Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Reversal Test and Status Quo Bias

Changing policies can often seem arduous, and undesirable, even when it might be for the best (ethically speaking). As a result, reluctance to change can often creep into many organisations. I’m sure we’ve all encountered it. This reluctance is compounded by two other facts. The first is that we are usually deeply uncertain about the long-term consequences of any proposed reforms to the systems in which we operate. Consequently, when we reason about such things, we tend to fall back (at least in part) on our intuitive judgments about what seems right and wrong. The second fact is that, as numerous studies in cognitive psychology bear out, humans seem to be intuitively biased in favour of the status quo. So when our uncertainty forces us to rely on our intuitions, reluctance change is the natural result.

In an article written several years back, Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord argue that this bias to the status quo is a major problem in applied ethical decision-making. In order to be rational ethical decision-makers we ought to systematically check ourselves against the possibility that our aversion to a particular policy is driven by the bias toward the status quo. To do this effectively, they propose the introduction of something called the Reversal Test. In this post, I want to explain what this test is and how it works. As we shall see, there are really two tests, and they each have slightly different effects.

Before I begin, I should acknowledge that some may doubt the existence of a systematic bias toward the status quo. To them, much of what follows may seem unjustified. But the evidence for the status quo bias looks to be abundant and robust. Bostrom and Ord discuss this evidence in their article, and presentations of it can also be found in Kahneman’s work Thinking Fast and Slow. Although I am happy to entertain doubts about this evidence, I shan’t discuss it here. Instead, I’ll skip directly to the tests themselves, since that’s where my interest lies.

1. The Reversal Test
The reversal test is, in essence, a heuristic or rule of thumb that counteracts the effects of the status quo bias. The test can be stated like this:

The Reversal Test: When a proposed change to a certain parameter (in a certain direction) is thought to have bad overall consequences, consider a change to the same parameter in the opposite direction. If this is also thought to have bad overall consequences, then the onus is on those who believe this to explain why any changes to the parameter are deemed to be bad. If they are unable to do so, we have reason to suspect they are suffering from the status quo bias.

Thus, to give an overly-simplified example, suppose we are being asked to consider a proposed increase in the speed limit (from, say, 60mph to 70mph) and most people seem to think this would be bad. Then, we ask them whether a reduction in the speed limit (from 60mph to 50mph) would also be bad. If they think so, we ask them to justify their belief that 60mph is the optimum speed limit. If they cannot, we have reason to suspect they are biased toward the existing status quo.

On the face of it, this is pretty banal. We are just asking people to justify their beliefs which is surely what they should be doing anyway. Nevertheless, its practical effect could be significant. This is because the Reversal Test performs one crucial function: it shifts the burden of proof. Typically, we think that the burden of proof is on those proposing change. But assuming they can offer some reason for the change, and are nevertheless resisted, the Reversal Test has the neat effect of shifting the burden of proof onto the resisters. They have to explain why the current state of affairs represents a local (or absolute) optimum within the possible space of parameter values.

2. The Double Reversal Test
Of course, the burden of proof could be met. In particular, opponents of the policy could point to risks inherent in the proposed changes, or to transition costs that outweigh the value of the proposed changes. But there are problems with these kinds of responses too. Namely: humans are not particularly good at estimating risks and, due in part to status quo bias, they tend to overestimate the actual costs associated with proposed changes, focusing too much on short-term transition costs and not enough on potential long-term benefits.

So Bostrom and Ord propose an extended version of the test, which they call the Double Reversal Test:

Double Reversal Test: Suppose there is resistance to changing the value of a parameter in any direction. Now imagine that some natural event threatens to change the value in one direction. Would it be a good thing to counterbalance the effect of that natural event with something that maintains the status quo? If so, then ask whether, assuming that the natural event reverses itself at a later point in time, it would also be a good idea to reverse the counterbalance so as to maintain the original value of the parameter? If no one thinks so, then current opposition to the policy is likely to stem from the status quo bias.

The basic idea behind this test is illustrated in the diagrams below.

Although the diagrams help, this version of the test is difficult to follow in the abstract. Fortunately, Bostrom and Ord give quite a nice example of what it really means. Their example concerns resistance to cognitive enhancement technologies, which is, in fact, their focus throughout the paper. They think that current opposition is driven largely by the status quo bias, and not by any coherent moral principle. So they ask us to imagine the following scenario.

A hazardous chemical has entered the municipal water supply. Try as we might, there is no way to remove it, and there is no alternative water source. The chemical has the disastrous effect of impairing everybody’s cognitive function. Fortunately, there is a solution. Scientists have developed somatic gene therapy which will permanently increase the cognitive function of the population just enough to offset the impairment caused by the chemical. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief; the current level of cognitive capacity is maintained. But, at a later time, the chemical begins to vanish from the water. If we do nothing, cognitive capacity will be increased over its original level. So should we do something to reverse the effect of the somatic gene therapy? If not, then it’s likely that current opposition to cognitive enhancement stems more from status quo bias than from any coherent moral concerns.

The Double Reversal test is because it helps to disentangle two distinct conceptions of the status quo:

The Average Value Conception: In which the status quo is viewed as the current average value of the parameter in question.
The Default Position Conception: In which the status quo is viewed as the value of the parameter if no actions are taken.

Allegiance to the current set of average values might be ethically justified, and if we are willing to intervene to counterbalance the natural event, then perhaps we have some principled reason to think the current average is optimal. But if we don’t think it is necessary to counterbalance the original policy after the natural event reverses itself, then we are switching to a default position conception of the status quo. Switching in this manner suggests our attachment to the current set of values is unprincipled. After all, if we are willing to take the risk and incur the transition costs to counterbalance the natural event, but unwilling to incur additional costs to counterbalance the subsequent reversal of the natural event, then what is current opposition really based on?

In sum then, Bostrom and Ord’s reversal tests are useful heuristics to employ in ethical policy-making. The basic Reversal Test is useful because it shifts the burden of proof onto those who defend the status quo, and the Double Reversal Test is useful because it allows us to see more clearly whether the current attachment to the status quo is principled or not.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Is the Death Penalty Irrevocable? (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second part in a brief series of posts looking at Benjamin Yost’s discussion of the Irrevocability Argument against capital punishment. As explained in part one, the Irrevocability Argument claims that the death penalty is a morally illegitimate system of punishment because it is not substantially revocable. That is to say, unlike other forms of punishment which can be corrected if they are wrongfully imposed, the errors of wrongful execution cannot be corrected. Once a person is dead, they’re dead. You cannot make it up to them.

