Where the Obligational Stance might lead
It's a truism in philosophy that you can't derive an "ought" from an "is". In other words, any valid argument whose conclusion is a moral statement also has a moral statement somewhere among its premises. No valid argument starts from just observations and math and arrives at a moral conclusion.
I don't expect to derive "ought" from "is" either, but I hope to sketch some lines along which arguments could proceed from "is" to lesser normative conclusions. Such normative conclusions could not rise to the level of an objective "ought", but they might still be persuasive.
I have (I hope) already described ethoi in a way that persuades you that they are as real as beliefs, yet a way that does not rest on any moral axioms. Borrowing one of Dennett's favorite idioms, I'd say that Martians who shared nothing of our ethics could be honestly shown that obligational entities are real and are really obligational.
The way I defined ethoi implies there can be many of them. Infinitely many, in fact. However, that doesn't entirely prevent us from making comparative arguments.
One of the basic arguments, I expect, will be that of two given ethoi, one is favored above the other because the structure that defines it is simpler than the other's. It an ethical analog of Occam's Razor: less required information = higher probability.
That's all well and good, and leaves some sort of Nihilism looking like the simplest, best ethos. But just as with Occam's Razor, theories are constrained by facts. They must be "as simple as possible but no simpler".
Another basic argument, I think, will draw on the concept of "broken" entities in the stances. Just as we wouldn't want to credit a belief that could only be held by could only be held by the ignorant or the foolish, we may not want to credit an ethic that could only be held by "broken" obligational entities.
And of course "brokenness" is contingent on any number of facts in the real world. In a hypothetical world where Thomas Jefferson had discovered Newtonian Mechanics, those who believed so would not be ignorant and those who thought otherwise would be. Similarly, an obligational entity who (say) demands a service that he really paid for and was promised is probably healther as an obligational entity than one who sincerely demands a service that really did not.1
That's an intentional-level contingency. Could there be obligational level contingencies too? I think so; we might also suspect the health of an obligational entity who very strongly demands a service that was paid for at an extremely cheap rate. I don't want to go too far with this sort of example, to avoid introducing my own "oughts".
Argument from brokenness is a whole can of worms, of course. Many are the partisan arguments where one side calls the other side ethically broken - or ignorant and foolish for that matter. An ugly sight, but also one that makes me think I am on the right track. This line of argument wouldn't have the psychological power that it does, be it ever so often abused, if it was entirely invalid.
At this point, I'd expect certain concepts from the lower stances to play a role in arguments about ethoi. Truth, from the intentional stance; a healthy intentional entity seeks true beliefs and too many false beliefs makes for a broken intentional entity. Harm and benefit, which I suppose come from the design stance, on similar grounds.
ISTM obligational propositions are often about truth, harm, and benefit. I think this situation provides many facts that our ethical Occam's Razor could operate on.
Seperately but relatedly, there could be an argument like this:
- Assumed as fact: Ethos E's propositions also stipulate certain propositions P that relate to a lower stance.
Assumed as fact: P is badly wrong.
- More rigorously, any embodiment of the respective type of platonic entity for the lower stance, where that embodiment includes all of P, is flawed in this world. It's misaligned with the real world well beyond an "everybody makes mistakes" level.
- So any would-be embodiment of E in the world is neccessarily broken at the lower level.
- By our earlier thinking, this breakage at the lower level implies indeterminacy at higher levels.
- So there can be no real embodiment of E in this world.
- Conclusion: E is unacceptable.
I said that ethoi are platonic, probably not countable, and vary across a dimensional space which is difficult to even characterize. But while ethoi are platonic, their embodiments are real and countable, and skewed in interesting ways.
In the real world, ISTM one very revealing characteristic of an ethos is the interaction of identity and obligations. Particularly when it takes the form of different rules for different entities.
In a mild form, it's unavoidable. No viable ethos could give truly equal weight to insects and people. It's more usual to completely ignore insects obligationally.
Now, that by itself doesn't demonstrate anything normative about any ethos. We need further argument for that. Our actual argument might go something like:
Assumed as fact: By ethos E's precepts, a set of entities A and set
B are owed differently as a function of their relative identities.
- Real careful with the qualifier here. It's not a function of their identities if the same outcome can be found without reference to their identities - unless the substitute input is really a proxy for identity. Common sense needs to be used.
- By lower level stances, this differential is unfavorable to A. Perhaps ethos E considers it OK to lie to or harm members of A but not B.
Assumed as fact: Members of A are obligational entities, and not
markedly inferior as obligational entities to B or to embodiments
- If we didn't have the "not markedly inferior" qualifier, we'd risk reading marginal obligational entities such as insects as appropriate A's for this argument. Apart from the intuitive objection wrt insects, ISTM admitting marginal cases of obligational entity undercuts the argument; they're not "really" the sort of thing the argument needs them to be.
- Consider the set of all ethoi that a member of A, an obligational entity, might embody. Ie, we're quantifying over all members of A and then over all suitable ethoi. Understand this quantification as generic ("mostly universal") rather than strictly universal.
- (For conciseness, in what remains I will speak of a single member of A and a possible ethos F that he could embody. So understand the rest as being inside the scope of the two quantifiers)
By excluded middle, either E and F can be satisfied simultaneously
wrt A or they can't be.
- As an example of unsatisfiability, A might hold that certain agents are obligated to treat him as well as they treat Bs, or that they have certain absolute obligations wrt him.
- I'm not treating fuzzy intermediate values rigorously. ISTM in fuzzy cases we can just visit both following branches of this argument.
If E and F cannot both be satisfied simultaneously, the neccessary
gives us grounds in this branch for disfavoring E. So E's
acceptability stands or falls on the strength of the other
- I haven't made this part of the argument rigorous but I'm pretty sure it works.
- It stands or falls on the strength of the other branch even if in fact all members of A subscribe to ethoi that conflict with E.
- If E and F can both be satisfied simultaneously, then we can try to raise one of the earlier arguments:
So ISTM the Obligational Stance gives us a tool to reason about ethics without deriving an "ought" from an "is".
1 I realize this runs the risk of appearing to introduce my own ethics. It's just an example, not a premise.