More on commitments and explicit qualifiers

June 16, 2013 § 12 Comments

A number of practical things follow from the fact that all explicit commitments, by logical necessity, have implicit qualifiers: that, more specifically, it is logically impossible to make a good-faith promise to do evil.

Promises made in good faith literally cannot bind us morally when circumstances obtain such that (superficially) keeping the promise involves doing evil.  The positivistic attitude about things like confidentiality agreements asserts something like “don’t commit to confidentiality unless you are willing to keep the secrets no matter what“.  But positivism is false: it is literally nonsensical to propose that one has a moral obligation to do something immoral, and in some circumstances it is immoral to keep secrets.  No human commitment to something like confidentiality can be understood to be morally binding in all conceivable circumstances: because positivism is false it is literally impossible to make a morally binding commitment in a prudential matter which completely covers all possible circumstances.

(Positivism, remember, involves a simultaneous insistence on consistency and completeness in some finite text; and positivism, while intuitively appealing to moderns, is literally and even provably irrational.  Completeness and consistency in meaning are like momentum and position in quantum mechanics: the more you insist on one, the less you get of the other).

And that’s why, no matter what confidentiality agreements that institutions and leaders require people to sign, the moral burden remains on the institutions and leaders to avoid asking people to do evil.  If you are asking someone to do evil he can refuse with a perfectly clean conscience, no matter what ostensible agreements have been signed.  It is possible that it may have been morally wrong for him to sign an agreement in the first place[1], of course, depending on the actual agreement; but two wrongs don’t make a right, and he faces no moral dilemma whatsoever when you ask him to do evil.

Someone who refuses to do evil – either by omission or commission – has not violated any morally binding agreement, by definition.   One never does moral wrong by refusing to do evil under the rubric of some ostensible explicit agreement.  It is the sovereign or other authority who abuses a good faith agreement when he attempts to coerce someone to do evil.

_____

[1] Usually it is fine to sign an agreement which does not make all possible exceptions explicit; because that is true of pretty much all written or verbal agreements in a non-positivistic world, which is to say, in reality.  Every single explicit agreement in actual reality – reality with the non-positivistic nature of our reality – has implicit qualifiers.

§ 12 Responses to More on commitments and explicit qualifiers

  • Just excellent stuff! – and something that we *always* need reminding of.

  • […] Wolf Orthospherean, Zippy shows yet again why Catholics are smarter than everyone else (except for the Jews, of […]

  • Antillean says:

    I generally agree with what you say here, but this part gives me pause.

    “Completeness and consistency in meaning are like momentum and position in quantum mechanics: the more you insist on one, the less you get of the other.”

    Can you back this up? It sounds as though you’re being Godelian, but as I understand them the incompleteness theorems are about demonstrating both completeness and consistency, not about them merely existing together.

  • Zippy says:

    Antillean:

    A more precise but less concise statement would be

    “Completeness and consistency in the meaning of a finite text are like momentum and position in quantum mechanics: the more you insist on one, the less you get of the other.”

  • Antillean says:

    That doesn’t make it any clearer for me (what do you mean by completeness in the meaning of a finite text?), but I don’t think any part of your argument hangs on these criticisms of what you call positivism, so I guess there isn’t really any reason for me to pursue this.

  • Mike T says:

    I think what he’s saying is that the more one demands completeness in the coverage of a topic and its corollary topics, the less consistency one will find in the overall argument because it’s very difficult to create an internally consistent argument that spans an ever-increasing range of topics and variables.

  • Antillean says:

    Mike, that sounds right. But that’s more of a strong tendency than a provable rule. And it’s one that we might raise an exception to in the case of a divinely inspired finite text, no?

  • Zippy says:

    I think it is a logical point; so (given that it is a logical point) the possibility of an exception for Divine Scripture probably depends upon the extent to which one believes “God can suspend the rules of logic when he wants to” to be intelligible. I lean heavily against that sort of interpretation not least because it is probably tantamount to “it is OK for God to lie, because it isn’t a lie when God tells it”.

  • Rollory says:

    So laws should be suspended on a case-by-case basis? Oaths are optional depending on circumstances?

    If at any time I thought there was anything not morally bankrupt about the argumentation here, you’ve disabused me of that error.

  • Zippy says:

    Rollory:
    So laws should be suspended on a case-by-case basis? Oaths are optional depending on circumstances?

    Show your work.

    But yes, for example, if circumstances arise wherein the literal application of the positive law to a particular case (or an oath to a particular situation) violates the natural law, the positive law – since it is lower in authority than the natural law – does not apply.

    All positive precepts come with implicit exceptions. As the Magisterium of the Church puts it,

    In the case of the positive moral precepts, prudence always has the task of verifying that they apply in a specific situation, for example, in view of other duties which may be more important or urgent.

    Furthermore, it is literally impossible to completely specify all possible exceptions — worse, it is fundamentally irrational to believe that such an explicit specification is possible.

    Positivism is false.

  • […] because authority produces moral obligations, and it is literally impossible to produce or voluntarily take on a moral obligation to do evil.  ”Moral obligation to do evil” is […]

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