In part one, we looked at Michael Davis’s objection to the Irrevocability Argument. According to Davis, the death penalty is substantially revocable because it is possible to benefit a person after they die. This can be supported by direct appeal to the Pitcher-Feinberg theory of posthumous harms. This theory holds that a person is benefitted if their interests are satisfied or fulfilled. And since a person’s interests can outlast their physical lives, it follows that they can be benefitted after they die. Davis merely adds to this the claim that the posthumous benefit can be sufficient to outweigh or counterbalance the harm done by their execution. Thus, we get the following argument:

  • (4) In order for a system of punishment to be substantially revocable, it must be possible to compensate people after their punishment such that the wrong done to them by the punishment is outweighed or counterbalanced by the compensation (Substantial Revocability principle) 
  • (5) It is possible to compensate people (greatly) after they die. (Pitcher-Feinberg theory) 
  • (6) Therefore, the death penalty is (in principle) substantially revocable.

Clever and all as this argument is, it is open to at least two criticisms. The first targets premise (4) and argues that substantial revocability cannot be reduced to compensation. The second targets premise (5) and argues that the Pitcher-Feinberg theory is flawed. We’ll look at both today, in reverse order. As we shall see, in his analysis, Yost thinks the first criticism is the better bet, but it’s worth exploring the second one anyway.

1. Problems with the Pitcher-Feinberg Theory
The Pitcher-Feinberg theory analyses harm and benefit in terms of the interests and preferences of the person. A thwarted interest is a harm, and a satisfied interest is a benefit. Using carefully crafted thought experiments, like the “Mortal Metaphysician” example discussed in part one, proponents of this theory show that posthumous harm/benefit is plausible. But despite the prima facie plausibility of these thought experiments, two critical questions can be asked:

(A)The Subject Question: Who exactly is being harmed or benefitted in this situation?
(B)The Causation Question: If a person can be harmed or benefitted after they die, does this not require some spooky backwards causation?

The questions are connected, in that answering the first in a particular way concedes some ground to the premise of the second question. If one claims, as Pitcher does, that the only plausible candidate for a subject of harm/benefit is the ante-mortem person (since the post-mortem person is just dust in the grave), then one naturally encounters the charge of backwards causation. But how serious a charge is this?

Thought experiments and analogies ride to rescue here. Consider the following scenario: Shortly after Barack Obama’s exit from the presidency in 2016 (or, rather, Jan. 2017) the world is struck by a gigantic meteor that wipes out all of human civilisation. This has the curious effect of making Barack Obama the penultimate president of the United States. In other words, it adds a property to the pre-2017 presidency that wasn’t there before. But this doesn’t require any spooky backwards causation. Why couldn’t posthumous harms be the same? In other words, why couldn’t attaching the properties of harm and benefit to the ante-mortem person be like attaching the property of “penultimacy” to the president?

Here, we get into a war of intuitions and thought experiments. Critics like James Stacey Taylor argue that the property of penultimacy is unlike the property of harm/benefit in that it is a sequential property and they are not. This may indeed be true, but it’s not at all clear that this is a relevant disanalogy, i.e. one that undermines the original claim. What may be going on is that there is a battle being waged between two different theories of harm and benefit: the interest-based account of Pitcher and Feinberg, on the one hand, and the experiential or Epicurean account, on the other.

Classically, a person is defined as a continuing subject of experiences, or an overlapping set of psychological states. According to the experiential account of harm/benefit, a person can only be harmed/benefitted if there is some change in those experiences. So, for example, according to this account, my wife’s death harms me if (and only if) I become aware of it. This conception does not allow for posthumous harm/benefit. After all, once the person is dead, the continuing subject of experiences ceases to exist, and so there can be no further changes to what they experience. Another way of putting it is that this view requires some intrinsic change in the person before there can be harm or benefit. Contrariwise, the Pitcher-Feinberg theory allows for extrinsic changes to harm or benefit the person.

At this point, one is reduced to a battle between two opposing views, with little common ground between them. Defenders of the Pitcher-Feinberg theory will cling to their thought experiments and the seeming plausibility of their view, while defenders of the experiential account will cling to the intuitive good sense of theirs. Shelley Kagan tries to broker peace between the two sides by distinguishing between two potential loci of harm/benefit: (i) lives; and (ii) persons.

According to Kagan, every person has a life (a biography or set of interests) that it is possible to harm (or benefit) extrinsically; while at the same time the person themselves is indeed a set of experiences that can only be harmed (or benefitted) intrinsically. Thus, for Kagan, the Pitcher-Feinberg thought experiments provide support for the view that lives can be posthumously harmed/benefitted, whereas it remains true that persons cannot.

Where does this leave us? Well, if one accepts Kagan’s distinction between lives and persons, Davis’s challenge to the Irrevocability Argument is still viable. The premises need to be rewritten to acknowledge the distinction, but one could nevertheless argue that a person’s life can be compensated after they die (as the discussion in part one suggested). But there are still difficulties, in particular one might argue that even if lives can be benefitted, the notion of compensation is distinct. Only persons can be compensated. That would be an interesting criticism, but Yost avoids it because he thinks there is a bigger problem with the reduction of substantial revocability to compensation. We close by looking at that problem.

2. Substantial Revocability, Compensation and Control
Premise (4) states that a punishment can be substantially revoked if the harm done by the punishment is outweighed or counterbalanced by the benefit of the compensation. That sounds plausible enough until you probe a little deeper. When you do, you’ll discover, as Yost argues, that revocability cannot be reduced to compensation.

This discovery is prompted by the fact that, if revocability were reducible to compensation, it would be possible to compensate someone who was imprisoned, but still keep them in jail. Consider once more the case of the single father, who’s one wish in life is to make sure his daughter has a better life than him. Suppose he is wrongfully imprisoned, and the error is later discovered. He initially looks forward to his release, but is told that this would send a bad signal to other would-be criminals. The state is trying to look tough on crime, and their team of psychological advisors have informed them that releasing a prisoner, even a wrongfully imprisoned one, would damage the deterrent effect of incarceration. So the man is offered a deal: if he stays in jail, the state will provide a top-class education for his daughter, and make sure she secures a high-powered position within the civil service. The man readily agrees.

In this hypothetical scenario, the compensation paid to the man’s daughter would clearly seem to outweigh (or counterbalance) the harm done to him by the incarceration. But he nevertheless continues to be punished. Surely this is absurd? Surely one cannot substantially revoke a punishment, while leaving it in place? Thus, we seem to have a reductio of premise (4):

  • (7) It would be absurd if a punishment could be substantially revoked while nevertheless being left in place. 
  • (8) If substantial revocation is reduced to compensation, it would be possible to substantially revoke a punishment while nevertheless leaving it in place. 
  • (9) Therefore, the reduction of substantial revocation to compensation is absurd.

Thus, premise (4) is rebutted. One could leave it there since Davis’s argument depended on that premise, but one would be unwise to do so. If one did, it would remain open to someone to invent a new account of substantial revocation which corrected for the flaw in Davis’s account. Yost avoids this by providing an additional argument to the effect that an essential element of substantial revocation would never be possible in the case of the death penalty.

