11 April 2008

A Defense of that Poor Whipping Boy

Have you ever seen a home inspector inspecting a house by taking a long screw-driver and poking it into the wooden sill of the house at intervals, to see if the tool digs in at any point, meaning that the wood is soft and rotted?

That's how I feel too frequently when reading philosophy.

Consider the excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that I posted the other day. According to the author, Aristotle and other thinkers in antiquity failed to see the Free Rider Problem because they committed the Fallacy of Composition, confusing the goal of the community with the goal of the individual.

Here's the passage quoted by that entry in which Aristotle is said to commit the fallacy:

We see that every city-state is a community of some sort, and that every community is established for the sake of some good (for everyone performs every action for the sake of what he takes to be good). (Aristotle 1998, Politics, book 1, chap. 1, p. 1)
But now consider the Aristotelian text. You can see that something is wrong, because the lines quoted in SEP do not contain Aristotle's conclusion!
πειδ πσαν πλιν ρμεν κοινωναν τιν οσαν κα
σαν κοινωναν γαθο τινος νεκεν συνεστηκυαν (το γρ
ναι δοκοντος γαθο χριν πντα πρττουσι πντες), δ-
ς πσαι μν γαθο τινος στοχζονται, μλιστα δ
το κυριωττου πντων πασν κυριωττη κα πσας
χουσα τς λλας. ατη δ' στν καλουμνη πλις
κοινωνα πολιτικ.
Here's how I might translate, and you see that the inference occurs after the passage quoted (highlighted):
Since every city-state (as we see) is a kind of association, and every association is established for the sake of some good (everyone does everything for the sake of something regarded as good), plainly every association is directed at some good, and the association which does that most of all, and is directed at the good which holds sway over all the rest, is that association which itself most holds sway and embraces all the others. This is what is called the 'city-state'-- 'political society' in fact.
One might wonder how the statement merely of the premises of an argument could possibly constitute a fallacy of any kind.

Perhaps the idea is that the fallacy is contained solely in the line, "every community is established for the sake of some good (for everyone performs every action for the sake of what he takes to be good)". Yet here the translation (due to David Reeve, apparently) attributes a distributivist sense to Aristotle's universal claim, which is not required and fails to fit the context. (Jowett for instance, tipping in the other direction, has: "mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good".) (My own intuition is that Aristotle writes πντα πρττουσι πντες in order to include collective as well as individual action -- since clearly some things done are done through the actions of several.)

Moreover, gar ('for') doesn't always introduce a claim meant to stand as premise to implied conclusion.

Soft wood, I'd say; I personally wouldn't rest anything on it.

On the article itself, I don' t know if you consulted it, but it contains its own curiosity. As some readers of this blog have pointed out, the Free Rider Problem arises only if one excludes 'altruistic' motivation as original in an agent. But on this point the SEP entry says two things:

1. Scientific social science became possible only once the motives of agents were postulated as being purely self-interested, in the manner of Hobbes. (Oops, someone forgot to tell the Scottish moralists about this.)
A century later, Hobbes did not bother to advise acting from self-interest because he supposed virtually everyone naturally does so. From that assumption, he went on to give us the first modern political theory of the state, an explanatory political theory that is not merely a handbook for the prince and that is not grounded in normative assumptions of religious commitment. To some extent, therefore, one could credit Hobbes with the invention of social science and of explanatory, as opposed to hortatory, political theory.
(Notice that 'social science' thus understood becomes a purely descriptive project and cannot be of a piece with practical reasoning.)

2. But, on the other hand, perhaps the postulate of purely self-interested action is false.
Against the assumption of purely self-interested behavior, we know that there are many active, more or less well funded groups that seek collective results that serve interests other than those of their own members. For a trivial example, none of the hundreds of people who have been members of the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment is likely to have had a personal stake in whether there is a death penalty (Schattschneider 1960, 26). In our time, thousands of people are evidently willing to die for their causes (and not simply to risk dying -- we already do that when we merely drive to a restaurant for dinner). Perhaps some of these people act from a belief that they will receive an eternal reward for their actions, so that their actions are consistent with their interests.
To summarize, according to the author of the SEP entry, the postulate which is necessary for a field's becoming a science is perhaps in fact false!

Thank goodness we've long since worked our way clear of such obvious mistakes as the Fallacy of Composition!


Anonymous said...

On the postulate so necessary for scientific social science, consider: "Every many of understanding would rather choose to be benefited by another than to be bothered benefiting him." Plato, Rep, 347D (the speaker is Socrates).

This is not quite the principle at issue, but it seems a nat'l derivative.