Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit
Defining Bullshit: A philosophy professor says it’s a process, not a product. By Timothy Noah
Before I say anything about my economic and political principles, let me say something about ethics. I am in agreement with Gilbert Harman that moral principles are relative to agreements. And this kind of claim is logically prior to the usual teleological and deontological positions normally defended. This is true especially of rule utilitarianism -– the position which claims that the rules or ethical principles which should be adopted on the basis of universal utility. My position on this is that this is, for the most part, in most contexts, the actual working criterion. But it is not the working criterion for various agreements involving sports -– the limiting case of which is the duel or, worse, Russian roulette, or “chicken.” Many sports involve the risk of injury or even death. Yet, engaging in sports is not considered immoral, and the person who causes an injury or death to his colleague is not deemed to have done anything immoral. Why? Because he has freely agreed to play the sport. And the guiding principle here is that two or more consenting adults cannot do anything immoral to each other. Morality is a function of agreements; not utility.
Richard Hare is the most prolific writer on ethics -– defending utilitarianism. I think I can incorporate most of his ideas into my position when involving cases of general social interaction, cases where we want to legislate, or as Hare would put it, prescribe rules of social behavior. His formal rule is that of universality. This means that the rules we adopt cannot contain proper names. At first blush, it will have the form: for any person x and y, x cannot harm y. But such rules, contra Kant, can be expanded to include exceptions. For example, I would expand this rule to read: for any person x and y, x cannot harm y, except for self-defense or self-preservation.
Hare himself adopts what is called the Impartial Observer, God’s point of view, an ideal Social Contract. In Hare’s case, he calls it the Archangel’s point of view. These are, I think, better than Kant’s criterion of what I would want to prescribe universally. But all these positions are attempts at constructing some ideal. By contrast, my ideal is to have actual persons come together and try to reach an agreement. In other words, I would like to see flourishing communities in which democracy is practiced.
Such communities would no doubt, for the most part, be guided as is Hare by a vision of the common good. But I would like to distinguish Hare’s Positive Utilitarianism from Karl Popper’s Negative Utilitarianism. Positive Utilitarianism wants to promote welfare; negative utilitarianism wants to diminish harm. In this regard we can look at distributive justice as a type of positive utility; and retributive justice as a utility in diminishing harm.
In legislating rules, it is safer to legislate rules which forbid harm than legislating rules which promote the good.
Herbert Spencer, and more recently Robert Nozick, wrote about the danger of legislating for distributive justice. Robert Nozick, in particular, favored an entitlement theory of justice rather than some non-historical ideal of current distributive justice. His position rests on two principles: a just acquisition theory and a just transference theory. I agree with him on this.
The problem with both Spencer’s and Nozick’s recommendations to existing legislative bodies are that they are merely recommendations, which no existing legislative bodies will adopt. Peter Kropotkin advances a solution to this by condemning all such legislative bodies as being the State. Existing legislatures are chosen by ignorant citizens who give power to self-serving politicians.
As Nozick, and before him Marx and other realized, but which was explicitly defended by Franz Oppenheimer, the current States are the consequence of aggression or conquest. Conquest originally gives rise to slavery, which morphs into feudalism, which morphs into capitalism or state socialism.
Marx, Weber, and Franz Oppenheimer are all in agreement that capitalism – the exploitation of workers – is impossible without denying workers access to free subsistence land. Such a pool of potential workers who have no free subsistence land is called the proletariat.
Feudalism gives the peasant land, but it ties him to it, and demands of the serf labor and tribute. With the abolition of serfdom, the free peasant –- especially in Russia –- has to make redemption payments to the former landlord, which made his condition even worse than under serfdom.
In England, with the demand for wool for textiles, the agricultural and common land was enclosed for grazing, depriving the peasants of the means of subsistence and eventually depriving them even of their own land -– converting them into proletarians.
By “religion” I have in mind those institutions or beliefs which claim the existence of a personal god or gods. By a personal god I mean simply a god who is a person. And a person is anything with which you can make agreements.
Now there are countless religions which profess a belief in personal gods. There are monotheisms, dualisms, and polytheisms. The Christian religions offer a basic conceptual problem with the dogma of the Trinity. The dogma is this: There are three persons in one God. What does this mean? Each person of the Trinity is said to be God, and the three together are God. This is to say that there are three Gods in one God. This cannot be unless the word “God” is used in two different senses. We can alter the dogma to read: There are three personal Gods in one Godhead. Isn’t that puzzling?
Instead of reinventing the wheel — so to say, I offer you the wisdom of C. D. Broad on this topic.
C. D. Broad
Published in the Hibbert Journal 24 (1925): 32-48. Reprinted in C. D. Broad, Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research (Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1953).
“To conclude. Whether there be in fact a personal God or not, it seems to me that we have no good reason to believe in the existence of such a being. I think that there are such grave difficulties in the notion of a God in the theological sense that there are strong reasons against believing that such a being exists. These objections do not apply to the notion of Gods in the popular sense. For all I can see there may be dozens of such Gods; and the only reason against being a polytheist is that there is no reason for being one.”