Tortured Positivism

April 25, 2009 § 7 Comments

Strong positivism insists, from one point of view, that unless we have a theory of everything X we don’t know anything relevant about X. (Another point of view is that it insists that anything not expressed in our theory of everything X is irrelevant, which amounts to the same thing). I’ve talked before about how the positivist-postmodern dynamic works out in practice: positivists believe (contra all evidence and reason) that we can formally express everything true (or relevant) about X. Postmoderns conclude that because positivism is irrational we don’t really know anything about X. Both positivism and postmodernism, then, depend on a particular approach to knowledge: an approach which insists that completeness is required in order to have relevant knowledge at all; that incomplete knowledge is invalid. In a sense, then, they both confuse the incomplete with the indefinite.

Modernity exists in a stew of positivism and postmodernism. Because of this, arguments often proceed as though definite conclusions cannot be reached until a comprehensive definition or “Theory of Everything X” is produced.

But we don’t need to have a Theory of Everything in order to know some things. For example, we don’t need to have a Theory of Everything Abortion to know that when a woman has the living child suctioned out of her womb because she doesn’t want to get fat, she has procured an abortion. And we don’t need to have a Theory of Everything Torture in order to know that when we waterboard a prisoner to get him to talk, we have committed an act of torture. Sure, stating what was done in that manner doesn’t fit a careful and formal deontological casuistry of the morality of acts, and it doesn’t provide us with a Theory of Everything with respect to the moral subject matter in question. But that doesn’t mean we are even slightly uncertain as to whether what was actually done in the particular case was abortion or torture.



§ 7 Responses to Tortured Positivism

  • Billy says:

    Is it possible that one level of torture – the worst sort – is morally wrong for one reason, while lesser sorts of torture are wrong on a different basis? Is is possible that the horror we have for the worst sort is because it is evil in a distinct way from the lesser sorts of torture? I wonder if this might account for the way some people try to justify some (lesser) kinds of torture – an instinctive feeling that the lesser kinds simply do not belong in the same category of evil as the gravest sorts, and therefore does not fit under the same condemnation. (This would not mean that they are right that the lesser kinds are OK. That would be a separate fallacy.)

  • zippy says:

    I don’t think there is any doubt that some acts of torture are worse than others; just as there isn’t any doubt that some murders are worse than others.

  • LnxCthlc says:

    I’m glad this subject has came up. We have been discussing this at work.

  • Billy says:

    Well, sure, there are different degrees of being nasty in how you create pain. But what I meant was something a little firmer than that – a difference in kind. Is there a distinct sin in torturing someone whose actions are innocent of all the reasons you think might justify your torturing them?

  • zippy says:

    You mean like the difference between murdering a guilty person (say, someone who raped a relative) and murdering an innocent person? Sure, there are differences; but they are both murder.

  • Billy says:

    Naturally, in your example, there are likely differences in how culpable we would be in committing that murder. But in both cases the most proper way to identify the evil act is simply: murder. There is no difference in kind there.

    Is that also true with the example of torturing an innocent person and torturing a person who is a criminal?

  • […] The modern world is pervasively characterized by the nothing-buttery I broadly call positivism. […]

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