Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The "Intrinsic Value" of Genetic Integrity

In my class on environmental philosophy, we entered a discussion on the preservation of species.

A part of the discussion concerned the value of preserving "pure" species. For example, one article mentioned the fact that many of the bison alive today have some genes as a result of breeding with cattle. Thus, they are not pure-bread bison. Some authors argue that genetically pure bison have more intrinsic value than these mongrel bison.

I objected to that view. I began with the claim that genetic purity has no intrinsic value. It is a learned sentiment. Furthermore, it is a learned sentiment we have no reason to encourage people to adopt.

There is no such thing as intrinsic value.

Consequently, all claims in defense of a policy that say that the policy will protect or realize something of intrinsic value are false. Intrinsic value claims cannot justify any policy. 

These comments concern the article, “Is There a Prima Facie Duty to Preserve Genetic Integrity in Conservation Biology?” By Yasha Rohwer and Emma Morris. Rohwer and Morris entertain the idea that genetic integrity may have intrinsic value.

They reject this claim. However, they do so in a way that allows for the possibility of intrinsic value. They simply deny that any of that intrinsic value can be found here.

This might be a prudent tactic. It is sometimes efficient to simply accept premises that one's opponent asserts without debate, arguing that even if those premises were true it would not support the opponent's conclusion.

However, it may still be a good idea to address the truth of the premise. "Oh, and by the way, they're also not true, but that's just icing on the cake."

In discussing intrinsic value, Rohwer and Morris mention G.E. Moore’s isolation test. 

Another argument against the idea that genetic integrity is intrinsically valuable is to use G. E. Moore’s (1903) method for determining whether or not something is intrinsically valuable that he put forth in his Principia Ethica. Moore’s thought experiment is supposed to give evidence that something is intrinsically valuable. The thought experiment goes like this: imagine that there exists a possible world and that the only thing that exists in that world is that which supposedly is intrinsically valuable. Once the thing is isolated thusly, we ask ourselves: is it good? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then that is evidence that the thing has intrinsic value; if ‘no,’ then that is evidence that the thing does not have intrinsic value.
This test is not a test for intrinsic value. Moore’s test would work even if intrinsic value did not exist – if, instead, all value depended on individual likes and dislikes, but among the things liked or disliked are things in themselves – that certain situations be realized. 

Take Moore's most famous example: 

Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful....And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it as simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature. The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other.... [S]till, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist than the one which is ugly? Would it not be well, in any case, to do what we could to produce it rather than the other? Certainly I cannot help thinking that it would; and I hope that some may agree with me in this extreme instance.
Let us grant that we would choose to have the beautiful world exist, even if nobody were to experience it and derive any pleasure from the experience. 

Now, ask this question of somebody who is an intelligent descendent of the dung beetle. She, too, may tell us that she would choose to have the beautiful world exist.

Then ask her, “Which world is the beautiful world?” 

We should not be surprised if, being a dung beetle, she would choose the world that is, “one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us” – a big ball of dung – that the dung beetle has evolved a disposition to value as we value green meadows, rainbows, flowers, and flowing streams. 

The value, in each case, depends not on its intrinsic qualities, but on the preferences of the observer. Those preferences just happen to include a preference that the world one counts as beautiful exist independent of anybody experiencing it. 

Applying this to genetic integrity, then, we get the conclusion that genetic integrity has no intrinsic value. Instead, we there are people who value genetic integrity for its own sake. They prefer that genetically pure individuals exist and genetically mixed individuals do not exist, even if it has no impact on what people experience. 

After establishing this as a preference, we can then ask whether people generally have reasons to universally encourage or discourage the development of this preference.

Let me illustrate what I mean by this. Assume that we had a community of individuals all with an aversion to personal pain. They would each have a reason to promote in all others (universally) an aversion to causing pain to others. They may do so by praising those who refrain from causing pain and condemning those who do not refrain. 

