Thursday, January 17, 2019

Revising Gibbard's Planned

This posting is a reworking of an original post where I commented on the metaethical theory of Allan Gibbard. It is such a significant rewriting, that I am opting to post it separately.

Allan Gibbard seeks to explain “ought” in terms of the realization or expression of a plan, then tries to use this to explain how disputes can be consistent with a non-cognitivist (or quasi-realist) account of value.

He has us consider Jack, who has an interest in drawing water from a well at the top of a hill. However, there is a chance of falling and breaking his crown. Ought he to try for the water? In Gibbard’s discussion, one observer (Agent1) says that Jack should - the need for the water makes it worth the risk. Another observer (Agent2) says that Jack should not - better safe than sorry. They disagree about something. Gibbard tells us that they disagree about plans or, more precisely, at how fetching the water will fit into the plan. Gibbard tells us that this is the type of disagreement we find in the case of moral disagreement.

I see plans as the paradigm of means-ends reasoning. If you want to make an apple pie, follow a recipe - a plan. Plans provide a course of action that, when followed, realize some end or goal. The value of the plan depends importantly on the value of the end or goal. However, plans do not give ends their value - that is a separate question. The apple pie recipe tells me how to make an apple pie, but it does not give me a reason to make it. A plan to win the state fair blue ribbon for best apple pie may give me a reason to make an apple pie, but not a reason to seek the ribbon. In all cases, there seems to be something just out of the reach of the plan's "ought" - the reason for the plan itself.

Let us admit that we are creatures that plan. Jack creates a simulation. In this simulation he places a character, Sim Jack. Sim Jack has his beliefs and his goals or ends. Sim Jack’s world also runs by the same laws of nature as the real world. We may imagine Jack running these simulations, using different action-options, and trying to determine which one will realize more of his ends. He uses this to create a plan. Please note that this takes a lot of time and effort, so Jack will typically use shortcuts instead that are less reliable but take less time and energy.

Agent1 and Agent2 also have the ability to construct their own version of Sim Jack. For Agent1, for example, Sim Jack is Sim Agent1 with Jack’s beliefs and Jack’s ends. Agent2 can also create a Sim Jack. Once constructed, they can each run Sim Jack through their iPhone simulations testing different actions. Our Agents can test their simulations by using historical data and determining if the simulation correctly predicts historical results. In doing this, note that one or both simulations can be mistaken - the agent's can be wrong. In other words, there are points here of genuine disagreement.

Gibbard may object to the very idea of these simulations predicting Jack's behavior. Gibbard seems to suggest that Jack has a capacity to make choices that go outside of the laws of nature. He states that science has always seemed to fall short at capturing what is "exceptional" about humans, and this seems to include something that goes into our "plans". He also wrote, "Moore thought that moral facts somehow lie outside the world that empirical science can study. We can broaden this to a claim about the space of reasons as a whole, which, we can say, lies outside the space of causes." We may be forced to go in that direction, but I do not think that should be our first option. We should at least look at what we can do without taking such extreme steps.

Assume Agent1 runs Sim Jack using an action that Jack did not think of and discovers it will realize more of Jack’s own ends. Is there an English sentence he can use to report this to Jack? I would recommend something like, “Jack, you should try this.” In saying this, Agent1 is reporting a fact about the relationship between “this” action and Jack’s ends that is true (or not) regardless of what Agent1 believes or endorses. “Should” is being used to report relations between actions and ends, though not necessarily the ends of the speaker.

Once our Agents have built and tested their simulations, they can then see what happens when they adjust certain variables. The variables I am interested in are: (1) the world, (2) Jack’s beliefs, and (3) Jack’s ends.

Gibbard considers why we would contemplate plans from another person’s perspective and appears to settle on the answer that it is a kind of useful playing - like reading fiction - helpful in improving our ability to make our own plans. These simulations are not just useful games. We use them to predict how others will act. We have reasons to care about whether others will interfere with or help realize our own ends. We can also use them to determine how we may influence whether their action will realize or thwart our ends.

