> ''..........:Putting all these together we get that “an act is wrong
> just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is
> optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably
> rephrase: ... an act is wrong when such acts are disallowed by some
> principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not
> reasonably rejectable....
well, not quite the same but by your normal standards of distorting
what people say
> rephrase: ... an act is wrong when such acts are disallowed by some
> principle that ..... are not reasonably rejectable....
And here we go again: if we remove arbitrarily words from what someone
says, it suddenly means something different. If a recipe says that to
bake a cake, you need flour, water and eggs, then Backspace would
"rephrase" this as : to make a cake,.. you need eggs" and then
complain t the author that even though he put the eggs in the oven as
described no cake came out.
> rephrase: ... an act is wrong when such acts are disallowed ....
> rephrase: ... an act is wrong when disallowed ....
> rephrase: ... something is wrong when disallowed ....
> final tautological bafoonism: When we define something as wrong then
> it means it isn't allowed.
Final false witness bearing from Backspace (who ever gave him an
exemption from the 9th commandment), as the sentence has no similarity
whatsoever with the original quote.
Let's look at what it _really_ says:
“an act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some
What does this mean? Essentially, it is a statement in support of
freedom. It says that the default assumption is that acts are not
wrong or allowed. One can disagree with that, and dictators of all
hues often do (everything is prohibited unless permitted), but this is
the first content bearing part of the quote.
From this result a burden of proof allocation: when it is disputed if
an act is right or wrong, the burden of proof is with the party that
declares the act wrong.
How can that party discharge that burden of proof? That follows in the
second part of the quote:
" disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely
universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable”.
So if you argue that an act is wrong, merely saying that you think it
is, or that you have the power to punish anyone who does it
nonetheless, is not enough. Might does not make right. Instead, you
have to give a reason.
First, that reason has to have the syntactic form of a principle -
that is a general statement. "I don't like it" is not sufficient (this
distinguishes this approach from certain forms of emotivism, and thus
gives it content - people can and do disagree with that requirement,
it is neither obvious nor tautologous).
But not every principle will do - it has to meet three conditions at
the same time;
- your reason has to be optimific. That is, if your argument is
accepted and the act disallowed, the sum of human happiness must
increase. If this is the case is an empirical question that needs to
be decided in every individual case. again, the person arguing that
the act is disallowed has the burden of proof, and must provide a
(falsifiable) theory why disallowing the act increases human
happiness. As an example, I can't for instance tell my neighbour not
to wear red shirts, as I can't prove that in a world without red
shirts, everybody would be ceteris paribus better off. I can however
tell him to toe down the music a bit, since his marginal loss of
enjoyment is demonstrably offset by the increase of happiness of all
the neighbours who can't sleep.
- this however is not enough, In addition to being opimific, the
principle has also to be universally willable (this essentially
combines Bentham's utilitarianism with Kantian' deontology) With other
words, I can only claim that an act is disallowed if the same
prohibition applies to me (and everybody else) as well. So I can't
tell my neighbour to give me all his money, even if it would make me
happier than him (criterion 1 met), because I would not want to
universalise that principle and then hand over the money in turn to
The third condition is that my principle must not be " reasonably
rejectable" Now that condition is of a slightly different nature from
the other two. It is again a burden of proof allocation. If I have
shown that a prohibition of an act is optimific, and universalisable,
I have discharged for the time being my burden of proof. We now have
at least some good reason to believe the world would indeed be a
better place if the action in question were disallowed.
BUT this claim can still be falsified. One way we discussed above -
maybe it was not optimific after all, that is a testable, empirical
question. The third condition allows for another way to falsify a
prohibition - by arguing that there are good reasons to make an
exception from the rule. We can for instance discuss if it was wrong
for Joe to kill Jane. My argument would be that since killing inflicts
pain, a world without murder is one where the happiness of people is
overall increased. (condition 1 met). I also argue that it is
universally willable - not just Joe should refrain from killing, but
also me and everybody else. No contradiction seem to follow. That
means condition 2 is met.
at this point we can tentatively conclude that Joe's act was wrong.
But he has a comeback under condition three: he can now argue that
there was a good reason in turn to reject the application of the
principle to his situation. a typical example would be if he claims
self-defence. He then has to show, again, that the self-defence
exception can be put in form of a principle, is optimific and
universalisable - resulting in a refined principle.
Let's use another example. I implied above that Backspace's constant
lying about people by putting words in their mouth that they have not
said is morally wrong. Under the idea proposed in the quote, I now
have the burden of proof. There are lots of different ethical theories
that are inconsistent with what the quote demands, which means that it
can't be tautologous. In particular, it is not enough for me to point
out that most cultures are against lying ( argument from moral
consensus, not demanded/covered by the quote), that God prohibits
false witness bearing (argument from authority, not covered by the
quote) or tat I have a strong moral intuition (not covered by teh
so far from being a tautology, the approach in the quote is
inconsistent with (can be falsified by) several other ethical
What the quote demands from me is instead to show that a general
prohibition to lie about people is optimific, that is that ceteris
paribus people are happier when nobody is lied about and their
reputation attacked through lying. I would indeed make this claim.
Personal reputation matters to people and gives them a reason to
behave in a good way. if lies about them are as common as truth, an
important incentive for benevolent behaviour disappears. It also
inflicts harm on the individual, and also on people who change their
behaviour towards someone because of lies spread about them (Reading
backspaces's misrepresentation of Parfit , if I believed it to be
true, could deprive me of the enjoyment of reading a good book)
The prohibition of lying can also be universalised it is generally
wrong to lie, not just for backspace, but everybody. In fact, this is
why Kant uses lying and the prohibition of lying as an example to
illustrate the categorical imperative - we can't wish to live in a
world where everybody lies all the time, since we could not any longer
coordinate our actions at all.
With that I have discharged by burden of proof, it would now be up to
backspace to fin good reasons why his action should be exempted from
> This tautological banality by Blackburn
Just a minor point. The quote is not even from Blackburn. it is
Blackburn reporting what Parfit wrote - the article is a book review.