law must be those that are integral to the society itself. In America, I would wager that among those are the right to life, right to personal choice, equality of all people before the law, and the right to free expression. I don't think I'd have too many detractors.

(As your sister points out, the special stickiness with the abortion debate is derived from the fact that both sides of the debate reason from shared premises - the right to life on one side, the right to personal choice on the other. Thus the oversimplified names for each side.)

Even this is imperfect. Economic conservatives see taxes as infringing upon one's right to personal choice. But economic liberalism (at least mine) derives from the reasoning that poverty limits personal choice, and that poverty must be alleviated if the poor are to fully avail themselves of such a right (not to mention the whole "equality" thing).

Certainly laws that contradict our shared premises are "bad" laws as you say. But in my opinion, so are laws that are derived from premises not shared by the preponderance of society.

To highlight my reasoning, we'll take two laws I think are bad: laws against marijuana usage and against what you goyim call "sodomy." To me, these are bad laws since they abrogate personal choice/pursuit of happiness/etc. 1) is based on the idea that marijuana leads to the decay of society. 2) is based on the idea that homosexuality is immoral and should be prevented.

1) is a conjecture. It is far from proven that marijuana usage will cause our society to crumble. You would classify this as a "mediocre law" - law based on some good reasoning but with a lot of bad reasoning.

2) is a premise. The law follows perfectly from the premise that is posited. Problem is, not everyone holds that premise. That is why I say it is a bad law. But let us imagine a society where the vast majority of people adhere to a strict Biblical morality. In such a society, 2) would be a perfectly legitimate law.

I guess my point is that reason does not exist in a vacuum. If a law is to have persuasive power, as you say, then the premises behind the reasoning that led to the law must be accepted by an overwhelming majority of the society's members. Those laws that are based on good reason from contentious premises are bad law.

emnovak said...

I don't think you can say law or reason is good if it comes from a shared premise in the society. Majority rules seems to be your argument, and that is not always correct. Just because a majority of the people, even if they be smart people (which is not, in my opinion, that likely) hold to one premise, it does not mean that that is automatically right or in the best interest of the society. The premise that whites were superior was a majority viewpoint not too long ago, but most people would agree now that that is false and has bad reasoning. This applies to many other topics as well. Therefore, it is incorrect to base good laws on a premise held by society and that reason is based on premises that differ from one society to another. Reason itself doesn't change, and most societies, although holding different premises, still use reason to come to similar conclusions.
I apologize if this sounds like rambling, my thoughts aren't very coherent but I wanted to make the point that reason is not based on premise and if it was it would be faulty, as well as to say that the majority premise is not always correct so we should not necessarily base our laws and morals on that.

Matthew B. Novak said...

A couple of quick responses, because I've gotta get to my homework.

Emily - I think there's a difference between a "good reason" and "good reasoning". A law can have a good reason (i.e. promoting women's rights) but if it neglects a better reason (i.e. protecting life), then that's "bad reasoning". No good reasoning would allow a woman to kill her husband just because she wanted to get out of marriage. Sure, you could support that law with a good reason, but there would be an even more important reason to reject such a law. Good reasoning puts reasons in their proper order.
- as regards your second response, you made me so proud. "reason itself never changes." Tear. :-)

Jeff and Emily -

Sure, people reason based on certain premises and assumptions. But, given the fact that "reason itself never changes", two people with the same premises and assumptions should come to the same reasoned conclusion. Thus, two people confronted with the equation 2 + 2 should come to the reasoned result of 4. It's the same with non-mathematical questions. Take as a starting premise "it is never right to kill". That should lead a person to oppose murder, capital punishment, infanticide, heck, logically that would even include self-defense resulting in death. Sure, in real life our equations get more complicated. So instead of being 2+2 we get some long drawn out algebraic string, but through a reasoned approach everyone should still come out with the same right answer. Same figures for real life.