What is this essential element? It is the restoration of control or autonomy. As Yost sees it, modern liberal democracies are founded on respect for the moral and practical autonomy of their citizens. The foundational principle of most liberal theories (e.g those propounded by Hobbes, Rawls or Gaus) is that people are moral equals. Which is to say, no one can claim coercive moral authority over another without good moral reason. So one of the legitimacy conditions for a state is that it respect the moral autonomy of its citizens: if it is going to restrict or coerce them in some way, it better have a damn good reason for doing so.

Punishment is an exercise of coercive moral authority: in punishing a person, the state deliberately harms and coerces them in order to serve some moral end. As such, they violate the moral autonomy of the person being punished. If the state is supported by good moral reasons when doing so, then maybe that’s okay. But if the state makes an error, the harm done by the violation of moral autonomy must be corrected. Yost argues that the only way to do this is by restoring control to the person punished. (Note: his account of control is metaphysically modest, assuming only that compatibilist control is possible).

Now comes the clincher: you cannot restore autonomy or control to a dead person. They are dead. So even if you could compensate them by satisfying their interests, you could never substantially revoke their punishment in the manner required in a liberal democracy. In other words:

  • (10) In order for a system of punishment to be substantially revocable, it must (at a minimum) be possible to restore control to the person who was punished. 
  • (11) One cannot restore control to a dead person. 
  • (12) Therefore, the death penalty is not substantially revocable.

To be clear, Yost is not saying that the restoration of control is all that is required for substantial revocation, compensation could well be part of the picture. What he is saying is that restoration of control is necessary for substantial revocation, and that is enough to defeat Davis’s argument.

3. Conclusion
To sum up, the Irrevocability Argument is a powerful, conceptual argument against the death penalty. If one accepts that, in order to be morally legitimate, a system of punishment must include some capacity for error correction or revocation, then the fact that the death penalty is irrevocable counts against it. But, as we have seen, it is possible to challenge this argument by claiming that, contrary to what one might think, the death penalty is substantially revocable.

In this series of posts, we have seen how it is possible to defend this notion by reducing revocation to compensation, and arguing that one can harm or benefit a person after they die. However, we have also seen that the theory of posthumous harm and benefit is open to criticism, and that the reduction of revocation to compensation is not satisfactory. If these critiques are right, then the Irrevocability Argument is left standing. A useful weapon in the arsenal of the abolitionist.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Is the Death Penalty Irrevocable? (Part One)

There are many criticisms of the death penalty, but among them is the charge that it is irrevocable. Once someone is dead, they’re dead. No amount of wishing, or hoping, or praying will bring them back to life. That much is obvious.

Why is this a problem? Well, if a system of punishment is to be morally legitimate then it should both (a) be supported by at least one morally compelling rationale; and (b) be capable of error-correction. We’ll ignore the first condition and focus solely on the second here. If people are punished, but kept alive, then, if it later turns out that the state was wrong in punishing them, the error done by punishing them can be substantially corrected. Thus, for example, a person serving a prison sentence can be released before their sentence is up and compensated for the damage done through money or other assistance. But this cannot happen if they are dead. If a person is wrongfully executed, the error in their sentence cannot be corrected.

This reasoning gives us an argument against the death penalty. The argument works from a general principle about the legitimacy of a system of punishment to a specific claim about the death penalty system. As follows:

  • (1) In order to maintain legitimacy, the legal system should strive to abolish irrevocable/non-correctable, forms of punishment. 
  • (2) The death penalty is an irrevocable form of punishment. 
  • (3) Therefore, the death penalty should be abolished.

Call this the “Irrevocability Argument”. The argument is interesting in that it avoids any direct engagement with the purported rationales for the death penalty. In other words, the argument works even if individual death sentences can be fully justified on retributivist or consequentialist grounds. This is because the argument focuses on systemic failures in the imposition of punishment, and the need to correct for such failures, not on the moral justification of particular acts of punishment per se.

As interesting as it may be, we need to ask whether the argument is any good. To many, the truth of its premises will seem obvious. But, unsurprisingly, defenders of the death penalty have challenged it. Over the next couple of posts, I want to consider some of the arguments that have been made on this topic. I do so by using Benjamin Yost’s article “The Irrevocability of Capital Punishment” as my primary source. In this article, Yost addresses Michael Davis’s claim that, contrary to what you might think, the death penalty is indeed revocable. Although Yost ultimately disagrees with Davis’s view, he thinks there is more to be said in its favour than first appears.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll try to explain why Yost thinks this is the case. I do so by outlining Davis’s argument and then showing how it can be supported by the Pitcher-Feinberg theory of posthumous harms. In the next post, I’ll consider the problems with this theory, and Yost’s subsequent defence of the Irrevocability Argument.

1. Davis on the Revocability of the Death Sentence
As anyone familiar with the basic tenets of argument analysis will realise, there are two ways to challenge the Irrevocability Argument. The first is by rejecting the principle of legitimacy stated in premise (1); the second is by challenging premise (2)’s claim that death is irrevocable. Davis’s adopts the second approach, but it’s worth briefly considering why he doesn’t adopt the first.

In internet debates on this topic — and possibly elsewhere, I can’t remember — I’ve frequently seen people object to premise (1) on the grounds that no form of punishment is irrevocable. A person released from jail doesn’t magically get back the portion of their lives spent languishing in jail; nor does a person who’s hand gets chopped off as punishment suddenly get their hand back. Thus, if irrevocability is a good ground for abolishing forms of punishment, it supports the abolishment of all forms of punishment, not just the death penalty. Some might be happy with that conclusion, but most will deem it far too radical. Consequently, something must be wrong with premise (1).

Davis rejects this by distinguishing between two varieties of revocability:

Absolute Revocability: The person who was punished is restored to the exact same state they were in prior to being punished.
Substantial Revocability: The state makes good the wrong done to the person, they compensate the person sufficiently to outweigh or counterbalance the wrong done to them through punishment.

Davis accepts that no form of punishment could be absolutely revocable, since that would require an ability to mess with the laws of metaphysics (yes; meta-physics). Despite this, he thinks many forms of punishment could be (and indeed are) revocable in the second sense. And that’s all we need for legitimacy. Thus, for example, the person sent to jail for twenty years, could be restored to the community with more money and resources than they could have expected to earn in those twenty years. Obviously, this compensation will never return them to their pre-punishment state, nor will it restore to them every opportunity they could have expected to have over that twenty year period, but it can still do enough to outweigh the wrong done by their incarceration.

This is where Davis’s challenge to premise (2) comes into play. Following the reasoning just given he argues that, although the person who is killed cannot be restored to their previous state of being (as required by absolute revocability), they can be given sufficient compensation to repair the wrong done to them through execution.

