Category Errors Considered

Note: I started writing this with the notion that the category error alluded to below was a mistake and a sidelight hiding behind the issues being argued. As I continued in writing I have come to believe that the category error is both the primary reason for the arguments and further is a fundamental problem which is well known.

Much wroth, fury, words, and accusations of ignorance, bigotry, and perversion have crossed from both sides in the recent decades long struggle by various factions in the debates about marriage and who might be married rightly. A few observations

  1. Defenders of SSM remark that this sort of marriage is private and affects none outside of the marriage. Yet, if this were so, then why would not civil unions suffice? The logical answers is because this reply is a lie. It does in fact affect others and in this lies a category error to which I alluded in this essay’s title.
  2. To read the papers and hear the debates this is an important issue. Yet, why is that? Why is that more important than other issues. As that famous statistician Bjorn Lomberg  pointed out that getting vitamin supplements to the third world would saves tens if not hundreds of millions of lives (and would be cheaper and more effective than most of the aid we send to the third world), world-wide millions are affected by human trafficking indeed the numbers trafficked within the states is comparable to those affected by SSM … and those affected are mostly well educated affluent couples. Yet what debates are heard? 

How are these issues a sidelight issue and the other a hot button issue? I suspect my  I offer it is because those entrenched against SSM are also committing that same category error. What is the error of category to which I allude? Simply the following, laws and lawmakers are not our spiritual guides. Note, the use of the term “spiritual” is not the normal one, but one which I will continue in this essay and perhaps in further essays. 

So let me digress for a moment. Spiritual? What is that? In the introduction to Dimitru Staniloae’s book (Orthodox Spirituality), it is pointed out that in the EasternChristian doctrine, your spiritual life and its tending is perhaps better translated as your ethical life and its care. Spiritual health and ethical well being are synonyms. 

What is legal or not and what is righteous (in good spirit or a good moral/ethical decision) are independent. This is a founding principle of American jurisprudence. (Or is it?) It certainly is the assumption now. Mr Daschle defended a Senatorial philandering colleague by pointing while he while he was dishonest he didn’t break any laws. The correct reaction to this is that the colleague got his priorities exactly backwards, i.e., it is more important to be ethical than stay on the right side of the law.

Laws are not ethics. Laws and what lawmakers conspire to create has very little to do with ethics and instead its primary purpose is to provide a framework. This framework provides so that peoples may live harmoniously alongside each other in an ordered way.  So that, when conflicts between people arise, there is an orderly way of handling those same conflicts. Personal ethics overrides and sits over the law. For the most part, there is no conflict, most of our choices, our ethical decisions do not lead us toward choices which are illegal. Where they do, it is right, it is correct to choose the ethical over the legal. On the other hand, there are things you may do legally which however are not ethical. Even where there is no conflict, normally ethics binds our actions tighter than the law.

Solzhenitsyn warns that this separation that is part of modern Western democracies (and was part of the former Soviet state) is an error. That itself is an interesting counter point. So it seems likely that this why this debate is important is not what it is about, but sort of the issue is the ground on which it is being made. What is at stake is perhaps not about the particulars of whether certain young dinks (dual income no kids) can have their relationship legalized or not but really what is being debated here and in other forums is whether law should be neutral or be admitted to have spiritual (ethical) content or should it not. Kant (and our founders) explored law devoid of ethics, can a safe lawful republic of demons (not angels) be constructed or not. Perhaps it can. Perhaps it can’t. The question at hand is should it? Recall the Ratzinger/Habermas debate, debating whether a democratic society can be constructed and sustain itself independent of religion, i.e., “does it need things outside itself to sustain itself.” Ratzinger and Solzhenitsyn think not. Bertrand de Jouvenal pointed out in his meta-political science musings about what he termed Babylon (the large multicultural state) envies the unity of the small state. My reading of Solzhenitsyn (and Jouvenal) is that a solution exists. If the larger federal state limit itself to promoting commerce and unity between smaller entities within itself, while foster their ability to form strong local identity, laws and praxis then you could have the best of both worlds. You can find local loyalties and ties and bonds within the framework a larger multicultural state.

Both sides of the cultural debate miss this point. Both sides wish to apply the same laws and sensibilities in artists boroughs of San Francisco, in Amish villages in Ohio, in rural Lutheran Wisconsin, and so on. Why? Why try? It seems wrong to insist that behavioral norms universal.

Locally laws can be tied to spirit. Federally, the are not, but there they run to the Habermas separation of Spirit and law. It seems to me laws about birth, death, marriage are those which the federal level should keep its hands away, to set aside for local regions to coin their own practices, to tie their own view of ethics and spirit what is allowed, to what is righteous in their region.

