[lit-ideas] Re: Univocal philosophy as the value of transcendental claims?

  • From: Eric Dean <ecdean99@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 4 Jan 2009 17:54:13 +0000

Phil Enns writes:

"The moral prohibition is a structural component of stealing so that it makes 
no sense to question whether theft is or is not wrong.  To assert that x was a 
theft is to also assert that x was wrong."

The position I have been developing is that moral principles, judgments, etc. 
are always at best partial, i.e. incomplete, imprecise (I don't mean partial in 
the sense of 'supporting a particular interest'), in a way that might be 
suggested by calling them 'guidelines' (in the case of principles) or 
'provisional' (in the case of judgments).  

I think that debates about this topic tend to get polarized in a way that's 
analogous to what happens in debates about the nature of truth -- either 
there's absolute truth or every asserted truth is just a power play by someone. 
 I think that is a false dichotomy and similarly I think the notion that 
morality is either transcendental or culturally-bound is a false dichotomy.

To explore that, I am comfortable with selecting a means of expressing moral 
principles, judgments, etc. I read Phil, here, as in part suggesting a 
terminological convention whereby the word 'steal' will be treated as 
intrinsically including 'morally wrong' as part of its meaning.  The result of 
accepting that convention is that it is simply meaningless to talk in those 
terms about stealing that is not morally wrong.  Anything that's not morally 
wrong must not be stealing.

My general point about the imprecision of moral judgments, etc., can be 
restated using this terminological convention as an assertion about the 
uncertainty of application of the word 'steal'.  Since I've agreed to accept 
that whatever is morally right cannot be stealing, then for my present purposes 
if some act appears to be stealing but turns out not to be morally wrong, it 
must not have been stealing.

Phil asks, later, for just that -- an example of a theft (well, I assume he 
would accept the amendment: 'an act that in all other respects appears to be a 
theft') but is neither justified (i.e. by exculpating circumstance?) nor wrong. 

The simplest way to create an example is to assume that, legitimately, person A 
and person B live by two different sets of rules of ownership.  A takes 
something which in A's view is public property and in B's view is B's property. 
 From B's perspective, it's a theft.  From A's perspective it's not.  

This needn't be some encounter between previously isolated cultures.  Such 
questions arise regularly about intellectual property among individuals and/or 
companies both of whom/which are natives to the US.  There was also a case I 
vaguely remember reading about recently in which the question of the scope of 
an easement (I think this had to do with using railroad rights of way for bike 
paths or something) was ambiguously settled by contract and precedent resulting 
in two at least apparently legitimate and clashing views of whether something 
was 'stolen'.

I want to say that I can see how one might interpret my sketched examples as 
failing to be examples, apart from the flimsiness of the sketches.  The 
shortest path is to say that the question is whether these are thefts precisely 
because there is a question as to whether there was a wrong committed.  
Alternatively, one could say they are thefts but may be exculpated by the 
extenuating circumstance of the stealing party not having known or recognized 
the rules under which the act was theft and the circumstances being such that 
ignorance is an excuse.  Etc.  

The general strategy here would be to adjust the definitions of the key words 
('theft', 'justified', 'exculpated', 'wrong') so that there cannot be examples 
of the sort Phil asks for, analogous to setting the meaning of 'theft' such 
that if something is morally right it's not a theft.  I think there could be 
such adjustments in the terms, and I would again acquiesce in making such a 
terminological adjustment and re-state my point.  

So: assume that the meanings of 'theft', 'justified', 'exculpated', and 'wrong' 
are all adjusted so that there can be no example of an act that is an apparent 
theft but which is neither justified nor wrong.  Upon fuller understanding of 
the facts and circumstances and applying the adjusted definitions, in each case 
such apparent examples would either turn out to be thefts that are either 
justified or wrong, or turn out not to be thefts at all, i.e. appearances were 
entirely deceiving.

Then I would say the imprecision of such judgments is that while there are 
obvious examples of theft, there are also many and important circumstances in 
which it is not immediately obvious whether it is or is not a theft.  Perhaps 
the word 'imprecise' would need to be changed here -- maybe I would do better 
to say the 'uncertain application' of such judgments, rather than their 

Before anyone can know whether something is a theft, in one those 
circumstances, we may have to ascertain quite a range of ancillary facts.  And 
note: this is crucially not simply a question of whether a third party, an 
observer as it were, can know whether there was a theft -- i.e. these are not 
analogous to cases in which one guy stole another's cash, the victim is 
accusing the villain and the villain denying it.  In the difficult cases I'm 
alluding to, the thief may legitimately not know he was a thief, or 
alternatively the victimized party may legitimately not know he was not a 

In any case, the result is what I asserted some time ago in my exchanges with 
Walter (who I hope I've not put off with my relentlessness about this): knowing 
the truth of a moral judgment depends upon our knowing how it can be applied to 
(potentially) real circumstances.

In other words, the following seem to me to come to the same point:

(a) "Stealing is wrong" is a general guideline to be applied to human behavior;
(b) Stealing is always wrong but it may not be easy to determine whether a 
particular situation is stealing.

Phil goes on, in a subsequent post, to say: "What counts as theft will differ 
over time and cultures, but there is at least one thing that can be said about 
every case of theft, about what makes stealing wrong, namely the imperative 

He also, in yet another post, writes "...that there are moral cases is a 
subject of study that escapes anthropology and belongs properly to philosophy."

A couple points about these comments.  I for one can agree with the second 
assertion without thereby thinking that this means there must be some property 
all moral cases have in common -- even the "imperative 'don't'".

The notion that "x is wrong" has some universal, unequivocal meaning is, in my 
opinion, fraught with uncertainty and subject to subtle edge cases just like I 
have been arguing 'theft' is.  Different people even in my own culture seem to 
have a very different idea about what 'wrong' means.

There's something negative about it, sure, and that negativity has something to 
do with one's behavior, sure.  But just how negative and to what extent it is 
supposed to control one's behavior seems, in my experience, to vary all over 
the map, even among my acquaintenceship, the vast majority of whom are white, 
middle- to upper-middle class Americans, i.e. about as culturally homogeneous 
as one could want.

Just as with "theft", "justified", etc., I can imagine there being some 
unambiguous, clear definition of "wrong" which we are to use in interpreting 
moral assertions.  But again, I think the same questions of precision or 
certainty of application will arise in using the word 'wrong'.

Did the person who truly unknowingly stole something (to use the terminology as 
above) do something 'wrong'?  If so, how was he supposed to follow the 
imperative 'don't steal' if he, by hypothesis, could not have known he was 

I raise this to ask, sincerely and earnestly: what is the value of insisting 
that there must be some transcendental, universal, common meaning of moral 
terms?  What is to be lost if we do not accept that?

Regards to one and all,
Eric Dean
Washington DC

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