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.

Read more from the Ethics category. If you would like to leave a comment, click here: 5 Comments. or stay up to date with this post via RSS from your site.

Leave a Comment

If you would like to make a comment, please fill out the form below.

Name (required)

Email (required)



5 Comments so far
  1. nhien August 31, 2008 5:40 pm

    Obviously the crazy man doesn’t have logical reasoning and you are against prescriptive philosophy…How do you deal with the crazy man so that he can adjust or at least be positively involved in society?

  2. cspice September 1, 2008 3:54 am

    I think the crazy man and society are inherently at odds. I don’t think there is an ideal solution that will allow them to peacefully coexist. The best solution would be to send such people to another planet where they can live life in their own preferred way. Obviously that isn’t practical and the current alternative is to keep them in prison. In the book “A Clockwork Orange” another alternative is presented. In the book, prisoners can opt into a program that conditions them to get sick at the thought of violence. This makes them safe for release within weeks. I don’t think this is ideal either, but it is an interesting thought. Perhaps a more sophisticated approach using gene therapy could be more successful in the future.

  3. nspice September 1, 2008 4:52 am

    I saw Clockwork Orange the movie…it was awesome!! Although true that the man and society cannot peacefully coexist, because one is against the other. But there’s alway a way in which he could sublimate … how is the ultimate question I think.

  4. FlattenedAnt May 28, 2015 12:24 pm

    Hi cspice,
    In saying that philosophy should be descriptive and that the prescriptive approach is “a waste of time”, you are, in fact, being prescriptive. As a self-proclaimed homo descriptivus, you are obliged to stay away from words like should, ought, must etc. because they belong to prescriptive paradigm. Funny, right? I am from the prescriptive paradigm, and thus I, in contrast to you, would (if I had the time) be able to argue in thoroughly good conscience that you are traveling down the wrong and cozy path of descriptions, and that there is nothing “spicy” about and absolutely nothing truthful in your descriptive approach. You have been misled by by misguided fools, and that’s why you can’t even see that your espoused theories contradict your theories in action (see Chris Argyris’s work for more info on this). So, in cases like yours, cspice, there is actually a substitute for your own (false) reasoning, and that it my (correct) reasoning.

    By the way, your argument is not a real argument either. You are using an example (religion) that is dominated by false beliefs, incorrect interpretations and hypocrisy to debunk prescriptive philosophy. Then again, think about this: the homo descriptivus is not accustomed to formulating complex arguments to defend a position; they much more prefer the safety of the description, where they can always say, “Oh, but I see things differently so I’m just as right as you are.” Sorry, to break this to you, cspice, but you have to learn how to argue.

    So, cspice, finally, welcome to the dark side (which in true truth is the light side)! Now, c’mon, be prescriptive with us! You’ll see, in no time you’ll be living a truly spicy lifestyle, fighting for things that have genuine meaning for humanity.

  5. cspice June 15, 2015 3:37 am

    @FlattenedAnt In the post I noted that the most obvious efforts at prescriptive philosophy (religions) have not achieved the desired effect, and thus by definition those efforts were a waste of time, if not worse. This is an observation, which is descriptive, not prescriptive.

    Also, if I were to have explicitly said “you should not attempt to employ prescriptive ethics”, this would technically be a prescriptive statement, but not in the sense that the word is used in the post. The post focuses on the use of prescriptions that are not compatible with the true descriptive reality (granted the usage of the terms is not identical with the common usage, but it is similar). The statement “you should not attempt to employ prescriptive ethics” is more like a piece of rationally justified advice that the recipient can factor into their decision-making than an unjustified prescription.

© Copyright thrive by design - Powered by Wordpress - Designed by Speckyboy