No doubt this will strike many as a bizarre claim. But let’s hear Davis out before we pass judgment. His point is that although the physical body, and its attendant subjective experiences, may cease to exist at death, the personal biography associated with those things does not. Accepting that, he then argues that it is possible to both harm and benefit that personal biography after the death of the physical body. But if it is possible to both harm and benefit the personal biography after the physical death, it is at least possible (if not probable) that the personal biography can be sufficiently compensated. In which case, the death penalty would be substantially revocable.

This all sounds a little too nebulous at the moment. But as it happens, Davis’s basic idea is vindicated by one of the more popular philosophical theories of harm and benefit — the Pitcher-Feinberg theory — which holds that it is indeed possible to harm or benefit a person after they die. Let’s see how this works next.

2. The Pitcher-Feinberg Theory of Posthumous Harm/Benefit
First things first, the Pitcher-Feinberg theory is named after the philosophers George Pitcher and Joel Feinberg, both of whom advanced similar theories of posthumous harm/benefit. I’m reasonably familiar with Feinberg’s theory, having read his masterwork The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law a number of years back. In it, Feinberg advances an interest-based account of harm and benefit. According to this account, persons have interests and desires that they like to see fulfilled or satisfied. Thus, for instance, I have an interest in the development of my own career or in seeing that my children do well in life. Persons like me are harmed whenever they suffer some setback to their interests. This should be familiar territory to preference utilitarians.

Pitcher helps to crystallise exactly how this thwarted-interest account of harm supports a robust notion of posthumous harm. He does so with a thought experiment:

Mortal Metaphysician: Matt the metaphysician has spent his life developing an abstruse and technical metaphysical theory. He longs for his theory to become more widely known and accepted, but he records the details on chaotically stored notes in his apartment, and never publishes before his death. Now imagine two worlds:
World I: Matt dies, but his theory is discovered and widely promulgated after his death. Generations of undergraduate students are forced to analyse and evaluate its every detail.
World II: Matt dies and his apartment burns down soon after. As a result, his theory is neither discovered nor promulgated.
Now ask yourself: Which world is better for Matt?

Pitcher suggests that most people will say “World I” in response to that question. But in doing so, they tacitly acknowledge that the notion of posthumous harm and benefit makes sense. In World I, Matt’s interests and dreams are realised; it is a better world for him. In World II, his interests and dreams are thwarted; things go badly for him in this world. As such, he is posthumously benefitted in World I; posthumously harmed in World II.

And this is just one example. Others abound. Consider, for instance, the fact that many people think a person is harmed if their will is not implemented after they die, or if their organs are harvested after their death, contrary to their wishes. All these examples point to the plausibility of posthumous harm and benefit.

(Personal note: I struggle to share some of the intuitions canvassed here. While I acknowledge that many people think they would be harmed if their interests are not fulfilled after they die (for example, if their good name is undermined through defamation), I suspect that a large portion of those intuitions can be explained by a presumptive dualism about the body and the mind. If one is not a dualist, and works hard to rid oneself of dualist presumptions, the intuitive force of these examples may be lessened. Nevertheless, I leave my personal struggles to one side and continue with the elaboration of the argument)

If the Pitcher-Feinberg theory is right about the possibility of posthumous harm and benefit, then it could indeed provide succour for Davis’s view. But does it? This is not a foregone conclusion. Even if posthumous benefit was possible, it does not follow that the level of benefit could ever be sufficient to render the death penalty substantially revocable. This is where Yost steps into the fray, offering up a thought experiment which does seem to support the substantial revocability of the death penalty. Consider:

A single father works two factory jobs to ensure that his daughter can afford college. This labor reflects the fact that he has devoted his life to one purpose: making sure that his daughter has a better life than his own. Unfortunately, he has an incurable disease and knows he will soon die. Then the father is charged with, found guilty of, and executed for a murder he did not commit. After his execution, his innocence is discovered. The state exonerates him and proclaims his innocence in every media market, securing his reputation. The state then pays the man’s daughter one million dollars. (Yost, p. 6)

Since the father’s one lifelong interest was in securing a better future for his daughter, the posthumous award of one million dollars to his daughter does, according to the Pitcher-Feinberg theory, benefit him greatly. Furthermore, given the size of the award to his daughter, the vindication of his reputation, and the fact that he was going to die soon anyway, this posthumous benefit is probably sufficient to compensate him for the harm of the punishment.

Admittedly, the example might be a little unusual, but it’s not impossible and that’s all that matters. The irrevocability argument is, in large part, a conceptual argument: it claims that the death penalty is, in principle, irrevocable. A refined version that claims it is only de facto irrevocable could be formulated, but as an argument for abolishing the death penalty it would be considerably weaker. It would always be open to the death penalty proponent to argue that the system could be reformed so that only those for whom substantial revocation — along Pitcher-Feinberg lines — was possible would be executed.

In sum, if the Pitcher-Feinberg theory of posthumous harms works, and if cases akin to Yost’s single father example are plausible, we have a potentially significant objection to the Irrevocability Argument. As follows:

  • (4) In order for a system of punishment to be substantially revocable, it must be possible to compensate people after their punishment such that the wrong done to them by the punishment is outweighed or counterbalanced by the compensation (Substantial Revocability principle) 
  • (5) It is possible to compensate people (greatly) after they die. (Pitcher-Feinberg theory) 
  • (6) Therefore, the death penalty is (in principle) substantially revocable.

As before, one can challenge this argument in two ways: (i) take issue with reduction of revocation to compensation in premise (4); or (ii) take issue with the Pitcher-Feinberg theory of harm/benefit in premise (5). Although Yost ultimately plumps for the first option, we’ll consider both in some detail the next day.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Should Recreational Drug Use be Decriminalised? (Part Four)

(Part One, Part Two, Part Three)

This is the fourth entry in my ongoing series about the merits of drug decriminalisation. The series is working off the contributions to the book The Legalization of Drugs: For and Against by Douglas Husak and Peter de Marneffe. At the moment, I’m still working my way through Husak’s pro-decriminalisation arguments.

Husak is trying to argue that the recreational use of particular drugs — marijuana, cocaine and heroin being the most obvious — ought to be decriminalised. By this he means that the threat of criminal punishment should be removed from those who take these drugs for recreational ends. He does not mean that the government should remain neutral about the merits of these substances or, indeed, that the production and sale of these substances should be legalised (though, to be honest, he would probably support this). Decriminalisation of use is consistent with heavy regulation of use, as is evinced by the regulation of cigarettes or alcohol.