So why do people come out with different answers? Either 1. They're not starting with the same premises and assumptions, 2. they're not both reasoning rationally, and this malfunction can be caused through either inability or impediment, or 3. they're not both reasoning honestly

The first one - different premises and assumptions - should be able to be cleared up. Honest appraisal and observation of the world should allow people to come to roughly the same premises. And, in fact, reason itself can help people come to premises - why do we hold the premise that to kill is wrong? Well, because we reasoned to that from our belief that life is valuable. So, if you go back far enough, and examine the world we live in, you should be able to get everyone on the same page with the premises. It's the fact that we start our discourse so far down the line (with pre-reasoned results), that causes so many impediments to this agreement. So sit down sometime with someone, and really work backwards, and you'll see how much agreement there is there.

The other two problems are tougher to deal with. The dishonest reasoner probably can't be dealt with, and those who incapable of reason probably also cannot be dealt with. The person with an impediment (i.e. some traumatic experience with a father creating a false premise that all men are rapists) needs to have that impediment removed, something which sometimes can be done through reason, sometimes through time, and sometimes through other therapy.

Ok, those are my thoughts. Let's see what others think of them...

Anonymous said...

"The first one - different premises and assumptions - should be able to be cleared up. Honest appraisal and observation of the world should allow people to come to roughly the same premises."

Hold on there, cowboy. Perhaps you're skipping over this because you don't want to believe it's difficult. How long have people been arguing from the separate premises "Human life begins at conception." and "Human life begins at a point after conception." As long as I've been alive, certainly. And yes, I've actually sat in a room and worked the conversation back all the way, so I know this is a core difference.

As another example, world religions offer their followers a variety of starting premises. Compare and contrast Budhism with the tenets of Christianity. Common ground but also some significantly different premises, leading to clear behavioral differences. The notion of forgiveness, perhaps even earning forgiveness, makes sense in Christian terms, but a Budhist will generally recognize that karma adds it up and deals with it in the next life.

Another example? How about education? Behaviorism: learning is acquiring a new behavior. Constructivism: learning is a building of models. Social cognition: learning is a construct of culture. These theories do not lead to the same instruction and curricula. And certainly laws are passed governing education all the time, based mainly on behavioristic premises.

As for math. 2+2 = 4, but 12 + 2 = 2. On a clock.

Final thought: science recognizes that paradigm shifts occur. Does law? Reason is not the problem in a paradigm shift, the base premises are.

Matthew B. Novak said...

I apologize if I seemed to gloss over. It was late, was trying to get to homework, and I figured the point would be contested.

Yes, I think it is very difficult to get everyone on that same starting page. It usually isn't something that can be done in a single conversation. And frequently it's not going to happen because of one of those other problems.

But consider the question of when life begins. That is a question about which people can sit down and have a rational discussion. And maybe it'll take some hashing out of the premises (i.e. what constitutes a life). But there isn't any rational reason why two people shouldn't be able to progress towards consensus on the issue.

It's difficult, yes. Immensely so. Often because when you're trying to get people to alter their premises you're trying to convince them to give up deeply held (even religious) beliefs.

But ultimately, I believe that there is a human nature. That we can really investigate it, figure out what constitutes good for humans, and from that derrive basic premises from which to work to other conclusions.

It's simple in form, but difficult in execution. But if people are open to the task, they can make a whole lot of progress.

Jeff said...

Emily - I don't think I was going for a simple "majority rule" type thing. I was going for the premises that are laid out in our nation's founding, our "civic religion" if you will. In fact, discriminatory laws were bad laws precisely because they contradicted one of the premises upon which our society was built (namely, equality before the law).

I'm with Anonymous in challenging the idea that two people, thinking rationally, should arrive at the same premises. Premises are often based on beliefs. While beliefs can be rational, this is often not the case.

Indeed, much rationalization of beliefs tends to take the form of "assume A, therefore B implies A." Whereas if I assume C, therefore B implies C. We've then devolved into a conversation that goes something like this:

"A!"

"No, C!"

"You fool! It's A!"

"Stop kidding yourself! It's C!"

...in so many words.