Instead of insisting that laws be spiritual or devoid of spiritual considerations is wrong. Federal laws laws which bind us all, might be best be light and aim only to promote commerce, unity, and ease frictions. Local laws … let them tangle and wind the ways the local choose. That is, after all, nothing more than freedom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

16 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    How does any of this apply to the concept of a category error? Recall Wiki tells us such an error consists of “things of one kind are presented as if they belonged to another”

    So if I said a certain type of bacteria murdered my father, that might be such an error. To murder assumes intentional will and power to act on that will. Unless you think bacteria has that ability then you’ve made a category error.

    #1 doesn’t appear to be a category error to me but instead hinges on the question of whether a ‘civil union’ or ‘civil marriage’ impact those inside the union or those outside.

    #2 seems to hing on the question of whether someone is arguing SSM is “the most important thing in the world” or something like that. But to me this seems less like a category error than a simple error of ranking. It’s as if someone said something like:

    “We should make a list of everything and rank it in order of how much good it can do. Then we should systematically start at the top of that list and work our way down. Hence we should do SSM now!”

    Answer: “Ahhh no giving third world kids vit. supplements will save many lives. That’s more important so that should come before SSM!”

    I suppose you can call this a category error in the sense that SSM might not be “In the set of the ten most important things to do!” but the bigger error hinges upon the idea that we should systematically do things one at the time in order of how important they are. This is not how anyone lives their lives and would probably be unworkable. But one first has to make that difficult case before one can start debating whether or not SSM is more or less important than 3rd world aid policy.

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    The category error was thinking that ethics and law are related, i.e., if an action is ethical it is legal and vice versa. The category error (by both sides mind you) is insisting that SSM should be legal (or illegal) because is ethical (or unethical).

  3. Boonton says:

    Not sure who has actually made that argument but at first glance I think most people accept not all unethical actions should be illegal but ethical actions probably should be legal. In other words a person should not be convicted of a crime if he was behaving ethically. But of all possible unethical actions, only some should be criminal. Before I declare that totally true I’d be curious to hear counter examples.

  4. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    I’ll offer that law and ethics are not completely unrelated, just that they are different enough that thinking they are aligned is a category error, or what I thought was one initially. As you notice, I decided ultimately that’s not entirely correct, that Federal law should be unrelated to ethics, but local laws should be aligned with ethics.

  5. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Use the other term for ethics, do you think it a category error to consider your spiritual life and your code of law in the same category. I suggest that for Federal law these are rightly kept separate, but for local law, not.

  6. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Seriously? That’s the whole kerfuffle. Some people think abortion, SSM, prostitution, trafficking, euthanasia and similar are all ethical. Others think they are not. Do you think they should be legal because they are ethical. That’s the category error I’m talking about. Look a thief thinks his actions are ethical. It’s why he does them. Everyone makes choices they feel are ethical that’s how ethics is defined. However, stealing is not legal.

    Ethics, in a philosophical viewpoint, is finding the good, i.e., you make choices because you find them to be the good choice. Law is not about the good, but about resolving conflict in orderly fashion, keeping the peace, and setting up a framework for commerce. This has a priori nothing at all to do with ethics. People use law=ethics to force their view of the good on others.

  7. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Was it ethical for Jean Valjean (in Les Miz) to steal that loaf of bread for his starving family? It was illegal.

  8. Boonton says:

    Look a thief thinks his actions are ethical. It’s why he does them.

    But we reject this assertion and find his action unethical. Maybe he knows this or maybe he doesn’t.

    Was it ethical for Jean Valjean (in Les Miz) to steal that loaf of bread for his starving family? It was illegal.

    I would say his actions were ethical and hence *should not* have been illegal. Here I would say his conviction was a defect of the legal system.

    In real life notice the legal system has various ‘outs’ to address a real Jean Valjean. There’s prosecutorial discretion which would allow a prosecutor to decline to make a case. There’s the ability of judges to void a conviction, juries to nullify. And then there’s the power of governors and presidents to issue pardons or the legal system to expunge past convictions. These all hint at the idea that what should be illegal may not align perfectly with what the system says is illegal hence the ability to ‘tweak’ outcomes.

    Seriously? That’s the whole kerfuffle. Some people think abortion, SSM, prostitution, trafficking, euthanasia and similar are all ethical.

    “Some people”? Well sure I guess you can always find some people to think anything. But IMO many of the best arguments for abortion rights, SSM, prostitution do not hing on making the argument that they are all ethical. It’s much easier IMO to just note that not all unethical actions should be illegal ones.

