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Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 5:  Nature and Convention

“Man has created new worlds—of language, of music, of poetry, of science; and the most important of these is the world of the moral demands, for equality, for freedom, and for helping the weak”.

“The all-importance of moral problems rests, of course, on the fact that we can act with intelligent foresight, and that we can ask ourselves what our aims ought to be, i.e. how we ought to act”.

Popper is not usually regarded as contributor to moral philosophy, although someone compiled a lexicon of technical philosophical terms with an entry “Popper, (verb):- As in ‘To philosophise in a tone of high moral seriousness, the converse of which is Impopper’.”

This chapter serves three purposes.

First, Popper set out his views on critical dualism in morals, that is the distinction between unchangeable laws of nature and manmade rules and regulations. More importantly, he explained how this does not lead to the relativistic conclusion that our laws and conventions are arbitrary or irrational so that that any system is as good as any other. For more on the critical appraisal of proposals and policies see the end of the paper.

Second, he described how the emergence of critical dualism is one of the important differences between a closed or tribal society and a more open and pluralistic society. At the personal level this attitude is something that we would expect to see developing in young people as they grow up.

Third, he showed how Plato fudged the distinction between natural laws and human conventions to support his political program.

Critical dualism

Critical dualism is the view that there is no way to derive moral principles from matters of fact. In the traditional language of moral philosophy this dualism is often called “the is/ought problem”, as though philosophers have to find some way to get over it or solve it.

The problem arises because philosophers want to find some way to justify moral principles and the best way would be to find some way to derive moral principles from some set of facts, unless it is believed that they can be handed down from some supernatural authority. As Popper pointed out in note 18 to this chapter, almost everyone who has dealt with this issue has tried to answer it by reference to human nature or to the nature of ‘the good’. But each of these forks leads to a dead end: the first because anything that anyone can conceivable do can be attributed to human nature and the second because there is the question of defining ‘the good’.

It is interesting to note that the same logical structure underlies the is/ought problem and the problem of induction which looms large in the philosophy of science. In each case the hope is to derive general principles (natural laws in the case of science, moral rules in the case of moral philosophy) from statements of fact. In each case the problem arises from the desire for justification based on facts and in each case the problem is insoluble in principle. The way forward is to aim to establish critical preferences for scientific theories or moral proposals based on their capacity to solve the problem that they are supposed to solve, and to stand up to criticism. This is discussed in a short paper Critical Preference in Science and Ethics.

To be clear where Popper stood before examining the structure and contents of the chapter.

"I may perhaps briefly formulate what seems to me the most important principles of humanitarian and equalitarian ethics."

First, "tolerance towards all who are not intolerant and who do not propagate intolerance. So  the moral decisions of others should be treated with respect, as long as such decisions do not conflict with the principle of tolerance."

The issue of the limits of tolerance has become topical with the emergence of radical Islam and the problem of working out a coherent response to its friends, supporters and apologists in the west.

Second. "The recognition that all moral urgency has its basis in the urgency of suffering or pain. I suggest, for this reason, to replace the utilitarian formula ‘Aim at the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number’, or briefly, ‘Maximize happiness’ by the formula ‘The least amount of avoidable suffering for all’, or briefly, ‘Minimize suffering’. Such a simple formula can, I believe, be made one of the fundamental principles (admittedly not the only one) of public policy. (The principle ‘Maximize happiness’, in contrast, seems to be apt to produce a benevolent dictatorship.) We should realize that from the moral point of view suffering and happiness must not be treated as symmetrical; that is to say, the promotion of happiness is in any case much less urgent than the rendering of help to those who suffer, and the attempt to prevent suffering. (The latter task has little to do with ‘matters of taste’, the former much.)."

Third, "to resist tyranny by safeguarding the other principles by the institutional means of a legislation rather than by the benevolence of persons in power."

See also the brief statement of liberal principles in Popper's speech on public opinion and liberalism at the Mont Pelerin Society (1954).

For those who have no argument with critical dualism and who agree with the above principles, there is little more to be gained from most of this chapter which has largely academic interest either for those with a special interest in the logic of the is/ought problem or the works of Plato.

The chapter has nine sections.

Sections I and III set out Popper’s statement of the dualism between is and ought, or between propositions and proposals, backed up by some very heavy arguments in the notes.

The emergence of critical dualism.

In section II he speculates about the beginning and the end point of the evolution from the time when people made no distinction between laws of nature and human rules (an evolution which we expect to see as a child grows up).

"The starting point which I have called naïve monism is the stage at which the distinction between natural and normative laws is not yet made. Unpleasant experiences are the means by which man learns to adjust himself to his environment. No distinction is made between sanctions imposed by other men, if a normative taboo is broken, and unpleasant experiences suffered in the natural environment. Within this stage, we may further distinguish between two possibilities. The one can be described as a naive naturalism. At this stage regularities, whether natural or conventional, are felt to be beyond the possibility of any alteration whatever. But I believe that this stage is only an abstract possibility which probably was never realized. More important is a stage which we can describe as a naive conventionalism—a stage at which both natural and normative regularities are experienced as expressions of, and as dependent upon, the decisions of man-like gods or demons.