Allow me to wander into theology to illustrate my point. A Christian looks at Isaiah 53 and sees a prophecy predicting the coming of Jesus. A Jew looks at Is. 53 and sees an allegory for the suffering of the Jewish people. But it's mostly the same words (nitpicky: Jewish and Christian translations are a little bit different, since translations tend to pick up the viewpoints of the translator).

The premises we choose to derive our laws from, therefore, cannot be premises based on beliefs that we all don't share, be those beliefs Christian, Jewish, Rastafarian, whatever. The American society was built on a set of premises, and we as Americans are socialized to accept those premises. It is therefore these premises that must be used to arrive at law.

Also, if you know your way around Excel decently well, 2+2=5.

Matthew B. Novak said...

To be sure, people have different beliefs. And frequently those beliefs are not rational. But frequently those beliefs are rational. And if they are rational, then others shold be able to be convinced of those beliefs. And if they are irrational then an honest participant should be able to be convinced of their irrationality, and therefore should be willing to keep those premises out of further discussion. And, if the beleifs are not irrational, but not perfectly rational there can be some reasonable discussion about those beleifs and their relevance and validity to further discussion.

Further, you've pointed to what can be called a body of American premises. And those are widely accepted. But the fact is that there is a tremendous amount of dissent about those premises, about their relative importance, and about the way they should be enforced. It wasn't a sudden logical realization that "equality before the law" was most important which led to the abandonment of slavery. Heck, there still wasn't equality afterwards. It was a slow reversal of a premise that has led to the ongoing progress - lots of people held the premise that blacks were inferior. This premise is fading from our minds. Not because a stronger premise controls - because then that premise would persist qualified by equality under the law. Instead the premise that blacks are inferior is fading because it is a premise which has been subjected to reason, and the light of reason has shown it to be bad premise.

I reject that there is a single unitary body of premises that can be identified as American premises, which constitute the entire pool from which we are allowed to draw our laws. That's an absurd, and decidedly undemocratic idea.

Finally, your challenge that people often make assumptions, from which they draw conclusion is an accurate dipiction of many non-rational people. But rational peopel don't do that. And people who are honestly reasoning should come, from the same premises, to the same conclusions. Your challenge that people don't always reason honestly poses no difficulty to the fact that, if they did, they should arrive at the same conclusions.

Jeff said...

Point taken - the pool of premises from which we draw "good laws" is far from static. Being American now is a lot different from being American 150 years ago. However, I still stand by my point that laws that derive from contentious premises are bad laws.

I suppose it's the existence of these "contentious premises" that you reject, and that you believe that reasoned debate over disagreed-upon premises will lead to an agreement. In some cases, involving the beliefs you term as "rational," this occurs.

I do not buy your argument that rational people don't make assumptions. I think reasoning has to start from somewhere, and that somewhere is a set of assumptions about the world. Assumptions can be shown to be contradictory through reason, but a set of assumptions cannot be rejected wholesale through reason alone. Thus, two people using ironclad reasoning will not necessarily reach the same conclusion because their assumptions are consistent, but different.

But let us place this objection aside, accept the idea that most premises upon which law would be based can be agreed upon through a reasoned debate, and carry on.

I don't think it's a good idea to derive laws from a premise until everyone agrees on it. I am as convinced of the truth of my premises as you are of the truth of yours, and until the reasoning is complete and only one set of premises is standing, any attempt by one side to force the other to accept their set of premises by the coercive power of law is, to me, illegitimate.

Furthermore, whenever one enters into a reasoned debate, one accepts the possibility that they could be wrong, that reason could really be on the side of the other person. It is through an honest, even debate that one premise could be dismissed and the other vindicated. Introducing the coercive power of law into this process tips the balance of the debate to one side or the other artificially, thus corrupting it and diminishing the probability that the reasoning followed from there on in would be truly honest.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Jeff, I think you've got a marvelous talent for observation, and most of what you say seems well rooted in the way people actually operate. Yes, people frequently assume their premises, and from those assumptions derrive a "rational" conclusion. (Of course, whether it is actually rational can only be determined by subjecting the assumed premises to rational consideration). I guess what I was saying before was that when people are honestly reasoning they don't just make assumptions. Sure, people can make assumptions, and then rationalize, but that wouldn't qualify as honest reasoning (unless of course their rationale for making those assumptions was itself based on solid reason). So, again, yes, people do make assumptions, but that type of reasoning would not qualify as honest reasoning.