    But I think it’s perfectly consistent to hold that any ethical act should be legal rather than illegal.

    So I can say I think abortion should be legal but I do not have to demonstrate that it’s either ethical or unethical.

  9. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    But we reject this assertion and find his action unethical. Maybe he knows this or maybe he doesn’t.

    Look. Everyone on the planet does what is ethical by definition. You have a choice, there are pros and cons. Ethics is finding the choice which has more good than the others. Everyone, even that thief by definition is behaving ethically. And no, we don’t find his actions unethical, we find them illegal.

    Here I would say his conviction was a defect of the legal system.

    Isn’t that the example you’re looking for, things which are illegal but ethical? People shouldn’t be allowed to steal bread (or pimp girls) because they find it ethical.

    But IMO many of the best arguments for abortion rights, SSM, prostitution do not hing on making the argument that they are all ethical.

    And that is a category error. Law != Ethics.

  10. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    The point is you can’t make a rule “things I think are ethical should be legal” because others disagree with you on what is ethical. Equating law with ethics is a category error. See.

    Remember, ethical = spiritual, if you use that terminology you would not agree that your spirituality and mine agree on what is right. However, by separating law and ethics/spirit you avoid that.

    But … societies are healthier, happier, and stronger when they do equate law and ethics. It’s just not possible to do in Babylon, which is why I suggest that Federal law be strongly separated and local law not. The only caveat I think is necessary (which might offend Muslims ethics) is that the jail door be always open, i.e., leaving a locality/region is allowed by Federal law.

  11. Boonton says:

    Look. Everyone on the planet does what is ethical by definition. You have a choice, there are pros and cons

    This is a definition of ethical that is both strictly utilitarian and subjective at the same time. Ethical is whatever is good for you and good is measured by your own subjective POV at any given moment. That isn’t a definition that’s widely accepted.

    More problematically, what is the difference between ‘ethical’ and simple ‘behavior’ in your system? You might as well swap out the word ‘ethical’ for just simple ‘behavior’ since there seems to be no difference.

    Isn’t that the example you’re looking for, things which are illegal but ethical? People shouldn’t be allowed to steal bread (or pimp girls) because they find it ethical.

    But we do find the behavior ethical. We would think less of him if he opted to obey the law and let his family starve.

    The point is you can’t make a rule “things I think are ethical should be legal” because others disagree with you on what is ethical. Equating law with ethics is a category error. See.

    well strictly speaking such a rule wouldn’t be a problem. If the rule is “What Boonton thinks is ethical is legal” then any disagreement you have with me would be irrelevant.

    I think you mean to say something like “What we say is ethical can’t be made legal because there’s no way to define what ‘we’ say”. Possibly a fair point, but you could define some mechanism that determines what ‘we say’ means (i.e. elected officials, ballots, etc.).

    But this misses the problem with your point. If ethical behavior is a Platonic ideal, something that exists outside of my opinion and yours, then there’s no issue. We may have difficulty discovering all possible instances of ethical behavior but in principle we could say that the law should yield to ethical behavior.

    To use a slightly different example, suppose we said that a student, in a math contest, may use any valid theorem provable by Euclidian geometry. In grading the student’s submission you may find he is using theorems you can prove are valid, you can prove are not valid or you may be unable to say either way. In the latter case, though, you can’t say anything he submits is valid. You may have to say you are unable to determine it but leave open the possibility that someone else may find it invalid or valid.

  12. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    This is a definition of ethical that is both strictly utilitarian and subjective at the same time.

    No. The process of making decisions is by definition ethics. People use different types of ethics to decide things. Meta-ethics is the study and comparison of different types of ethics. This isn’t news for you.

    Ethical is whatever is good for you and good is measured by your own subjective POV at any given moment.

    No. I didn’t say that. I said people use different ethics. The thief has a different meta-ethic and ethical weighting for his decisions than you. You said “what is ethical is legal” and I pointed out that different people have different ethics. By which ethic do you determine legal?

    But we do find the behavior ethical.

    No. Stealing is not ethical.

    Possibly a fair point, but you could define some mechanism that determines what ‘we say’ means (i.e. elected officials, ballots, etc.).

    Which is why there is a category error when people make the mistake of conflating legal and ethical.

    If ethical behavior is a Platonic ideal, something that exists outside of my opinion and yours, then there’s no issue.

