Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A claim to make Sam's head explode.

In the Ad Hominem section I made the claim that "physics is just ethicists trying to sound like something else", and Sam broke. Yet, in his crumbling state he did put forward two readings of what I could have meant, the second being more to the mark, that they are both normative systems. Now since Sam has claimed I lake all requisite wherewithal to argue such a case I won't try, but to fill out the picture a little more:

The laws of physics are produced (I make no claims about the laws themselves or those things which the laws describe, but about our awareness of what we refer to as the laws of physics) by observing how things work and then extrapolating. Ethics, similarly, is produced (in similar manner) by observing peoples actions and seeing which we react approbatively, and then extrapolating. Basically, they are both sets of 'laws' that only describe what we see, and do not in fact cause anything to act in certain manner as laws of society, from which the analogy is derived, are supposed to cause certain actions to be performed and cause certain actions not to be performed.

The laws of physics are taken to be different because we have never observed these laws being broken, while we have observed ethical systems being broken frequently. This may be purely because we have not yet formulated the ethical laws to the same degree as we have the physical, rather than because the systems are different. The physical laws certainly have gone through an amount of revision over time. Now I am not trying to suggest that the ethical laws could be brought to such precision as the physical, but that we understand the complexities of the ethical systems more than those of the physical: they are more personal. This of course is an argument that is produced purely through lack of knowledge, like so many other philosophical arguments at the moment, but the lack of knowledge is on both sides. Maybe the model of physical laws is only a model held up because we have limited knowledge of the system, which is upheld by theexistence of continuing work in the area of physics. So, 'physics is just ethics for matter'; what do you think?


MH said...

Well, I could say that I think your position is on all fours with the ramblings of a fresher, and that I would expect better of you, Michael, but I won’t. Firstly because it is a really gratuitous use of ‘on all fours’. Secondly, it wouldn’t be that constructive. And thirdly, well, let’s just not go there …

What I will say is that, for the first time in a long time, I can see where you are coming from on this position. My problem is that I personally consider it to be a really long bow to draw, which you were probably aware of when you made your original comment, and I wouldn’t attempt to draw it.

I suppose that the question that then needs to be asked is what the philosophy of science has to say for itself on this point, and thus I hand the question over the those philosophers of science who drop past …

Samuel Douglas said...

Well, I don't know what a philosopher of science would have to say about this, but I will try to reiterate my position more clearly and with less use of expletives.

My problem is that when we talk about these ‘laws’ we are using the same word in two very different ways. Consider the following example:

1. When I throw someone out of the 10th floor window, they should accelerate toward the ground at a rate of 9.8 metres per second, per second (were it not for air resistance).

2. I should not throw someone out of the 10th floor window.

Statement number one is clearly concerned with physics, while statement 2 is clearly concerned with ethics.

Physics seeks to describe what actually happens. But Ethics is not the same as this. I don’t need an ethicist to tell me what people are like. Personal experience or a social researcher would be enough in that area.

Ethics, similarly, is produced (in similar manner) by observing peoples actions and seeing which we react approbatively, and then extrapolating.

Your analogy might work, were it not for your inclusion of ‘approbatively (appropriately?). Particles don’t act appropriately, they just act. If they don’t act in accordance with a theory, we take this as meaning that we have the wrong formulation, and we revise or discard the ‘law’. If we have a theory of ethics that is concerned not with how people do act, but how they should, and a person acts in a way that is not in accordance with this theory, we don’t automatically decide that this theory is wrong; we seriously consider the possibility that what the person did was un-ethical.

If we observe a particle acting in a certain manner we can use this to generate a theory that if corroborated, i.e. enough people make the same observation enough could be considered a ‘law’. Would you suggest that we can do the same thing with people? If observe that people are often unpleasant and unkind to each other, use this to form a general theory and then have it corroborated by my peers, does this give me the right to deduce or even infer “People should be unpleasant and unkind to each other”? I think not. But it would allow me to infer what people actually do, and even predict their behaviour, in the same way that physics can predict the behaviour of some physical systems.

The point is that no amount of observation of people can tell you what people should do; only what they will do. Ethics is normative, if you take the ‘should’ out, it’s not Ethics any more. Similarly there is no ‘should’ in physics, there is only what does and what will happen.