And I should go ahead and qualify all of this by saying that frequently our premises are based in observation, and the individual's ability to observe can be limited. But for the most part I would say that if we have two people trying to honestly observe the world, free from personal impediment, that they should come to generally the same observation. And if one person observes the elephant's tail, and the other observes it's trunk, those two people should be able to get together - if they're honestly open to reason - and figure out that both observations are accurate, and move forward from there. But yes, there's some problem of getting people to agree to the basic premises. Still, it's not an insurmountable problem.

Secondly, I think your observation that people use law to coerce artifically, and sometimes contrary to reason. I guess this is exactly one of my biggest concerns. Law, in order to be good law, must be well-reasoned. Thus, it must be based on reasoned premises, and follow rationally from those premises.

I think you're concerned that individuals will interject their own personal, non-reasoned premises into the process of lawmaking. And heck, that's a legitimate and realistic fear. But at the same time, that fear doesn't justify restricting legitimate premises to ones accepted by consensus. For a couple of reasons. First, consensus doesn't mean that the premise accepted is itself rational. Second, an individual legislator devoted to reason should bring in well-reasoned premises to the debate. Such a situation doesn't have the danger that you worry about, and can in fact provide a whole lot of good.

You give another really interesting statement: "I am as convinced of the truth of my premises as you are of the truth of yours, and until the reasoning is complete and only one set of premises is standing, any attempt by one side to force the other to accept their set of premises by the coercive power of law is, to me, illegitimate."

I agree that the ideal of consensus around a premise is just that - ideal. But not having consensus doesn't mean the law is illegitimate - a law is only illegitimate if it's contrary to reason. So, say there's two groups. Group A has a set of rational premises, from which they derrive Law A, which is rational. Group B has a set of premises, some of which are rational and some of which are not. This leads to Law B, which is irrational (or rationally weak). If Group A is the stronger group, and their law prevails, that law is rational and legitimate. If Group B is stronger, their law prevails, and the enforced law is irrational an illegitimate.

Finally, I wonder how you'd feel if instead of the American framework, where actions are presumed legal until prohibited were swapped for the European framework, where actions are presumed illegal until permitted. Would you still say that we shouldn't act on premises until everyone accepted those premises?

emnovak said...

Ironically, and I just had to put this in here, I had to send a bill and didn't have money to buy a stamp.

Jeff said...

To answer your last question first, obviously my views are colored by the existence of the American framework. As a result, I see the presumption of illegality as an irrational premise, thus making the law prohibiting anything that there isn't a law permitting bad law.

That does bring us back to the objection I hoped to ignore during my last post. We have here a classic case of one's cultural upbringing affecting what one perceives as rational or irrational.

Let's wander, as I enjoy doing, into the land of ridiculous hypotheticals to illustrate my point.

Ask an American what color the grass is, and he'll say "green." Ask them whether the ocean is a different color, and he'll say, "of course, it's blue." But ask a Japanese person the same question, and he'll reply, "no, it's the same color." One response is not more rational than the other - it's just a matter of where one chooses to draw the demarcation lines on the color spectrum.

But say we passed a law ordaining that green is green and blue is blue. It'd follow logically from our premises, but such a law would appear horribly irrational to a Japanese person.

Or let's use another example. Many Native American cultures had/have no real concept of private property. So what sense would a law against stealing make in such a culture? It would be an irrational, and thus bad, law, even as it is a perfectly legitimate good law in the European-based culture surrounding them.

These gulfs might run deeper than you would think. Why would it be more valid to have a concept of private property than it would to not have such a concept? Thus, how would reason be able to strike one down while maintaining the other?

And these gulfs of cognitive dissonance exist not only between cultures, but also between subunits within a culture. This is especially the case within our polyglot culture.