    An atheist would deny that there is such an idea. Atheists exist. Therefore there is a problem. The definition of Babylon is a state with many different peoples, each with their own meta-ethic. Now CS Lewis has pointed out that most ethical systems have a lot in common, which is why Babylon can get away with trying to impose one ethics on without too much ruffling of feathers. But this category error, equating ethics with law, is why we argue so stiffly about those ethical questions on which we disagree.

    Do the following, take your above comment, paste it into an editor and replace all “ethical” with “spiritual” see how it reads modulo grammar and such. See how that changes your stance.

    And remember the Habermas/Ratzinger point. We haven’t to the resurfacing of that.

  13. Boonton says:

    duplicate removed

  14. Boonton says:

    Definition of ethics

    I think you haven’t confronted the problem that your definition of ethics basically just means behavior.

    The process of making decisions is by definition ethics. People use different types of ethics to decide things. Meta-ethics is the study and comparison of different types of ethics.

    In other words, Boonton’s ethics are what Boonton does. ‘Meta-ethics’ then would be psychology. Why do I do this while you do that?

    Even stranger, it would be impossible for me to behave unethically. If anything I do is just ‘my ethics’ then I can’t be unethical! This defies the common sense view that most people have that they are capable of disapproving of their own actions.

    An atheist would deny that there is such an idea. Atheists exist. Therefore there is a problem. The definition of Babylon is a state with many different peoples, each with their own meta-ethic. Now CS Lewis has pointed out that most ethical systems have a lot in common, which is why Babylon can get away with trying to impose one ethics on without too much ruffling of feathers

    I’m not sure you’re right about all atheists. Let’s consider this idea:

    “Ethical is what the average human would find ethical”

    This may not be a Platonic ideal but it is objective in that one can see how their view of ethics may very well be different from Ethics. It would also be consistent with finding that ‘common ethics’ is pretty close to my ethics, and for most people won’t ruffle too many feathers. But the ‘average view of all humans’ is not the same as a poll or survey or an election. One is a sort of ideal while the others are measuring tools with varying degrees of errors.

    Also it’s perfectly coherent then for the ‘system’ to say something is illegal and unethical when in fact it really isn’t. Since any system is going to be imperfect at finding what is the ‘Ideal Set of Ethics’ it’s quite possible for something to be deemed unethical when it really isn’t.

  15. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    In other words, Boonton’s ethics are what Boonton does.

    I’m not sure that’s right. Does Boonton always do what he think is ethically correct? I certainly don’t. So behavior is not equivalent to ethics. I’ve not made that claim. You have.

    ‘Meta-ethics’ then would be psychology.

    No. Meta-ethics is a description of the method. Deontology is a meta-ethical category of ethical practices that are rule based. A particular deontological ethic would be one which used, say, Old Testament scriptural laws to determine the particular deontological rules by which one lived. A different set of laws (Confucian for example) is still a deontological meta-ethic. None of these are psychology.

    Even stranger, it would be impossible for me to behave unethically.

    Not stranger. Just strange is your assumptions.

    This defies the common sense view that most people have that they are capable of disapproving of their own actions.

    You presume the professional thief we discussed doesn’t think his behavior is ethical. Apparently you don’t think such people exist and all thieves don’t think that they are acting ethically. They know they are breaking the law. They also (may) rationally choose their actions and not impulsively give in to temptation and steal yet again. Read a Richard Stark Parker novel. Get back to me after that. What are Parker’s ethics?

    I’m not sure you’re right about all atheists.

    Oooh, a classic moving goalposts. I offered that an atheist must reject Platonic ideals. You offer something which is not a Platonic ideal and say an atheist might be OK with it. First off, so what? Send off, you offer “average ethics” as “objective”. Huh? This objective thing is a non-constant, as populations and ideas move it shifts. And further, I’ve suggested (a) that atheists don’t believe in actual Platonic Ideals … you counter with a similar construction, however, how many atheists do you think use that as a meta-ethic? Does anyone? Is this really tenable?

  16. Boonton says:

    I’m not sure that’s right. Does Boonton always do what he think is ethically correct?

    I don’t see how, you said

    No. The process of making decisions is by definition ethics.

    If I decide stealing is wrong, but then steal, the only options open to your definition are that I had no free will to decide to steal or at some point I changed my ethics. Even if I changed back again after stealing, fact is it would be impossible for me to decide to behave in a way that was ethically incorrect.

    No. Meta-ethics is a description of the method.

    But since the choice of method is an ethical decision you’re still back to behavior = ethics. If one person decides by flipping a coin, another by consulting an ancient book, well we can use probability theory to help us determine what the coin flipping will produce and textual analysis to help us read the old book, but the call to use the book or the coin is ethics which is behavior via your definition.