Section IV introduce Popper’s idea about sociological laws connected with the functioning of social institutions. These are supposed to have the character of natural laws and he considers them to be the appropriate subject matter for sociology as a social science. This topic will be revisited in Chapter 9 on social reform.

Section V is an account of some intermediate steps in the development from naive or magical monism to critical dualism.

"Most of these intermediate positions arise from the misapprehension that if a norm is conventional or artificial, it must be wholly arbitrary. To understand Plato’s position, which combines elements of them all, it is necessary to make a survey of the three most important of these intermediate positions. They are (1) biological naturalism, (2) ethical or juridical positivism, and (3) psychological or spiritual naturalism. It is interesting that every one of these positions has been used for defending ethical views which are radically opposed to each other; more especially, for defending the worship of power, and for defending the rights of the weak."

Biological naturalism is based essentially on the idea that what is natural is right, but of course that rules out nothing, unless moral principles about what is really natural (and hence right) are smuggled into the equation.

"Ethical positivism shares with the biological form of ethical naturalism the belief that we must try to reduce norms to facts. But the facts are this time sociological facts, namely, the actual existing norms. Positivism maintains that there are no other norms but the laws which have actually been set up (or ‘posited’) and which have therefore a positive existence. Other standards are considered as unreal imaginations. The existing laws are the only possible standards of goodness: what is, is good. (Might is right.) According to some forms of this theory, it is a gross misunderstanding to believe that the individual can judge the norms of society; rather, it is society which provides the code by which the individual must be judged."

"Psychological or spiritual naturalism is in a way a combination of the two previous views, and it can best be explained by means of an argument against the one-sidedness of these views. The ethical positivist is right, this argument runs, if he emphasizes that all norms are conventional, i.e. a product of man, and of human society; but he overlooks the fact that they are therefore an expression of the psychological or spiritual nature of man, and of the nature of human society. The biological naturalist is right in assuming that there are certain natural aims or ends, from which we can derive natural norms; but he overlooks the fact that our natural aims are not necessarily such aims as health, pleasure, or food, shelter or propagation. Human nature is such that man, or at least some men, do not want to live by bread alone, that they seek higher aims, spiritual aims. We may thus derive man’s true natural aims from his own true nature, which is spiritual, and social. And we may, further, derive the natural norms of life from his natural ends."

This argument appeals to our ‘higher’ qualities and it has led to admirably humanistic doctrines such as Kant’s categorical imperative. However it may be used to appeal to ‘higher authorities’ with less honourable intentions and it begs the question of what qualities are really more desirable. It may be used to support class distinctions by suggesting that the masses do not really partake of the higher qualities of human nature – “they fill their bellies like the beasts”. .

Section VI examines the relationship between Plato’s use of various forms of naturalism to support his political program.

Section VII briefly sketches the use that Plato made of the analogy of the city with a human body, so that politics can be regarded as a form of social hygiene.

Section VIII outlines one of Plato’s more far-out stories to explain the process of social and political degeneration. It is called the theory of Numbers and the Fall of Man, and it connects to his ideas about selective breeding to maintain the racial purity of the guardians.

Section VIII spells out the metaphysical ground-plan of Plato’s enterprise.

The critical appraisal of principles and policies.

"By saying that some systems of laws can be improved, that some laws may be better than others, I rather imply that we can compare the existing normative laws (or social institutions) with some standard norms which we have decided are worthy of being realized. But even these standards are of our making...The standards are not to be found in nature. Nature consists of facts and of regularities, and is in itself neither moral nor immoral. It is we who impose our standards upon nature…We are products of nature, but nature has made us together with our power of altering the world, of foreseeing and of planning for the future, and of making far-reaching decisions for which we are morally responsible."

"The statement that norms are man-made (man-made not in the sense that they were consciously designed, but in the sense that men can judge and alter them—that is to say, in the sense that the responsibility for them is entirely ours) has often been misunderstood. Nearly all misunderstandings can be traced back to one fundamental misapprehension, namely, to the belief that ‘convention’ implies ‘arbitrariness’; that if we are free to choose any system of norms we like, then one system is just as good as any other. It must, of course, be admitted that the view that norms are conventional or artificial indicates that there will be a certain element of arbitrariness involved, i.e. that there may be different systems of norms between which there is not much to choose [like which side of the road to drive, it just matters that everyone knows the local rule]. But artificiality by no means implies full arbitrariness. Mathematical calculi, for instance, or symphonies, or plays, are highly artificial, yet it does not follow that one calculus or symphony or play is just as good as any other. Man has created new worlds—of language, of music, of poetry, of science; and the most important of these is the world of the moral demands, for equality, for freedom, and for helping the weak."

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Karl Popper