The point is that while there are many things on which reason can bring people to agreement, there are some disagreements that are based on the fundamental ways in which we see the world. Reason cannot make a Japanese person see green and blue the way we do. Reason cannot force certain Native American cultures to accept the idea of private property. This is why I'm hesitant to make a law until after reason has run its course. To me, the reasoning process has two outcomes: first, it can result in agreement, as it would most often between you and me (since we probably see the world similarly). Second, it could result in the revelation of some fundamental cognitive disconnect, in which case all the reason in the world won't lead to agreement. You've done well in dealing with the first case, but what about the second? We can't say that laws against stealing are bad, but we can't enforce that among a people with no concept of private property either, lest those people become subject to a bad law. Honestly, I don't have the solution right at the moment, just the question.

On to your other points.

You suggest making the law anyway, and if it is irrational it is bad and would through time be revealed to be such. Personally, I don't see why we should risk having a bad law - we ought to wait until we know whether the law is good or not before we pass it.

But I think the point I was trying to make is that the presence of the law affects the reasoning process, and as a result an entire society may come to a conclusion that may not be based on entirely honest reasoning. It's Heisenberg's uncertainty principle applied to philosophy. That's why I think a law of disputed reasonability ought to be treated as a bad law (while in truth being considered neither) until reason conclusively demonstrates otherwise.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Jeff - Well, you've pushed me here, and I'm gonna have to spend some time ruminating on the two examples you gave me. But rest assured, I'll get to them.

For now, I just wanted to say that with the whole American/European presumed legal/presumed illegal distinction, I didn't mean to get an answer of whether or not one was wise or rational and the other was not. The point in bringing out this distinction is to show that every type of decision here is the same type - whether you decide to make something illegal or leave it legal or leave it illegal or make it legal - these are all policy choices which must be based on a reasoned position. So if in America we decide to leave something legal, that decision should be well reasoned and rational. And if in Europe they decide to leave soething illegal, that decision should be well reasoned and rational. The status quo of things being legal/illegal is besides the point - the point is that no matter the policy position, action or inaction, that position should be well-reasoned in every case. So it should be well-reasoned when we decide to make murder illegal. And it should be well-reasoned when we decide to make abortion legal. Leaving something in the arena of permissible acts is a decision itself which needs to be well reasoned. Does that make sense?

Jeff said...

I think so. I guess I'm coming at it from that whole "state of nature" perspective, where the default state is the existence of no law, and societies are then built from there. Since without laws everything is legal, it then follows that a law restricts certain actions. Were we building a legal code from scratch, things would default to legal until a reasonable law dictated otherwise.

And I think I see more people who oppose something simply because it's illegal than I see people who are in favor of something just because it is legal. In Europe, of course, this might be different - I don't know.

Matthew B. Novak said...

I understand where you're coming from, and I'm glad what I was saying made some sense. Just as an aside - and I don't mean to insult your philosophy here - but in my mind, that whole "state of nature" idea is crap, right? I mean, I don't mean to just insult it, but philosophically and antrhopologically and such, it just doesn't work out. People are never - and have never - been born into a state of nature. They've always been born into a society. It is actually order which is natural, not disorder. The "state of nature" idea is hugely flawed and has distorted much of modern philosophy. It's really a sad phenomena.

But regardless of what the default is, I think that any decision to make or leave something legal or illegal needs to be a reasoned decision.

Also, you might be right about more people opposing based on what the law says, instead of supporting based on what the law says. Then again, with things like abortion and birth control and heck, even divorce, the more permissive the law has gotten, the more people have approved of permitting those activities. I don't think you're wrong about the weight being on one side, but it seems it works both ways.

Jeff said...

Yeah, I didn't figure you for much of a "state of nature" kind of guy. I don't think the idea of the "state of nature" is meant as a realistic portrayal of the way societies are built. I'm using it here as a theoretical exercise - if we had to build a code of laws completely from scratch, how would we make sure the laws are good? It is then, I suppose, that the ideal legal code would take shape after reason had done its thing. Perhaps I should mosey on back into the reality-based community...

