Sterba’s Argument From Non-Question-Beggingness for the Rationality of Morality

International Journal of Applied Philosophy 28 (1):171-189 (2014)
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James Sterba describes the egoist as thinking only egoist reasons decide the rationality of choices of action, the altruist, only altruistic reasons, that each in effect begs the question of what reasons there are against the other, and that the only non-question-begging and therefore rationally defensible position in this controversy is the middle-ground position that high-ranking egoistic reasons should trump low ranking-altruistic considerations and vice versa, this position being co-extensive with morality. Therefore it is rationally obligatory choose morally. I object that the mere fact that a position is intermediate between two extremes does not mean it isn’t question-begging; that Sterba’s style of argument could be used to prove anything and therefore proves nothing; that it can be used to prove obvious falsehoods and therefore doesn’t necessarily track the truth; that it can be used to prove the truth of contingent, empirically obvious falsehoods when, since it is necessary a prior that one ought to be moral, something can be a good argument for the rationality of morality only if the argument’s style would entail only truths necessary a priori; that Sterba’s argument cannot inherit plausibility from what Sterba describes as the decision theoretic idea that when choosing among options where we have no evidence that one is more appropriate than the other, we must treat them as equally choice-worthy, since there is no such idea in decision theory, and shouldn’t be (for when, for example, there is no evidence that x exists and no evidence that x does not exist, one should believe that x does not exist; one should not chose as if x’s existence and non-existence were equally likely); that Sterba’s argument style is not analogous to the compromise strategies recommended in bargaining theory, nor in negotiating situations (although it would profit Sterba to consider David Gauthier’s approach in seeking to demonstrate that morality is both a middle ground between egoism and altruism, and is rationally obligatory); that it is problematic to see egoistic and altruistic reasons as commensurable and therefore admitting of a middle ground, especially a unique middle ground; that in any case, egoistic and altruistic reasons are not exhaustive of the reasons there could be; that the only sense in which moving to middle ground results in the parties not begging the question against each other is that it means they would be agreeing with each other and therefore not holding positions against each other, whether question-beggingly or otherwise, a fact which offers neither any rationally compelling reason to move her position closer to that of the other (for how can the mere fact that if we agreed we wouldn’t be begging the question against each other be a reason to agree?); and that even if morality is both rationally obligatory and a middle ground between egoism and altruism, it won’t be in any interesting sense true that this holds because the alternative would be question-begging, which means that analyzing the basis of the rationality of morality as being found in this principle of argumentation theory misconceives the nature of morality.

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Duncan MacIntosh
Dalhousie University


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