Oppositional words simplify thought: A or B?

Pär SegerdahlParties can stand in opposition to each other. But so can words. The word good stands in opposition to the word bad; the word right to the word wrong. And in everyday talk, the word human stands in opposition to the word animal.

Oppositional words are efficient in conversation. If I tell you that I saw an animal, you immediately know that it wasn’t a human I saw. Oppositional words are splendid communicational instruments. They enable quick inferences, like the one about what I saw and didn’t see.

However, oppositional words are not always good to think with. This sounds odd, because we associate thinking with inferences. If oppositional words support inferences, shouldn’t they be absolutely essential to thinking?

The problem is that oppositions support quick inferences, when we need slow ones. They assume a given order, when we need to explore a neglected order.

This we felt intensely at the seminar last Monday, when we discussed empirical ethics. More and more bioethicists do empirical studies (questionnaires, interviews, etc.) of how people look at medical research and care. Based on the empirical studies they then develop normative conclusions, for example, about how ethical guidelines should be formulated.

Empirical ethics thereby seems to sin against a fundamental opposition: that between is and ought. If it is a fact that people from time immemorial cut off the hands of thieves (and thought one should do so), it still does not follow from this fact that one ought to cut off the hands of thieves.

One might say: the is/ought-opposition supports quick inferences about what kind of inferences one cannot make: from an is an ought cannot be extrapolated.

Empirical ethics immediately appears like a ridiculous error. Nothing normative can be derived from mere facts disclosed by surveys and interviews. If such inferences nonetheless are made, they are illegitimate. Empirical studies drain bioethics of normativity, by scooping out of the wrong well.

But is this an accurate description of empirical ethics? Is it just a mistake; like trying to scoop water out of a dry well?

It is easy to accuse empirical ethics in terms of the is/ought-opposition. This makes it seductively easy to think that the only way of defending empirical ethics is by either showing that it honors the is/ought-opposition or rejecting the opposition as false.

– As if oppositions had to be either true or false: another opposition!

You notice here how oppositional words, which work well in conversation, push our thoughts now in this direction, now in that. Instruments that support us when we talk can give us paralyzing shocks when we think. (Don’t try to talk your way out of philosophical problems!)

The discussion about empirical ethics is likely to continue at the seminar. I’m looking forward to it.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

One Response to Oppositional words simplify thought: A or B?

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