The Argument from Honest Argumentation

In the comment following this article “Virtuous Pagans and Honest Atheists”, several readers have pointed out a flaw in the paragraph “Any philosopher contemplating whether there are universal moral laws soon realizes that he, in order to think about this or any other topic, is under a moral obligation to think honestly, since to think dishonestly is futile. Hence, all humans live in an inescapable web of moral duties, of which the skeptical philosopher is convinced of at least one: a duty to be honest, to think with integrity.”

The flaw allegedly spotted is the naturalist fallacy, attempting to derive an “ought” from an “is.” My argument is sound, albeit I confess the phrasing is unclear.

The word causing confusion is the word “futile.” Many read that sentence to mean that I am saying reasoning without integrity is inefficient. That is not what I mean. I am saying reasoning without reason is unreasonable, that is, not logically possible. I am using the word “futile” in its strongest sense here.

I am  not saying it is “futile” (inefficient) to try to clean your car windshield with a toothbrush; I am saying it is “futile” (impossible) to add a cubit to your stature merely by taking thought.

Also, the word “hence” beginning the second sentence sounds as if I am saying the second sentence is the conclusion where the first sentence is the axiom, as if this were a deduction. Sorry for the ambiguity: the argument is inductive. I am deducing axioms from conclusions, not conclusions from axioms.

“Hence” here means “hence it must be the case that this is the axioms” and it indicates here what are the axioms which the philosophers comes to realize he already believes and must come to realize he already believes as a logical pre-condition or foundational assumption before he even sits down to being philosophizing.

To put the argument in clearer form:

1. Either all humans live in an inescapable web of moral duties or not.

2. If not, then there are no inescapable moral duties: in which case this reasoning is or might be under no moral duty to be honest.

3. If this reasoning is not honest, its conclusions ought not be trusted, not even this conclusion: which is absurd. Therefore all humans live in an inescapable web of moral duties.

If you like, you may substitute the phrase “A philosopher honestly doing philosophy by means of honest reasoning” for the term “this reasoning” — the result of the argument is the same.

The stark fact of the matter is that we neither perform nor heed dishonest philosophy by definition. Reasoning that is specious, deliberately erroneous, deliberately cowardly, misleading or rhetorical  is called “sophistry” not “philosophy.”

The argument does not say you ought or ought not reason. It is not a normative argument. It is an observation. It says that if you are reasoning, then you have already accepted the moral principle that you ought to reason, otherwise you would not and could not be doing it. And “reasoning” means “honest reasoning” and “honest reasoning” means “bowing to reason even if against our inclinations or interests” and anything done because it ought be done even if against our inclinations and interest is what all men know to be a duty.

The argument merely points out that the phrase “reason honestly” is redundant. To reason is to reason honestly since dishonest reasoning is unreasonable.

A dishonest philosopher is not properly called a philosopher; dishonest reasoning is not reasoning properly so called.

The question of why you accept that moral principle is still a mystery; but that you do is self-evident.