Therefore Ethics is not the same as Physics.

michael said...

Martin, wank somewhere else; you're MH not MC.

Sam. I'll grant that the inclusion of "approbative" is excessive, but having pointed this out is it really necessary in ethics either? I am inclined to say no.

I think a closer analogy is drawn between ethical shoulds and physical will in relation to normative ethics. So this would be more along the lines of seeing ethics as an attempt to bind people to a certain form of action (I'm thinking disciplining and subjectification, though I'm sure Pete could give a better argument here), thus making them predictable, like those things subject to physical laws.

Though of course it will be pointed out that this is only a restricting of the agent, not something natural to the agent, so it is still possible that the agent act otherwise. Now I put forward the claim that if subjectification and disciplining were completely successful, then we would be able to produce laws that show/predict the actions of people in the same way as we do through physics. But of course this is not ethics.

Now ethics is being put forward so far only as telling what one should do. This is not the whole picture, as there are set down ramifications within an ethical system for those who fail to do what they ought. So ethics could be seen as a description of what can be done without having to be concerned with specific ramification, or if these things are done then such and such ramifications will happen. So ethics can cope with things that are not allowed within the ethical norms.

More importantly it allows ethics to say, rather than just 'this should be done', this should be done but these are what could be done, and here are the ramification for each of those actions. Unlike physics which has a single answer ethics can be seen as having multiple, but appart from that no different. the remaining question is how, from the possible actions, is one chosen and aligned with 'should'. Presumably considereing the ramification s and the agent it would be the action among the possible actions that produces the least harm to him (whatever 'harm' is). (This does not rule out any ethical system because he coul dhave identified himelf with that ethical system, allowing that, for example if harm is brought to his community but not specifically to him it may still injure him personally.)

Of course here I have seemed to move to a position of making ethics like physics rather than the other way 'round. I still hold that it ought to go the other way 'round, but this is the direction teh discussion was leading.

In terms of should in physics, when formulating theories it is said 'this should be the result'. when it is not the scientist says 'I was wrong'. An ethicist never says this. I think the ethicists could learn from the scientists. The scientist says this only because the inanimate objects had no choice. So they 'could not have been' wrong. Now, is a person has a certain set of options, then similarly they cannot be wrong in that extent, because obviously they will do one of them. When ethics decides what it is actually trying to do, whether it be find the best, or the happiests, of the most mundane, or whatever, option then things might be a little clearer, but until then there is a set of actions that people can do, corresponding to a (smaller) set of actions that an inanimate thing can do.

I don't know. I'm rambling. Sucks to your ethics.

Samuel Douglas said...

Michael you are mising the point. I'll get back to you when I'm not at work, though I doubt there is any point. Pete, can you do anything with this?

Rowan Blyth said...

Ethics consists of 2 main threads - 1stly that of normative systems, and 2ndly meta-ethics. You are drawing a comparison between the 1st and physics (but why be so narrow, why not science in general). In a general sense you are correct that both are theoretical models used to describe complex systems in as simple terms as possible, but this is not surprising as science did emerge from philosophy, but psychoanalysis is also a similar descriptive model, so why not make the claim that physics is just the psychoanalysis of matter?

The real problem with what you are saying is that in physical laws, there appears to be no autonomous agents and such no ethical agents, just as there is no subconconscious to matter to be analysed. You might say that physics is the ethics of matter metaphorically, to poetically describe the way that physics as a model describes certain interactions between certain bodies, using a kind of personification, but beyond that it doesn't go far just as claiming that gravity occurs because of certain neurotic behaviour in planetary bodies doesn't either.

Almost all that we do as philosophers (or academics in general) is deal with abstract models which don't actually have any reality to them: an ethical law is no more real than a law of science, but they have descriptive value, and what ethics is describing is a very different thing from a physical law. There is only a discrepency in the degree of accuracy of description based on the usefulness of the model. Physics has been profitable because the models allow a high usefulness for what we need to gain from them, but the reality of physical systems is relatively static. Ethics on the other hand is describing regulatory systems within social groups of autonomous agents, and as such has the tricky issue of autonomy, agency and historically changing desired outcomes (values). The accuracy of the descriptions might seem dubious at times but the usefulness of these models is probably no less than newton's laws.