There may be a similar reason to promote in others a desire to preserve nature for its own sake (and not merely for the sake of the instrumental value of nature). It would certainly be better than having all that has successfully sustained and supported life for millions of years vanish. So there may be a reason to promote a nearly universal interest in preserving nature.

However, the preference for genetic purity is a preference we have a great many and strong reasons to discourage, and not to encourage. We need only look at this love of genetic purity - this aversion to mixed breeding - has had on human society. We have reason to worry that this love of genetic purity among animals is too closely related to a quest for the same type of genetic purity among humans. 

The situations are quite similar. Rohwer and Morris wrote about cases where parts of a population became isolated, began to form genetic differences, then came back together again and began to interbreed, thus reducing the genetic purity of each sub-species. I want to make sure the reader understands that they did not share this value, but they wrote about a great many people who thought it was obviously the case that pure-blood specimens had more intrinsic value than mixed-blood specimens. 

The story of humanity is also a story about a population that spread out to the point that different populations became genetically isolated to the point that they began to genetically differentiate. Then technology brought them back into contact with each other – allowing interbreeding. If we apply the intrinsic value claims that Rohwer and Morris criticized to human interbreeding, we would end up with arguments calling for genetically pure Europeans, Africans, Asians, and Native Americans, and the elimination of any type of corrupted impure genetic specimens. 

One might argue that these “oughts” do not apply to human populations. I suspect that the authors may be surprised - even offended - at the claim that they could defend such attitudes among humans. However, their offense aside, we need a real-world reason as to why there is a difference between the two types of cases. Otherwise, regardless of the degree of protest, the intrinsic value of genetically pure specimens of subspecies applies to humans as well. 

These sentiments do not, in fact, realize anything of intrinsic value. They are learned – and we really don’t have any good reason for people to learn them. In fact, we have reason to discourage people from this lesson, and discourage the fondness for genetically pure members of any species

Monday, October 09, 2017

Actual Valuation Theory

In my environmental philosophy class, our readings for today concerned the harms of climate change and, more specifically, what counts as harm or damage.

I hold to a valued-dependent theory of value. There is no value without a valued. So, ther is no harm without a person harmed. There is no damage without a change that sets back somebody’s interests - no being who has a reason to care about the change.

Two of the articles we read contained common misapprehensions of the actual valuation theory. One confused value grounded on belief with value grounded on desire (independent of belief). The other confused actual value with felt value.

In my summary of the readings, I described these mistakes, why they are mistakes, and how actual valuation theory handles the concerns these authors raised.

The shorter version:

Katie McShane in “Values and Harms in Loss and Damage,” and Christopher Preston in “Challenges and Opportunities for Understanding Non economic Loss and Damage,” each make a mistake in understanding actual violation view, which impacts their accounts of harm – this making mistakes on what counts as harm.

Specifically, McShane equates “actual valuation” with anything an agent thinks might be good, then uses the possibility of false beliefs to reject this account. She then invents values (and, thereby, harms) independent of those that an actual valuation theory would defend.

There are actual valuation theories that deny a link between actual valuation and beliefs. One of these recognizes a distinction between beliefs and desires. It links value to actual desires – as distinct from beliefs. A change in beliefs simply is a change in recognizing the effective means to that which one actually desires, or a change in recognizing whether what one actually recognizes has been realized.

Preston assumes a false dichotomy between felt satisfaction theories of value and intrinsic prescriptivity. He reports shortcomings which the felt satisfaction theories. From this, he asserts that there must be some intrinsic values.

The problem here is a failure to recognize that people can have preferences for more than felt satisfaction. A value can be based on a preference, where the preference is for something other than felt satisfaction. A parent may have a preference for the well-being of his children independent of felt satisfaction, and choose what is in the child’s interest even while finding it quite painful to do so.

These mistakes about the nature of actual valuation theories translate into mistakes about what such theories would identify as harms, and thus misidentifying the reasons for or against various climate policies.