So far in this series, I’ve covered all of Husak’s negative arguments for decriminalisation. In other words, I’ve covered all the arguments in which he says that the traditional rationales favouring criminalisation are no good. In this post, I switch tack to cover his positive arguments for decriminalisation. They are twofold. The first claims that there is some value to be derived from recreational use, while the second argues that criminalisation is massively counterproductive.
I’ll consider both arguments in turn.

1. Is Recreational Drug Use Valuable?
Many people argue that drugs such as marijuana, ecstasy, LSD (among others) are instrumentally valuable. In other words, they argue that they are valuable because they have positive effects. For instance, people point to the medicinal benefits of marijuana as a reason in favour of its legalisation. Interesting though these arguments are, they all share a fatal weakness. They rely on the existence of clearcut causal connection between drug use and a desirable outcome (call it X). The problem is that the connection between drug use and outcome X is often tenuous, dependent on complex and poorly understood pathways, and open to being disproved. A more robust argument would point to the intrinsically valuable properties of drug use. Is such an argument available?

Husak thinks there is. It starts by observing that recreational pursuits are, in general, thought to be valuable irrespective of their consequences. It adds to that the observation that people do not typically have to defend the value of their recreational choices. In other words, the value is assumed to be present because people choose to pursue that activity. The argument then concludes by suggesting that those who use drugs for recreational purposes should not have to defend their preferences either.

There are several issues to unpack here. We can start by making the basic argument more robust by drawing an analogy between recreational drug use and other recreational pursuits. Husak uses the example of a fanatical sports fan, who buys all the jerseys and memorabilia associated with his favourite team, spends his weekends travelling to their matches, and his weekdays analysing the sports commentary. This sports fan is clearly doing something that is valuable to him, and he is under no obligation to defend his preference, even if the rest of us think it a bit over-the-top. The same is true of the wine connoisseur and the comic book fan. Why should the recreational drug user be treated differently?

An obvious response is that recreational drug use involves greater harm or greater risk of harm to the user, and possibly to others such as the user’s friends and families. But we’ve already cast doubt on that claim before by comparing the relative harms of illicit drug use to the harms of licit drugs and substances. Furthermore, there are plenty of recreational pursuits that carry greater risks. For example, extreme sports carry risk of death. Yet we never question the recreational value of those sports. We may, of course, counsel those who participate in them to be more cautious, and perhaps encourage them to give them up if they aren’t very good at them, but we would never dream of subjecting them to criminal punishment just for having this preference. Again, why should recreational drug use be treated differently?

This seems to be a robust argument. And its robustness derives in part from its modesty. It does not claim stupendous psychological, spiritual or medicinal benefits for drug use; it merely claims simple recreational pleasures. These pleasures are not overwhelming, and there may be times when a person should be advised against pursuing them, but this does not mean they should be treated differently from other recreational pleasures, or that they should be punished for pursuing them.

2. Is Criminalisation Counterproductive?
The final argument that Husak offers claims that recreational drug use ought to be decriminalised because there are huge costs associated with the current system of criminalisation. We encountered some of these costs in part three when we considered the link between drug use and crime. As you recall, we suggested that far from preventing crime, drug criminalisation may be the cause of many forms of crime. But we can go further than this and point to other costs. Indeed, Husak mentions seven:

Selective Enforcement: The enforcement of current laws on drug use tend to have a greater impact on racial and ethnic minorities. Although rates of drug use appear to be roughly equal across racial groups, in America, blacks are far more likely to be jailed and punished for drug offences. Thus, the current system helps to perpetuate racial inequalities and injustices.
Harm to Public Health: Because illicit drugs are bought from unlicensed sellers, they often contain deadly impurities and unknown potencies. Both of these things lead to deaths and could be avoided if drug production and sale were regulated in a similar manner to medicinal drugs and foodstuffs.
Pernicious Effect on Foreign Policy: Particularly in the US, the “war on drugs” has had a deleterious impact on relationships with foreign powers. Husak cites the example of millions of dollars of aid being sent to the Taliban in Afghanistan in an effort to curb heroin production. That money may well have been spent on financing terrorism, and certainly helped to solidify the Taliban regime.
Truth is Sacrificed: Recreational drug users are typically demonised by politicians and government officials, and the studies on drug safety are often skewed or misreported in an effort to maintain the war on drugs. Thus, truth has become a casualty of the war on drugs.
Erosion of Civil Liberties: According to Husak, many legal theorists speak openly of there being a “drug exception” the US Bill of Rights. This is because drugs are often easy to conceal and transfer, and hence the police have to resort to more extreme tactics to enforce the law, often with the blessing of the legislature.
Corruption: Those involved in the illegal drug trade often bribe, intimidate, and otherwise corrupt officials working within the legal system. Anyone who doubts this need only read the history of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel and the tactics they used to keep the cocaine trade flowing from Columbia to the U.S.. Such corruption and bribery has many negative effectives, not least of which is the gradual degradation of the institutions of civil society.
Huge Cost of Enforcement: The war on drugs costs a huge amount to maintain. Imprisoning drug offenders and paying police officers costs money. If we legalised drugs, and taxed their production and sale, those costs would evaporate. Indeed, we might even make money on the drugs trade.

Not all of these are persuasive. For example, I have some doubts about the merits of the fourth cost (“The Truth”), not because I necessarily disagree with what Husak says, but because it seems to beg the question against those who defend criminalisation. That might be acceptable in the context of Husak’s argument — since he does address the pro-criminalisation arguments before raising this point — but in other contexts it would be less successful. Better to cite costs that are transparent even to those who think criminalisation is justified on the grounds of harm to personal health and well-being.

In any event, this doesn’t necessary matter. Husak’s point is not that all of these costs are equally persuasive, but that it would be difficult for one person to deny them all. His point is that current drug policies are counterproductive in at least one of these ways.

3. Conclusion
That brings us to the end of Husak’s pro-decriminalisation arguments. To sum up, Husak has presented a two-part case for decriminalisation. A positive part and a negative part.

The first (negative) part argued that none of the traditional rationales — harm to self, harm to children, prevention of crime and immorality — justify criminalisation. For starters, even if drug use is uniquely harmful (which it isn’t), we do not typically punish people for harming themselves. Similarly, the harms of drug use to children do not seem sufficient to warrant the punishment of adults for consuming drugs. More emphatically, far from preventing crime, drug criminalisation may well be a cause of crime. And finally, even if drug use were immoral in the sense that it leads to the formation of bad character traits, this is not a good rationale for punishment. We do not criminalise all forms of personal vice.

The second (positive) part presented two reasons for favouring decriminalisation. The first was that the recreational use of drugs has some positive value for the user and should not be treated differently from other recreational pursuits. And the second was that current policies are counterproductive in a variety of ways. Hence, decriminalisation would have positive effects.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Should Recreational Drug Use be Decriminalised? (Part Three)

(Part One, Part Two)

In light of the historic results in Colorado and Washington on Tuesday night (both states passed full legalisation of marijuana amendments), I thought it might be worth re-igniting my series on the decriminalisation of recreational drug use. As you’ll recall, the series is looking at the arguments presented in Husak and de Marneffe’s book The Legalization of Drugs: For and Against. Right now, I’m still working my way through Husak’s pro-decriminalisation arguments.

