Prescriptive Philosophy

Written on August 30, 2008. Written by .

Abandoned Religion
The prescriptive-descriptive question.
Photo courtesy of Brandon Brubaker

The spicy lifestyle morality states that one should maximize expected subjective life quality, subject to no additional constraints. Initially this seems like crazy advice. Almost every well-known moral philosophy has some explicit provision to prevent people from engaging in crime and violence. Even Objectivism, which is based on rational self-interest, universally discourages the initiation of force.

Should a proper moral philosophy ban the initiation of force? First of all we need to be clear on the distinction between a moral philosophy and a legal system. A legal system needs to be designed so as to operate based on rules that can be deterministically enforced based on publicly available information. Of course we wouldn’t want prison sentences to be determined by the messages from a psychic’s crystal ball. And this means that we can’t make the law depend on the supposed mental state of the suspect. This is why sometimes people have to go to jail for manslaughter even though they had no intention of killing anyone. The court can’t know for sure who had criminal intentions, so letting people get off with no punishment would significantly reduce the deterrent effect of the law. These practical considerations have the effect that legal systems do not entirely overlap with philosophical systems.

Now pretend that you are about to starve. Somehow you know that you will die in the next hour if you don’t get some food and you have no reason to believe that anyone is going to help you. Would you steal food from the grocery store? I would, it is basically self defense, even though nobody is initiating force on you (you could say that nature is). I think it would be crazy to commit suicide for the sake of a principle that probably has no real justification. So already we have found a case where the initiation of force is justified.

There are other examples which are a bit more surprising. Let’s say there’s a man who is in no particular danger, but has the desire to become a bank robber. Now this would pretty much never happen to a normal rational person because the incentives are heavily in favor of earning your money honestly. But suppose this man has a genetic mutation which makes him enjoy nothing but theft. It is conceivable that such a mutation could sway his values to the point where becoming a bank robber is the best way for him to maximize his expected subjective life quality, even after taking into consideration all the numerous disadvantages such as prison, retaliation, and guilt. The question is, should we strive to indoctrinate this man with a philosophy that explicitly bans him from becoming a bank robber? If we did, we would be telling him to not maximize his expected subjective life quality, which means, by definition, that he would be making his life worse than it has to be, according to his analysis. How are you going to convince someone to do that? What could convince him to sacrifice his life quality? It would take something more important to him than life quality. If he was religious, then perhaps the promise of a better afterlife would fit the bill. Otherwise, perhaps a principle? Principles are not intrinsically valuable, their value derives from the fact that they help you improve your life quality. A principle that prevents you from improving your life quality clearly has no justification. So in either case, the only way we could philosophically convince this man to not be a bank robber is to try to infect him with dogmatic beliefs, i.e. beliefs that are not logically justifiable.

Now we get to an interesting question. One might ask: “Wouldn’t it be better for society if we were to infect him with dogmatic beliefs because then we would have one less bank robber?” And this boils down to the question “Should philosophy be prescriptive or descriptive?” A prescriptive philosophy is designed to tell people what they need to hear in order to maximize the apparent quality of society. A descriptive philosophy simply states the truth. The spicy lifestyle philosophy is purely descriptive. If you are interested in prescriptive philosophy, then you might disagree with some of the things we say. But I would argue that prescriptive philosophy is a waste of time. Just look at how it has turned out.

Religion is the world’s biggest experiment in prescriptive philosophy – cause of countless wars, unjustified discrimination, and needless misunderstanding. Not to mention the fact that billions of people have sacrificed their life quality under the false promise of an afterlife that they will never be rewarded with. From a moral standpoint, the most devastating issue with prescriptive philosophy is the fact that it just hands you a pre-packaged system of morals. That means the only thing that holds you to your morals is an unjustified belief. Those who arrive at their moral philosophy through a long, careful process of reasoning will be much more tightly bonded to their principles. I think this explains why I often find atheists to be more consistently ethical than Christians. Christians and other relgious believers can never feel sure about their principles in the solid rational way that atheists can. There is no psychological substitute for your own reasoning.

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