The longer version:

Katie McShane, “Values and Harms in Loss and Damage”

Katie McShane provides a taxonomy of value theories which is , at best, incomplete.

What she leaves out is a type of actual valuation theory that grounds value on actual desires, and fully recognizes a distinction between desires and beliefs.

McShane defines “actual valuation” theories as follows:

Actual Valuation: Value is a matter of whatever is valued by valuers.

She then raises objections to this account based on the possibility of mistakes.

Actual Valuation allows flawed or mistaken valuations to confer value on things. Consider the example of a valuation based on a mistaken belief. If I were to value a local structure on the basis of an incorrect belief about its historical provenance, or if I were to value an environmental policy because I wrongly think that it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, these objects would nonetheless count as valuable on this view merely in virtue of the fact that I value.

However, this objection does not apply to actual value theories that distinguish between actual desires and beliefs.

For the sake of space, allow me to assume a Humean theory of motivation – which provides a useful foundation for these types of theories. A modernized version of the theory says that intentional action is motivated by desire. That is to say, desires identify the ends of intentional actions. Beliefs provide information useful in determining the means – the steps to take in reaching those ends. They are also relevant in determining if an actual-desire dependent end has been reached. But beliefs can be mistaken. Mistaken beliefs can prevent a person from obtaining her ends or recognizing that she has succeeded (or failed). However, they are not relevant in determining what those ends are. Failures in determining means or in recognizing if an end has been realized are not evidence against the thesis that value depends on actual desires.

So, a person who desires to eat chocolate cake and believes that there is chocolate cake in the kitchen has a motivating reason to go to the kitchen and get some chocolate cake.

As he gets up off the couch and heads to the kitchen, his wife may ask, “Where are you going?”

“I want some of that chocolate cake in the kitchen.”

“There is no chocolate cake in the kitchen,”she says.”You ate the last of it for breakfast.”

An actual valuation theorist need not say that our agent’s actual desire was “the chocolate cake in the kitchen.” His desire was to be eating chocolate cake. The fact that he had a false belief about where to find chocolate cake is irrelevant. He was not mistaken about what he valued. He was only mistaken about how to realize what he valued. Regardless of what he believes, what he values (to be eating chocolate cake) remains the same.

To use another example, imagine a person, after a long run, reaching for what she thinks is a glass of water. Another person in the room says, “You don’t want to drink that.” Indeed, she does not, since the glass contains cleaning fluid.

The person who wants to own a genuine Picasso painting may think that he wants the forgery above his fireplace. When he discovers that it is a forgery, his values do not suddenly change. It is not true that he wanted that painting yesterday and does not want it today. He never wanted that painting. He only thought that he did.

McShane contrasted actual valuation theories with idealized valuation theories – where value depends on what the agent would value if fully informed.

However, a Humean theory of motivation would argue the agent would have the same values after obtaining full information that he had when ignorant. He would become better able to fulfill those desires (more accurately determine means) and better able to realize when they are or are not fulfilled, but the information will have no impact on what those ends are.

We do not reason a person into a new desire. We use other tools such as praise, condemnation, or helping the person to experience the object in a new way or to develop new habits. John Stuart Mill would tell us how that which we start valuing as a means to happiness becomes a part of happiness – valued for its own sake. This is what Hume meant by the phrase that reason is the slave of the passions. The passions select the goals or objectives, then assigns to reason the subordinate task of determining how to get there.

Christopher Preston, “Challenges and Opportunities for Understanding Noneconomic Loss and Damage,”

Christopher Preston suggests another false dichotomy relevant to actual valuation theory of value.