For those of you who did not read the first two parts, here’s a quick recap. Husak is trying to argue that the recreational use of substances such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin should be decriminalised. By “decriminalisation” is meant “the removal of the threat of criminal punishment from those who engage in that activity”. This is not the same thing as full legalisation, or state encouragement of that activity. Decriminalisation of use is consistent with regulation that discourages use, and, indeed, laws that prohibit production and sale. But, given the nature of the pro-decriminalisation arguments, it must be said that the legitimacy of the latter are doubtful.

Husak’s methodology is twofold. First, he’s looking at four traditional rationales that favour criminalisation. These come from a variety of sources, including leading authors and government agencies. He is arguing that each of these rationales fails and, consequently, that there doesn’t appear to be a good reason for criminalising recreational drug use. Then comes the second part of his methodology, in which he argues that, in addition to this, there are some good reasons for decriminalising recreational drug use. Hence, the case for decriminalisation is quite robust.

So far in this series, I’ve looked at the first of the traditional rationales for criminalisation, namely: that recreational use should be criminalised because it is harmful to the user. This rationale was found to be lacking for a number of reasons. In the remainder of this post, I will deal with the three other rationales in quick succession. They are: (i) the protection of children rationale; (ii) the prevention of crime rationale; and (iii) the prevention of immorality rationale.

1. The Protection of Children Rationale
The protection of children is a common and universally popular appeal in political and legal debates. So it comes as no surprise that protection of children is often cited as a rationale for drug criminalisation. Husak suggests that it’s more correct to call this the “protection of adolescents”-rationale, since they are often the key target group, but children can fall within the scope too and so we’ll stick with the original name.

Anyway, let’s ask ourselves seriously: what does it mean to cite the protection of children as a rationale for drug criminalisation? Seriously, it means that we think it is justifiable to punish adults (and possibly some adolescents too) for taking drugs if doing so will prevent children from taking them too. And this, in turn, is justifiable on the grounds that taking drugs would be bad for children’s health and well-being. As follows:

  • (1) It is permissible to punish those who engage in a particular activity if: (a) doing so prevents children/adolescents from engaging in that activity; and (b) that activity is harmful to children/adolescents. 
  • (2) Recreational drug use is harmful to children/adolescents. 
  • (3) Punishing those who engage in recreational drug use will prevent children from engaging in recreational drug use. 
  • (4) Therefore, it is permissible to punish those who engage in recreational drug use.

There are several problems with this argument. They start with premise (1). It’s not clear that this is a good principle of criminalisation. Of course, preventing harm to others is probably the most widely accepted principle of criminalisation, but there remains the problem of inconsistent policies toward different substances. Alcohol and cigarettes are probably harmful to children, but does it then follow that we should punish people for drinking and smoking in the hope that this prevents children from following suit? Clearly most people think not. If you want to prevent children from doing these things, the criminal punishment of adults for doing the same things seems excessive. At the same time, punishing those who sell or supply those substances to children would be more plausible.

There is also the problem that premise (1) is vague with respect to who exactly will be punished. Are adolescents to be punished for engaging in the activity too? Many jurisdictions do punish adolescents in a manner that is roughly equivalent to that of adults, but this suggests an odd attitude toward adolescent welfare. As Husak submits, sending adolescents to jail is arguably quite harmful, possibly more so than the activity we are trying to prevent (drug use in this instance). So again, it’s not clear that this really is a good principle.

Turning to premise (2), Husak argues that recreational drug use is not obviously harmful to adolescents, certainly no more so than the consumption of other licit substances which we do not criminalise. We discussed this at length in part two. Of course, there may be particular concerns about children. Since they are still undergoing rapid developmental changes, drug use may have deeper and more deleterious effects on them than it would on adults. Here, Husak gets into some studies of adolescent drug use suggesting that, for the most part, those who experiment with drugs in their youth are not permanently harmed by doing so. Those who become heavy, dependent users in youth can, of course, have problems. But it is possible to deal with those problems in other ways.

Finally, looking to premise (3), it can be argued, plausibly, that punishing people for using drugs is unlikely to have a significant preventive effect. This is for two reasons. First, the current system criminalisation probably doesn’t have a preventive effect. Of course, it’s impossible to know this for sure since we haven’t done the necessary experimental controls. Changes in the law in Colorado and Washington will be instructive in this regard. However, as I mentioned in part two, the Netherlands, which has had a de facto regime of decriminalisation in place up until this year, does not appear to have significantly high rates of drug use. And in the absence of a proper control, an interesting analogy can be drawn between recreational drug use and the use of other licit substances such as alcohol. As Husak notes, reported rates of alcohol consumption among American teenagers has decreased from approximately 50% reporting some consumption in the past month in 1979 to under 20% now (where “now” means circa 2005). Since alcohol consumption is not a criminal offence, it would seem to follow that reduction in consumption can be achieved quite successfully through other means.

A second reason for doubting premise (3) is that, assuming punishment for drug use is largely limited to adults, adolescents are unlikely to be swayed by this. Adolescents tend to be far more influenced by their peer groups when it comes to engaging in illicit activities. Punishing the adolescents themselves might have some deterrent effect, but then we’re back to the problem that this may well be be more harmful than allowing them to take drugs. We must acknowledge, however, that blanket statements like this are difficult to justify. Punishment may help set some people on the right course.

2. The Prevention of Crime Rationale
One sometimes hears it proclaimed that drug criminalisation is needed in order to prevent certain kinds of violent crime. Superficially, this sounds plausible. Everyone knows that drug-related crime is a massive problem, and since that’s the kind of thing we want to prevent, it stands to reason that we should clamp down on drug use further. Right? Not necessarily. To evaluate this rationale properly, we need to distinguish between different varieties of drug-related crime and consider their likely causes. When we do so, we see that, far from being the ideal way to prevent drug-related crime, current criminalisation policies are likely to be the cause of such crime.

Husak, following the work of others, distinguishes between three broad categories of drug-related crime:

Systemic Crime: This is the kind of crime caused by the black market selling and buying of drugs. Because the drug trade is illegal, those participating in it have to resort to non-legal means for settling any “business disputes” that arise between them. This is why they order “hits” on people who double-cross them, or why they promote the corruption and bribery of public officials.
Economic Crime: This is the kind of crime that drug users engage in in order to purchase their drug of choice. For example, the theft, fraud and robbery we see from those trying to pay off their drug dealers is classed as an “economic crime”.
Psycho-Pharmacological Crime: This is the kind of crime that is actually committed by people while under the influence of illicit drugs.

