Tuesday, April 09, 2019

What's in a Name?

In Ethics as it is usually taught today, we tend to focus on three major normative approaches, depending on what kind of reasoning they take to be fundamental: Consequentialism (of which Utilitarianism is the most common form), Deontology, and Virtue Ethics. The names we use are rather interesting, because they are a grab-bag. 'Deontology' is a leftover from an older naming system in which the major approaches to ethics were divided into Teleology and Deontology; Teleology almost completely vanished. If we were naming Virtue Ethics on the same principles, we would perhaps call it either Ethology or Aretology, but neither have been in general use. 'Consequentialism' started out as an insult-name for Teleology; it became popular because Anscombe used it, and consequentialists in responding to her kept it. It still has its insult use as a secondary meaning, but consequentialists themselves often use it, because it fits very well. If we name Deontology along the same lines, we would call it something like Obligationism or Obligationalism. I'm not sure what we would call Virtue Ethics; Characterism, perhaps. 'Virtue Ethics' is just the name people used when they started recognizing that the Teleology/Deontology distinction was significantly distorting a lot of positions for which it could not properly account. If we used the same structure for naming the other two, we would perhaps use Obligation Ethics or Rule Ethics for Deontology and Benefit Ethics for Consequentialism.

Virtue Ethics under any other name is just as Virtue-Ethical, but one wonders if the fact that the names are all on different principles has an influence on how we think about the different positions. Does the use of 'Deontology' make Deontology sound more forbidding? Since the English word 'consequence' covers so many different kinds of things, does 'Consequentialism' lead us to assign more to Consequentialism than we would if we called it 'Teleology'? Does 'Virtue Ethics' lead people to assign things to it that would make better sense assigned to the other two? It's hard to say, and I don't know of any way to be sure. But names do affect how we reason about the named things.

For instance, a hypothesis in cognitive studies of religion often goes by the name 'Hyperactive Agency Detection Device' or HADD; the rough idea is that we default to the presumption of purposeful agents, including in environmental cases. 'Hyperactive' naturally suggests to the mind that it is too active, too sensitive, always turning up false positives. But if you look at what this cognitive module is supposed to do, one easily sees that in practice it's not identifying agents but agent-candidates; for instance, we are not stuck with recognizing these things as purposeful agents -- we can later conclde that they are not, in fact, agents. And the field of initial agency-candidates is obviously going to be much larger than the field of agents, if you want to make it easier to find agents. So we could just as easily call it 'Active Agency-Candidate Detection Device'. This wouldn't matter, but if you look at how HADD figures in arguments in philosophy of religion, and to a lesser extent in cognitive science, the 'hyperactive' is obviously doing a lot of work. The name rather than the thing is guiding the reasoning.

Or consider uses of 'prediction' in both psychology and philosophy of mind. There are a lot of theories these days that go under titles like 'the Predictive Theory of Mind', and the like. The theories themselves are find; but one finds, regularly, that what they call 'prediction' is a much, much larger field than what we would usually call prediction, including things like retroduction, extrapolation of the present, acting on experience-based models, analogizing, and the like. But when we explain them, it's very difficult for them to avoid falling back on the colloquial meaning of 'prediction' as concerned with anticipating the future. The name distorts how people talk about it. To be sure, this is largely only in non-technical cases -- but even experts sometimes have to discuss the theory in non-technical contexts.

Or, God help us all, the 'National Popular Vote Compact', which is a policy that involves neither a national vote (since it doesn't change the fact that in the U.S. we only have state elections) nor a popular vote (since it doesn't change the fact that we only vote by states according to state laws in ways provided by the states through the Electoral College) nor a compact (or they should hope it's not, because interstate compacts are unconstitutional without the consent of Congress). Yet almost everything people say about the subject is based on the name, not the thing.

Or, to take a very different case. There was some stirring a while ago about corporate persons. Now, the notions of legal personhood and corporate personhood are perfectly intelligible notions, and very useful ones, and almost all of the alternate proposals were obviously stupid. But the stirring itself wasn't necessarily stupid. One could reasonably ask, "Are we being led by the name 'person' to attributes more rights to corporations and legal entities than is good or reasonable?" And this was the essential worry -- that courts were being too liberal in handling the rights of corporations to speech and the like simply on the basis of the fact that they are called 'persons' in law. It's a reasonable worry.

In none of these -- except the National Popular Vote Compact -- is there an actual problem with the name itself; in every case, the name used makes sense. But names are not arbitrary labels; they bring baggage and they create baggage, and we sometiems reason more on the name and its associations than we do with regard to the real thing. I'm sure there are lots of cases. So it's sometimes helpful at least to ask the question of whether we are being more guided in our reasoning by the name than the thing.

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