Preston draws a false dichotomy between theories that look only at the felt psychological states of agents and objective, intrinsic prescriptivity. In objecting to the UN method of computing harms, Preston states:

In the language of meta-ethics, this means that the technical paper has decided to consider all non-economic losses (including the subset of these that are moral losses) as simply a diminished psychological state or a preference dissatisfied. Even the loss of non-use items, valued intrinsically for what they are—a category of loss that the technical paper claims to want to accommodate)—end up counting as losses only because their destruction causes psychological harm to some individual. Intrinsic moral values, in other words, are rejected. . . [T]he method trivializes some important discussions in ethics by reducing all “ethical frameworks” to psychology. In so doing, it evacuates of any deeper philosophical significance the idea of an objective intrinsic value, an absolute right, or an inviolable principle.

So, we have two options – the subjective felt effect of a loss or objective, intrinsic value. The possibility of agents valuing things other than their own feelings is not considered as one of the options.

There are forms of actual evaluation theory that are not limited to these types of values.

Consider a parent who desires that his child be healthy and happy. If this is what he values, then he has a motivating reason to realize any state of affairs in which the proposition, “My child is healthy and happy” is true. It has nothing to do with the agent’s pleasure or satisfaction. In fact, the agent who truly cares about the well-being of his child may well prefer the grief of falsely believing that his child is being tortured over the satisfaction f falsely believing that his child is healthy and happy. This is the difference between valuing the child’s well-being and valuing a sense of satisfaction.

Yet, this interest in the well-being of the child can still reside in the parent’s preference – the parent’s actual desire that the child be healthy and happy.

Similarly, if somebody values that the Siberian tiger thrives in the wild, he has a motivating reason to make it the case that the Siberian tiger thrives. He may will prefer the grief of falsely believing that the Siberian Tiger is extinct over the felt satisfaction of the false belief that the Siberian tiger thrives. This is the difference between having a preference for the thriving of the Siberian tiger and a preference for a particular feeling of satisfaction.

Desires vs. "Ought to Desire"

I expect that some readers would come up with another objection to actual valuation theories – that it cannot accommodate the possibility of bad desires. On this account, the person who likes to torture young children has a preference that gives the torturing of young children value, in the same way that the preference of the parent that his children are healthy and happy gives the happiness and health of his children value.

However, valuations influence actions, and actions influence whether other valuations are realized. The parent who values the health and happiness of his children has a reason to promote in others sentiments compatible with that end and to discourage the development of sentiments in others that would threaten the health and safety of his children. Similarly, the agent with the desire that the Siberian tiger thrives, has a reason to promote sentiments in others that will help to realize a state where the Siberian tiger thrives and to discourage the development of sentiments that would threaten the Siberian tiger.

Returning to Hume, we can evaluate character traits/desires/motives according to the degree to which they are pleasing/useful to the agent/others. A population with an aversion to pain has reasons to discourage the development of interests that will tend to put people in a state of pain, and people having reasons to plan have reasons to promote desires to repay debts and keep promises.

Consequently, even within an actual valuation theory, it is possible to make sense of the distinction between what people desire and what they ought (ought not) to desire. It is the distinction between the desires they have and the desires that people generally have reasons to promote (discourage).


The question at issue concerns the implications that such a theory has for the issue of loss or damage – the costs of climate change (or any other policy, action, or event). Only beings with a capacity for actual valuation can ultimately be harmed. Other types of things – a house, a work of art, an institution, a relationship – can be harmed only in the sense that it can be changed in ways that set back the interests that beings capable of valuation have in it.

An untrammeled wilderness has no value for its own sake, but it may still have an important relationship to interests, such as the interests of the value-capable animals that live there, the interests of those who may visit and experience it, and the interests of those who simply desire that untrammeled wilderness exists.

Actual valuation theories are not as limited as these authors imagine.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

A Carbon Footprint Problem

Let's assume that you take this global warming issue seriously.

You decide that you are going to reduce your carbon footprint. You purchase an electric car. You make sure that your own energy comes from renewable resources - solar panels on the roof, you sign up to purchase wind power from the energy company, you walk or ride your bike a lot. You purchase locally grown foods (which require less transportation). You go all out, and so you are using much less carbon-based fuels.

What happens?