Does drug decriminalisation prevent these three types of crime? Well, looking to the first category, the answer would appear to be “no”. Indeed, the arrow of causation points in almost the exact opposite direction. Systemic crimes are largely caused by the fact that drug use is criminalised. If drugs were regulated in the same way as, say, alcohol and cigarettes, then those involved in the drug trade would have legitimate means of enforcing their business deals. This should help to reduce systemic crime. Of course, we would never actually reduce it to zero — we still have black market deals in alcohol and cigarettes after all — but we could still significantly reduce the problem. So this one seems to go in favour of the pro-decriminalisation crowd.

What about economic crimes? This is slightly trickier. Those crimes are motivated by a combination of addiction and inability to pay. Decriminalisation of drug use, combined with some form of regulation, will not necessarily lead to reduced drug prices, and so there may still be an incentive to engage in this type of criminal activity. To be sure, it could be that the high costs of illicit drugs are linked to the dangerous and violent system of trade associated with them, and thus decriminalisation and regulation would reduce prices. But, at the same time, regulation of the legal trade could impose high costs, for example through some kind of sales tax and quality control regime, and this could actually increase prices. Arguably, this has happened in the case of “legal” cigarettes and it may be one thing that encourages the black market sale of cigarettes.

The third category of crimes is the most likely to be prevented by criminalisation, but even still there are some doubts. In particular, it must be noted that the number of people who actually commit crimes while under the influence of recreational drugs is relatively small. And certainly, the link between alcohol use and crime, particularly violent crime, looks to be more robust. Nevertheless, it could be that there are particular kinds of drug — LSD, say, or “Bath Salts” — that do come with a high risk of violent behaviour, and they possibly should be criminalised. But that’s no reason to criminalise other, more benign, substances.

In sum then, while the prevention of crime is a plausible rationale for drug criminalisation, the actual causal links between criminalisation and the prevention of crime are rather doubtful. Indeed, it seems far more likely that drug criminalisation is the cause of certain egregious forms of crime.

3. The Immorality Rationale
The final rationale for criminalisation claims that recreational drug use ought to be punished because it is immoral. This rationale can be expressed as a simple syllogism:

  • (5) If an activity is immoral, those who engage in it ought be subject to criminal sanction. 
  • (6) Recreational drug use is immoral. 
  • (7) Therefore, we ought to criminalise recreational drug use.

Once expressed in this form, the weaknesses of the rationale become apparent. For starters, premise (1) embodies a principle that few accept. Even if drug use is a form of immorality, it’s not at all clear that it should be criminalised since it’s not at all clear that every form of immorality should be criminalised. Many would argue that lying and marital infidelity are immoral, but (outside of exceptional cases such as fraud) few argue that they should be criminalised. Not every form of personal vice should be subject to criminal punishment.

Still, premise (1) is not wildly implausible. Clearly, there are other forms of immorality that ought to be criminalised, such as killing or sexually molesting another person. What we need to know is whether recreational drug use is like these things or whether it is more like telling a white lie or cheating on your spouse. This brings us to the evaluation of premise (2).

Dismissing premise (2), Husak argues that recreational drug use is not immoral in the same way as killing or sexual assault. Those activities violate the rights of other people. Recreational drug use does not. Recreational drug use, if it is indeed immoral, would be more akin to a personal vice. Thus, someone who takes a lot of cocaine might be guilty of poor impulse control or self-destructive tendencies. Should they be criminalised on those grounds? Husak argues that this is implausible. There are lots of other personal vices — again smoking and alcoholism being the obvious ones — that are not criminalised. Why single out recreational drug use?

As it happens, there may be an answer to that question. De Marneffe, in his contribution to the debate, tries to explain why (certain kinds) of recreational drug use are different in this regard, but we’ll have to wait to see what his argument is. For now, we’ll conclude by noting that Husak himself thinks that, far from being a source of immorality, the use of recreational drugs may be of some intrinsic value. And we’ll see exactly what his argument is in the next post.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Divine Command Theory and the Metre-Stick Analogy (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second part of my series looking at Jeremy Koons’s article “Can God’s Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory?”. The article presents an objection to one popular solution — Alston’s particularist solution — to the Euthyphro dilemma.

Part one laid down the foundations one needs to fully understand Koons’s critique. It looked at the basic tenets of theistic metaethics in general, and divine command theory in particular. It then considered the challenge that Euthyphro’s dilemma poses to divine command theory and the solution to this challenge adopted by proponents of modified divine command theory. According to them, the arbitrariness horn of the Euthyphro dilemma can be avoided if we accept that God’s essential goodness prevents him from commanding anything that is morally abhorrent.

The problem with this solution is that it raises the question: what does God’s essential goodness consist in? The typical answer is that it consists in his characteristic properties, such as lovingkindness, but this simply raises the possibility of a revised Euthyphro dilemma (illustrated below): are those properties good-making because God happens to exemplify them, or is God good because he exemplifies those properties? Neither possibility is entirely welcome: the first because it seems to rob the claim that God is good of all its content, and the second because it makes goodness ontologically independent from God.

Alston tries to make the first possibility — that such properties are good-making because God happens to exemplify them — more palatable by adopting a particularist account of goodness. The way he does this is by drawing an analogy between God and a standard metre stick. The claim is that God stands in the same relation to goodness, as the standard metre stick stands in relation to the length of one metre. God simply is good, just as the standard metre stick simply is one metre long. It is then argued that this does not suck all the significance out of the proposition “God is good”.

In the remainder of this post, we’re going to see whether this aspect of Alston’s theory is sustainable. We do so in three phases. First, we look more closely at the nature of particularist predicates and argue that a particularist account of God’s goodness is, contra Alston, trivial. Second, we look at Alston’s response to this argument, which is based on the need for explanatory stopping points. And third, we ask consider whether this response is adequate.

1. How Particularist Predicates Work
It will be useful here to revisit the definition of Platonic and particularist predicates that we covered the last day. As follows:

Platonic Predicates: The criterion for the application of a Platonic predicate is some general “Idea” or “essence”. An example might be the criterion for the application of the term “triangle”. Whether it makes sense to call a particular object or representation thereof a “triangle” depends on whether the object in question resembles the Platonic ideal of a triangle.
Particularist Predicates: The criterion for the application of a particularist predicate is determined by reference to one or more concrete individuals. An example might be the criterion for the application of the term “metre”. Whether it makes sense to say that a particular length is one metre long depends on whether it is isomorphic to the standard metre-stick which is kept in Paris.

As we already saw, Alston’s account of divine goodness draws an explicit analogy between God’s relationship to goodness, and the relationship of the standard metre-stick to a purported length of one metre. So if we consider for a moment what it really means to say that something is one metre long, we’ll get a better idea of what Alston thinks it means to say that something is good.

