[lit-ideas] Re: The meaning of life

  • From: Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 11 Dec 2008 16:09:08 -0800

Walter wrote

wokshevs@xxxxxx wrote re 'survival of the fittest'

Formulated as a maxim:

In cases of limited resources and competition for these resources, only the
fittest shall survive.

It looks like this is a non-universalizable maxim because it displays

This doesn't strike me as a maxim, seeing as how it isn't framed as something a person could, in that form, will. As it is, it sounds more like something God might, for some reason, decree.

[which is the] first feature of a maxim unfit to model the form of
law. In other words, if everybody did it, nobody could do it.

If everybody crossed the Ross Island Bridge at 3:00 pm every Tuesday, then nobody could do it; yet there's nothing incoherent about my willing that I should do it, nor does my willing that I should do it entail that I would favor 'universalizing' it.

If everybody were "the fittest," there would be no possibility for the 
application of the scalar
quality of fitness. Somebody's got to be "fitter than but not as fit as," as
others have to be "really not quite fit at all," etc.. The maxim thus "cancels
itself out," "negates itself," as the Master was wont to say.

Uh huh. But this seems to be a semantic or a conceptual point. Not everybody in a population could be the fittest among them any more than every coin could be counterfeit. Yet everyone meeting the criteria for being among the fittest might survive where the least fit might not. Nietzsche would have approved of this, I think. In any event, that the 'more fit' you are the better your chances is a claim about organisms in the natural world, independent of human willing.

As self-contradictory, the maxim is unfit for universal legislation, an
essential requirement for any Enlightenment ideal.

There's nothing contradictory about willing that only the fittest should survive (in fact, as a statement about how organisms prosper and decline, it looks more like a tautology, 'fittest' being defined in terms of survival). If I were to will that only the fittest students should be admitted to Okshevsky U., I'd be doing nothing prima facie immoral or illogical. Yet if 'fittest' is cashed out in terms of grades and test scores, there might be objections to my willing this, on the grounds that some less advantaged students should be given a chance.

If my maxim is to will that only a specified few should do (or be allowed to do) a thing, I see nothing here to prevent that's becoming a universal law. But that it's universalizable doesn't entail that every sentient being should be allowed to do it. The imagined law would itself be internally inconsistent if it said that all should do what some should do; but of course it doesn't say that.

The reply [to Donal] to return to the objection above,
is that that's precisely what Kant had intended: morality is grounded in
rationality. Same criticism is lodged against such contemporary Kantian
moral philosophers as Scanlon and Habermas.

I have no idea what morality's being 'grounded in rationality' means. Morality, surely, is grounded in the fact that human beings are capable of pain and suffering, physical and mental, and thus care about what's done to them. And the officer who says 'so what?' upon learning that many of those sent into a mine field will not survive, may be callous—but not irrational.

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