Well, the demand for carbon-based fuels drop. Somebody else, who cares more about price (and there will always be a lot of people who care only about price) buys the carbon-based fuels you would have used, uses them, and put the carbon into the atmosphere. And - for all of your sacrifice - you have accomplished . . . nothing.

Your decision not to consume carbon fuels does not keep those carbon fuels in the ground - unused. It simply makes them available for somebody else to use. So, your efforts to cut back on consumption isn't actually doing anything to prevent global warming. The best that you can tell your children is that you are not one of those who created the problem. Somebody else is responsible.

Benjamin Hale discussed this problem in "Nonrenewable Resources and the Inevitability of Outcomes” The Monist, vol. 94, no. 3, pp. 369–390.

He also mentioned another, similar problem. Assume that you are an executive for an oil company with a few tens of billions of barrels in reserve that you intend to sell for the highest price possible. You read in the paper that researchers may come up with a breakthrough that will increase the efficiency of solar cells. You should realize that it would not be wise for you to sit on those reserves while the price gets undercut. Your best move is to cut the price immediately. You will still get more than the anticipated future price. Plus, you will be undercutting the demand for this new product since you have made it much less cost effective (relative to your new price). Again, carbon extraction goes up.

It would seem that we can't win.

There is an argument that we can't win so far as it is the case that there is carbon in the ground that can be sold for a price that is higher than the cost of extraction. As long as this is true, there is a profit to be made. The final consequences is: All of the carbon-based fuels that can be extracted and sold at a profit, will be extracted and sold at a profit. All of it. As long as it is legal to do so.

As the price drops, there will likely be some reserves that are too expensive to harvest at those prices. That carbon will stay in the ground - for a while. However, even if it is consumed at a slower rate, the less costly reserves will get used up, and the price will eventually rise, opening up those reserves that are more costly to extract. Eventually, it will all get used. It will all end up in the atmosphere (causing warning) or in the oceans (causing acidification).

Hale argues that insofar as individual action is ineffective when it comes to climate change, we cannot rely on getting people to take action based on the good that they will do. We need to convince them to act on some other type of reason - a reason that does not depend on the good we will do. We refrain from lying, theft, and other types of wrongs even when they have a chance of doing some good. We would find it odd if somebody were to tell us, "Go ahead and lie. It won't hurt anybody."

Perhaps, given the effects of carbon emissions, we can convince people to give up activities that produce carbon emissions for the same type of reason - because it is wrong in itself, rather than because it will do some good.

Yet, this reduction in demand will still be ineffective, whether it is done from a false belief that it will be effective or from an attitude that it is wrong in itself. if somebody is looking for something to do that would be effective, they would need to look elsewhere.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Moral luck and practical ethics

Morality is a practical institution - a tool that we have invented to make our lives better.

This fact is important to understanding some features of morality. "Moral luck" is one of those features.

A paradigm example of moral luck concerns a would be assassin. He prepares his weapon, aims at his victim, and pulls the trigger. In one case, some fluke of nature gets in the way of a killing shot. Something gets in the way, the target turns unexpectedly, or the bullet misses a vital organ by just the thickness of a hair. However it happens, the target does not die. In the other case, of course, the target dies.

Now, we have a case of attempted murder in the one case and attempted murder in the other.

The murder is considered the worse offense.

Another popular case that shows up in the literature concerns two drunk drivers. Again, the cases are identical in terms of actions. Both leave a party after having too much to drink. Both end up driving off the road. Yet, in one case, the driver hit a pedestrian standing beside the road and, in the other, the driver hits a tree instead. One driver is imprisoned for homicide. The other is cited for driving under the influence and gets a few points added to his driving record.

Why do we deliver different levels of punishment to the two people? There is nothing in their character that accounts for the difference. In fact, we stipulate in these cases that the two people have the same moral character. In fact, we could stipulate that this is the same person living in two alternative universes: one in which the target is killed and another where he is not killed, one in which he hits a tree and another in which he hits and kills a pedestrian.