So what does it really mean to say that something is one metre long? Well, it means that, when it comes to explaining or grounding the notion of metre-hood, we appeal directly to the standard metre-stick. It is this standard metre-stick which confers the property of metre-hood on particular objects and lengths in the world; it is not the property of metre-hood which grounds or explains the fact that the standard metre-stick is one meter long. The standard metre-stick simply is one metre long. It has been declared to be such by fiat; it’s metre-ness does not consist in anything deeper.

But what does that imply about God as the standard of goodness? Well, as with the standard metre-stick, it means that God simply is good, because he is declared or assumed to be such by the theist. His goodness does not consist in anything deeper, especially not his character traits since, in order to avoid the independence horn, the fact that they are good-making is explained by God’s goodness. This has devastating theological and moral consequences because, as Koons puts it:

The problem is that God’s goodness, understood in the minimalist way outlined above, is a total blank, stripped of any feature that would make intelligible why it is desirable or worthy of pursuit. (p. 188)

Consequently, all claims that God is good, or that God is being worthy of our respect or worship become trivial, insignificant and devoid of motivational salience. It is about as meaningful as declaring that my cat is the supreme standard of goodness.

2. The Stopping Point Argument
But are things really this bad? Alston thinks not. He thinks that the seeming insignificance of God’s goodness under the particularist account links to a more general worry about explanations and stopping points. As he puts it,

An answer to the question, “What is good about X?” will, sooner or later, cite certain good-making characteristics. We can then ask why we should suppose that good supervenes on those characteristics. In answer, either a general principle or an individual paradigm is cited. But whichever it is, that is the end of the line…On both views something is taken to be ultimate, behind which we cannot go, in the sense of finding some explanation of the fact that it is constitutive of goodness.(“What Euthyphro Should have Said”, Alston 2002, p. 293)

The point is that, when it comes to the ultimate explanation of goodness, we have to come to a stop somewhere. And wherever we do come to a stop, no further explanations of the sort “X is good because…” can be offered. Platonic moral realists stop with a certain set of abstract properties such as lovingness, kindness, justice, happiness and so forth. Theological particularists stop with God qua concrete being.

But who’s right? Which stopping point is more appropriate? I don’t know that Alston answers this directly, but from what he writes it seems like he suggesting that the two views are theoretically symmetrical in this regard. In other words, there is no reason to prefer the Platonic account to the particularist one when it comes to the grounding of moral goodness. (Note: there may be other reasons, not linked to the explanation of moral goodness, for preferring theism or atheism, and these could break the deadlock.)

So Alston could be interpreted as making the following argument:

  • (1) If two proposed explanatory stopping points are coherent, and there is no reason for preferring one over the other, then either can be accepted. 
  • (2) Platonic moral realism proposes that the explanation of goodness bottoms-out in some set of abstract virtues or properties; there is no deeper reason for thinking that these are good. 
  • (3) The theistic particularist account of God’s goodness proposes that the explanation of goodness bottoms-out in God qua supreme particularist standard of goodness; there is no deeper reason for thinking that he is good. 
  • (4) Both accounts are coherent, and, at least when it comes to the explanation of morality, there is no reason for preferring one over the other. 
  • (5) Therefore, both explanations of moral goodness can be accepted.

3. Responding to the Stopping Point Argument
The key step in this argument is premise (4). We can accept the general principle (1) and we can accept the description of the two different theories (2 and 3), but if the two accounts are not equal, then the argument does not go through. Unsurprisingly, Koons’s criticism of Alston’s position turns entirely on the notion that Alston’s account is not equal to Platonic moral realism.

Koons’s argues that, far from being coherent, Alston’s account of goodness is completely unintelligible. While it can be accepted that explanations must come to halt somewhere, any purported stopping points ought to be intelligible. But to say that God simply is goodness is unintelligible because, to repeat, his goodness is a complete blank. It is devoid of any features that make it an intuitively appealing claim.
Of course, Alston can and does dispute this. He argues that God’s goodness is an intuitively self-evident fact to most theists. When they think of God, and contemplate what he is, they think of Him as the supreme standard of goodness. Much like the Platonic moral realist thinks of the set of properties and virtues as being intrinsically good.

But this response is unpersuasive. As Koons points out, Alston’s position reverses the theist’s epistemic route to knowledge of God’s goodness. The typical approach is to think of God’s intrinsic characteristics (such as his lovingkindness), then to intuitively recognise these as self-evidently good-making properties, and then to conclude that God is obviously and self-evidently the supreme standard of goodness. By way of contrast, Alston is saying that first we intuit that God is self-evidently the supreme standard of goodness, and then conclude that his character traits are good-making. But how could we intuit that he good before knowing anything about his characteristics? The faculty of intuition requires some inputs in order to generate its outputs, but since God’s goodness is a total blank on Alston’s account, there are no inputs that could generate the belief that God is supremely good.

It should be noted that this is an epistemological point, not a metaphysical one. Dwelling on it for too long may obscure the fact the debate here is really a metaphysical one. It is about how God could ground or explain goodness. Koons’s contention is that God can’t do this simply because he is believed or declared to be the supreme standard of goodness. It makes far more sense to say that the properties or virtues he exemplifies ground and explain his goodness. And I would submit that this is true even if those properties are themselves without grounding, although I don’t rule out the possibility that they have some explanatory grounding.

Alston might have a couple of “last ditch” (Koons) responses to this. First, he might argue that God’s goodness consists in God always doing what is right. Thus, even if his character traits do not account for his goodness, his actions do. Unfortunately, this won’t work because God is also supposed to be explaining the rightness of actions. Indeed, this was the whole point of the modified divine command theory in the first place.

Second, they might argue that good is simply unanalysable, as per G.E. Moore. But, as others have pointed out, Moore’s argument merely rules out the analytical reduction of the Good to non-normative and non-moral concepts. It doesn’t mean that goodness is absolutely inexplicable or incapable of being explanatorily reduced.

4. Conclusion
To sum up, Alston tries to resolve the Euthyphro dilemma by suggesting that God’s goodness constrains the possible commands that God could give. He then offers a particularist account of what God’s goodness consists in. But in doing so, he fails to avoid becoming impaled upon the horns of a revised version of the Euthyphro dilemma. Koons describes the position so well that I’ll leave the final word to him:
In short, Alston must answer the question, “Why is being loving good?” by saying, “Traits (like being loving) are good-making because God has them, and God is good.” But on Alston’s account, when we say “God is good”, we haven’t said anything because Alston’s particularism prevents him from giving any concrete articulation of what goodness is. Unfortunately, on the particularist theory, we have no more (or less) reason to declare God essentially good than to declare Him essentially fnord or bxtzs; for by calling God “good” we haven’t really said anything at all.