[lit-ideas] Re: "Must We Mean What We Say?"

  • From: "John McCreery" <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 28 Oct 2007 09:04:39 +0900

On 10/28/07, Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:
> It is not clear to me that the problem is that these maxims 'cannot be
> acted
> on' - rather it is that they are paradoxical, and this is what underlies
> why
> they cannot be acted on [there are perhaps (many?) non-paradoxical things
> that cannot be acted on?].
> (1) is paradoxical because slave and master are both assumed to be
> opposite
> and mutually necessary. However, we could surely conceive a circle of
> persons
> who are 'master' to those to the left and 'slave' to those to the right:
> such
> a circle could be complete and non-paradoxical: of course such a circle
> depends on the assumption that one can be both master and slave. It is the
> assumption that all persons can be entirely and only slaves [to others who
> are masters] that is paradoxical.
> This paradox is surely conceptual and not action-based, even if its
> conceptual impossibility means an actual impossibility [i.e. we could not
> put
> into action a circle where the persons in it were entirely and only
> slaves,
> without masters].
> (2) is even more paradoxical than (1) in that it is impossible to conceive
> a
> circle where everyone buys but no one sells bread.
> Still the paradox seems logical/conceptual, rather than action-based.
> So the suggested link to "universalizability as a criterion of moral
> permissibility/impermissibility" is here unclear me.

Very nice. The circle of masters/slaves suggests a more general thought
taken up in sociological theory, i.e., the possibility of reframing what
have been taken to be essential attributes as roles or relationships. In
caste societies, master and slave are taken to be categorical differences
between different kinds of individuals. Movement from one status to the
other is impossible.  In class societies, movement is possible but may be
rare. Societies composed entirely of free, equal, and autonomous individuals
are thinkable and may even be worthwhile ideals to strive toward; in
practice they are very rare, indeed, which may have something to do with
either the tendency that humans share with other species to arrange
themselves in pecking orders or the demands of organizing collective action
in the face of competing opinions. Debate continues....

Anyway, I am reminded of a science-fiction story--I believe it was by Jack
Vance--in which a society is organized in such a way that people take shifts
playing different roles, very confusing initially for the hero, who is
greeted by someone he takes to be a noble, who is found the next morning
scrubbing out the kitchen, while the former scullery maid is now,
apparently, the lady of the house.

The buying and selling problem is trickier. It is possible, for example, to
imagine people, traveling on a starship designed to be a completely
self-contained ecosystem. The travelers must go to the loo each morning
before receiving their daily sustenance, the whole thing being under the
control of a mechanism over which they have no control. In physical terms
exchange occurs. Does it count as buying and selling? Or do buying and
selling require the existence of conscious, or at least partly autonomous,
agents, who negotiate transactions instead of simply passing goods back and
forth. What if the mechanism in question is able to adjust the rate of
exchange by taking into account tasks essential for its own maintenance, e.g.,
providing extra calories for those who sweep the ship's passageways? It is
doing this automatically, but, now in their nth generation, the travelers
are unaware of how the mechanism works and find themselves competing  to
figure out what the machine wants in exchange for more...
Are conscious, albeit mystified, agents on one side of an exchange enough
for it to count as buying and selling....

John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN
Tel. +81-45-314-9324

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