The consequences of the action are outside of the agent's control, and yet those consequences are used to determine his level of culpability.

One might think that this type of case poses a problem for desirism. After all, the agent is being blamed for elements of his actions that have nothing to do with his desires.

Desirism says that an act is wrong if it is an act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not perform. In both of these cases - and in all similar cases - desirism accurately categorizes the action as a wrong action. Assassinating people and drunk driving are not demonstrations of good moral character - under normal circumstances, and we are given no reason to believe that either agent is acting in anything other than normal circumstances.

However, the response in terms of punishment or condemnation is not proportional to degree of wrongness.

This is where practical considerations come into play.

Desirism does hold that reward and punishment (including praise and condemnation) are tools used to mold the desires of others. In the case of punishment/condemnation, it is reasonable that the praise/condemnation is in some degree proportional to how important it is to have the agent abandon his current sentiments and adopt more useful sentiments. The greater the benefit, and the greater degree of power that praise and condemnation has over that sentiment, the greater the reason to praise or condemn.

We could attempt to compute the average harm done by an act of the type in question and make sure that all people are punished only for that average harm (or the average of that harm that is under the agent's control). However, that would take a huge amount of work. In fact, it is probably something that humans cannot calculate with sufficient accuracy. How dangerous is it, exactly, to drive drunk? Can we even hope to calculate this value?

The pragmatic trick, then, is to condemn each person according to actual harms done. This implies that over the course of countless praisings and blamings that the condemnation and punishment will average out to a level that is proportional to the average harm - the average dangerousness of the actions that are being condemned. It just so happens that some wrongdoers will be condemned more than others.

However, life is filled with elements of luck that we make no attempt to correct. Luck in terms of getting the perfect job, finding a valuable object, winning a lottery, purchasing the right stock at the right time, are matters of luck. Yet, no attempt is made to ensure that these rewards go to people on the basis of what they deserve in terms of their moral character. The same applies to praise and other awards. Two soldiers rise up out of the trenches to attack an enemy machine gun. One gets shot right away and falls dead. The other survives long enough to throw a grenade into the machine-gun nest and is treated as a hero - winning a Congressional Medal of Honor and other accolades and honors. Again, their moral characters are the same, but their levels of praise/condemnation differ.

This has to do with practicality. Instead of going through the effort of determining the average harm done by each type of wrongful act. Society as a whole will deliver an average level of condemnation proportional to the risk. It is a level of condemnation that will even automatically include unknown influences. Factors that make the action more or less risky will automatically be calculated into future condemnations - which will grow or shrink in severity accordingly.

It is just a lot more practical than a system that attempts to cast blame strictly on the agent's character.

And . . . yes . . . this means that our futures are left somewhat up to fate. But that's life. That's the way things are. We have accepted it in other parts of life, and there is no reason not to accept it here.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Hedonist Paradox

There is this thing called the "Hedonist Paradox."

Assume that the only thing you desire is pleasure.

Human psychology seems to be built such that the best way to obtain pleasure is to value things other than pleasure, and to pursue them for their own sake. You may become an actor or some other type of artist and dedicate yourself to the craft, losing yourself in your work, never asking, "What will give me the most pleasure?" In fact, even asking the question is a distraction that takes your mind away from you really love - the craft - and thus reduces your pleasure.

Or, instead of art, you devote yourself to cultivating good quality friendships which, though they involve some pain, more than compensates for thus with the pleasure that good friends can bring. Yet, we hardly count as a good friend somebody who only values you insofar as you are useful to them, and who will abandon you the moment they no longer find you useful.

The hedonistic paradox is that to obtain what you want most you must not seek what you want most but seek something else, in virtue of worth you are no longer a hedonist, since you are no longer somebody that seeks exclusively your own pleasure. Pleasure becomes a valuable side-effect - "the icing on the cake" - that one gets while in the pursuit of some other interest.