You're right that there is an existing state, and that we are constantly faced with the decision to keep the status quo or to amend it. We'll get back to the case of cognitive dissonance later, but for now we'll assume that whatever decision we make, these dissonances can be worked around (a big assumption, but I wanted to make it to pose the question, so ha).

We've accepted the fact that the status quo affects people's views on right/wrong. If an action is illegal, more people are likely to see it as bad, and now that I think about it, you're probably right about the inverse case existing as well.

I posit to you that the status quo affects not only the way in which people use reason but also peoples' fundamental perception of reality. So I ask you this - knowing that our capacity to reason does not exist in a vacuum, is perfect reason even possible beyond the blind mouse - cheese limit? Can we trust ourselves to come up with the most reasonable solution to everything, or are we forever "corrupted" by what is?

Jeff said...

I miss you... sniff...

Matthew B. Novak said...

Ok, fine. So here's what I was thinking abotu those two examples:

1. The first one, the law regarding the sea color, wouldn't be a rational law. It would be consistent with their observations and perceptions, but it wouldn't really be a rational extension to mandate a particular perception. In fact, it would probably be contrary to reason to mandate a particular perception, since that's not exactly open minded. So I don't think that scenario poses a challenge.

2. The Native American one is much more interesting and problematic. I guess I'd have to say that when 2 people from these cultures sat down to discuss their differences, they'd really have to work back to the point at which each culture begins to found it's premises. And really, both are founded on rather astute observations. Native Americans would point out that we live as a society, not individually, that the Earth provides everything and that we come and go, so everything should be enjoyed and cared for communally. Other cultures would point to the well-founded idea that by their effort and labor people become productive, and that they should be the recipients of at least some of the value they've produced.
I guess when I'm thinking rationally about both of these ideas I can see some truth in them. So I guess the truly rational extension of both of these premises is a society that isn't purely free-market, but one that recognizes that individual wealth accumulation is still a potentially good thing. So a society that taxes and redistributes some, but not all wealth is probably the rational extension. Ok, does that work for you?

I guess I like this example because it demonstrates how well-reasoned laws take really deep thinking and frequently require going back to those original principles, and working up from there.

As far as the question of our ability to do perfect reasoning... I would like to think it's a possibility. Yes, what is affect our ability to see what reason dictates, (both by affecting our ability to reason and the principles from which we reason) but if we're trying to be truly rational we're always re-evaluating what is. In fact, awareness of this influence might be enough to limit it's power. If we don't take what is as what ought to be, simply because it is, then we stand a good chance of seeing the truth underlying what is but also the problems, and using that can work to what ought to be. That's convoluted, and I'm kind of tired, so I'll just leave it there. I'll be honest, my mind isn't into this particular post lately, but hopefully this was somewhat valuable. Sometime next week I'll be redevoted to the blog, but for now my mind is pretty much focused on my health law papers. Sorry.

But let me know your thoughts, and if we can keep the conversation quick, I can probably sustain it still. Also, I'm hoping to get to the next post in the series sometime (probably late) next week.

Jeff said...

Convoluted, but I think I like the idea of reason as a recursive process. I understand the is as affecting how we perceive the ought, and our cognitive frameworks, in turn, affecting how we perceive the is. But by working toward the ought, we change the is, and therefore change the ought, and so forth...

So maybe we can't achieve perfect detached reason, but through a series of imperfect yet honest reasoning processes we can approximate it as the number of recursions goes to infinity. This, of course, assumes that we're looking at the deviation from perfection as a decaying function rather than as a periodic one... if it's the latter, we're back at square one. But I agree with you; I like to think it is possible to get to pure reasonability.

(Can you tell that I'm taking a break from working on my prelim?)

I'm still not convinced that fundamental perceptions can be altered through reason. I think the compromise you hatched in the Native American example illustrates this, since it represents a compromise between where reason leads one side and where reason leads the other. Of course, if people are exposed to other ways of perception and decide to adopt them, that does mitigate a lot of the perception gap and open the door to the use of reason.

Damn, I can't keep anything short, can I?