The relationship is like that of a person who obtains a career doing what he likes - who also gets paid for it. The money is a welcome side effect, but not his reason for doing the work. Think f the artist examples above.

In desirism terms, hedonism would be understood as having only one desire - a desire the "P" where "P" = "I am experiencing pleasure". Or, two desires: the desire for pleasure and a "desire that Q" where Q = "I not be in pain."

The hedonist paradox says that, as it turns out, the best way to realize a state in which "I am experiencing pleasure" is true is for the agent to cultivate another interest (e.g., "that I am involved in a project to reduce the suffering among those people who are the worst off").

Is this person still a hedonist?

The argument that he is says that since the desire to help the global poor came from the desire for pleasure that he is still a hedonist.

But that seems false? Why should the origin of the desire matter? Let us create a second person - psychologically identical. She is born with a desire that P, a desire that Q, and a separate desire that R where R = "I am involved in a project to reduce the suffering among those people who are the worst off."

This person is not a hedonist.

Why would the person with exactly the same mental states, who is - we shall assume - now psychologically identical to the other person, be called a hedonist?

I would argue that he is not a hedonist. When he acquired the desire that R, he ceased being a hedonist. And one of the facts about hedonism is that the person who has the affliction has a reason to rid himself of it as quickly as possible.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Desire-Based Value

Do you know how you are having a conversation - debating some issue - and you don't get a chance to clearly explain what it is you meant? After the conversation you think of all of the things you should have said or would have said if not for some interruption.

Well . . . I have a blog . . . and thus an opportunity to say the things I would have or should have said. Not that the person I was talking to will see it, but it gives a chance to present an understanding of my views and a response that I have had time to carefully consider.

It concerns the idea that a scratch on one's finger can be worse than the destruction of the world. This specific example did not come up in discussion, but it is a classic expression from David Hume about the rationality (or, more accurately, the arationality) of value. Reason does not dictate our ends. It only dictates the means to realizing those ends. Depending on a person's interests, it is possible that a person can have a desire that he not suffer a scratch on his finger and yet have no interest in whether the whole of humanity is destroyed (as long as the destruction does not leave him with a scratch on his finger).

The actual discussion took place before class. The position that I did not have time to express fully goes like this.

Let us assume that you and I both have an aversion to our own pain - and nothing else. You have a version to your own pain. I have an aversion to my own pain. That is all we have.

Now, rank the following options from best to worst.

(1) Neither you nor I are in pain.
(2) You are in pain, but I am not.
(3) I am in pain, but you are not.
(4) Both of us are in pain.

The utilitarian would say that (4) is the worst option - from some sort of objective and impersonal point of view.

Desirism, in contrast, answers this question by saying, "It depends."

Desirism looks at reasons for intentional action. In virtue of your own version to your personal pain, you have an equal reason to avoid 2 and 4, and to be indifferent to 1 and 3. This is because the proposition "I am in pain" is true for you in 2 and 4 and false in 1 and 3. Since this is the only thing you care about (ex hypothesi), then this is your only criterion for preferring one over the other.

Similarly, I would rank 1 and 2 equal and above 3 and 4, which I would also rank equally.

This is true in the imaginary world in which you and I only have the one concern.

But we do not live in that world.

In the real world, we do have other concerns. Most of us are concerned about the welfare of others. Furthermore, even if we consider only our aversions to individual pain, we have reasons to cultivate and promote these concerns in others. I have a reason to cause you to have an aversion to me being and pain, and you have a reason to cause me to have an aversion to you being in pain. In this way, you will be motivated to avoid states of affairs in which I am in pain, and I am motivated to avoid states of affairs in which you are in pain.

In the real world, there are reasons to say that (4) is the worst option. However, this is only in virtue of the desires we have and those we have reason to promote. It is not true in virtue of (4) being intrinsically worse than the other options. From the point of view of the universe, all four options have equal value - which is, they have no value at all.

These concerns that prompt us to rank (4) as the worst option are not all of the concerns we have. We each have other concerns. You may have a desire that P1, a desire that P2, and a desire that P3. I could have a desire that Q1, a desire that Q2, and a desire that Q3. We could then have to determine if propositions P1, P2, P3, Q1, Q2, or Q3 are true in states (1), (2), (3), and (4). These will be important in determining the overall value to each person.

If there were an imaginary person who had a desire that R, where R is, "both you and I are in pain", this person would rank (4) as the best option. (2) and (3) would be tied for second place and (1) would be the worst of all possible worlds. We have reason to hate this person. We have reasons to take actions to prevent him from acting on his desire. We have reasons to use the tools of praise and condemnation to try to turn him into a being that has an aversion to us being in pain. However, insofar as his current desire is that we both be in pain, this is the state of affairs he has the most and strongest reason to bring about. This is the ranking he would assign.

The claim that (4) is intrinsically worse is false. The real situation is far more complicated than that.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Rule Utilitarianism: The Rule Worship Objection

I am working on a new paper which looks at promise keeping from a motive utilitarian (or desire utilitarian) perspective.

Yes, I know, I am no longer a motive (desire) utilitarian. However, a lot of people are and I am thinking that a paper that takes a utilitarian from act utilitarianism to motive utilitarianism would at least be two steps in the right direction.

One of the issues to overcome is that of "rule worship". This problem prevents act-utilitarians from becoming rule utilitarians - which is one of those two steps from act utilitarianism to motive utilitarianism. So, the first paper of the paper addresses the problem of rule worship, explaining how desire utilitarianism or motive utilitarianism handles that issue.

First, Norcross raised in one quick sentence the problem of rule-worship as a reason to reject rule-utilitarianism. Where a person can do more good from breaking a rule than by obeying it, one seems to require paying homage to a rule that a utilitarian cannot easily account for. 

In the version of motive utilitarianism I have in mind, "motive worship" is a matter of causal necessity. It is simply not possible to override a motive, unless one has a stronger motive to do so (or several weaker motives that combine to outweigh a stronger motive). It is like having a form of rule-utilitarianism where it is not possible to violate a rule without referencing another rule regarding the violations. 

This assumes a Humean theory of motivation where "reason is the slave of the passions" and fail to motivate any action on its own. It is not within the scope of this paper to defend this theory. I will have to assume it, and save its defense for another time. 

Motives are persistent entities. We cannot turn a motive on or off at will. I know of a lot of people - alcoholics and drug addicts, people who are afraid of public speaking and those afraid of flying, dieters and people trying tips control their spending - who would like it to be the case that our desires come with an on/off switch, but that is not the case. 

It may be easier to think f desires rather than motives - so long as "desire" is understood broadly. On this view, a desire may be understood as a rule backed by motivational force. Talk of commitment to a rule or internalizing a rule may be understood as talk of turning a rule into a desire (or an aversion). 

So, if the only way to override a motive is with other motives, we have to ask what the effects will be of a person having that motive - of having it through all of the circumstances in which it might, in the real world, influence that person's actions. 

Furthermore, when we are talking about moral motives, we are talking about motives that are to be universalized. As Sidgwick himself argues, to say that a person ought to perform an action in a given circumstance is to say that anybody in similar circumstances ought to perform the same action. Given the assumptions above concerning motives, this means that if we are making a moral claim about what the agent ought to do, we are making a claim about motives that all people should have. Which means that, from a utilitarian perspective, we need to ask about the implications of everybody having those motives that would cause them to perform the required action in similar circumstances. 

Given the motives that may be required for a person to perform the act that creates the greatest happiness, we may have reason to hope that he is not the type of person who would perform the act that, in this one case, would have promoted general utility. While we can admit that the act would have provided the most utility, we can also say that the person who would have performed such an act is a bad person – decidedly not the type of person we would want to encourage anybody to become, and the type of person we would want to discourage the agent from remaining.