Examples that involve altering the world variables include applying physical restraints (locks, imprisonment) and offering incentives or threatening punishments. Agents may also be interested in the case where the world actually corresponds to Jack’s beliefs. Jack is assuming this is the case when he runs his own simulations, but our Agents may recognize that some of Jack’s beliefs are mistaken. They can still run their own versions of Sim Jack under the assumption Jack is right to see the results.

Examples that involve changing belief variables can include, “Which action would best realize ends if beliefs were true in the sense that they accurately describe the world?” Here, instead of changing world variables to agree with Jack’s beliefs, our hypothetical Agents change the belief variables to match the world. This may be mistaken for the “informed desire” approach. However, I side with Hume in holding that a change in beliefs do not imply a change in ends. Our ends come from evolution/biology (aversion to pain, desire for sex, hunger, thirst, concern for one's offspring, comfort), activation of the mesolimbic pathway, drugs, and physical change - e.g., having a railroad tamping rod driven through one's prefrontal cortex in a railway construction accident. Agents may also have an interest in running Sim Jack through iterations where they change the belief variables to beliefs that are reasonable given Jack’s evidence. An epistemologist can help us in this task.

Ends may be immune to reason. However, they are not immune to praise and condemnation (and other forms of reward and punishment). Consequently, our Agents may want to run Sim-Jack iterations while adjusting Jack’s ends to those that are within people’s power to bring about using praise and condemnation. By comparing the results to the ends of other people, these iterations tell us something about the ends that people have reason to promote using praise and condemnation. These simulations would also need to include relevant real-world facts; for example, that ends persist and will influence a large number of actions. A particular end (e.g., to keep promises) might produce some bad consequences in a given instance and still be an end that people generally have reason to promote through praise (of those who keep promises) and condemnation (of those who do not).

People who run simulations under these terms can have genuine disputes on a number of grounds. For example, they may disagree about the ends that people generally have reasons to promote through praise and condemnation. They may also disagree over what a person with such ends would do in a given circumstance. These are genuine disputes over matters of fact – not the pseudo-disputes that Gibbard generates.

Gibbard might still object to this on the grounds that it implies motivational externalism. Simulations that agents run based on ends other than their own only contingently reveal facts that will motivate those agents. However, that issue will have to be addressed elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Metaethics 0007: G.E. Moore's Open Question Argument

This posting is inspired by Michael Ridge's article, "Ecumenical Expressivism: Finessing Frege," Ethics, Vol. 116, No. 2 (January 2006), pp. 302-336. However, that article is not substantially about Moore's open question argument. It discusses the argument and its relationship to non-cognitivist theories of value. Ridge's article is about the theory of value he proposes, "ecumenical expressivism". But, in doing so, he discusses the role that Moore's open question argument has in motivating non-cognitive theories.

In this post, I seek to take a look at that foundation as Ridge described it.

The open question argument aims to show that the meaning of "good" cannot be reduced to any natural property.

In all honesty, I agree with this conclusion. I argue that "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question". However, it is a mistake to argue that this is what the term means in standard English. To call something good is to say that there are reasons to realize that thing. It is an a poteriori fact - a fact learned from experience - that the fulfillment of desires are the only reasons for intentional action that exist. Consequently, Consequently, "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question" is not an a priori truth (true by definition).

Still, the open question argument has diverted a lot of philosophical labor-hours down some very unfruitful paths. Even if I were to offer "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question" as being true by definition, Moore's open question argument would fail to show that this is mistaken.

So, what is the open question argument and how is it supposed to show that moral claims cannot be reduced to natural facts?

Let me borrow Ridge's characterization:

Take any proposed naturalistic analysis N of a moral predicate M. Moore’s open question argument maintains that it will always be possible for someone without conceptual confusion to grant that something is N but still wonder whether it is really M. If, however, N really was an accurate analysis of M then the question “I know it is N but is it M?” would not be conceptually open.

Moore used his open question argument against Sidgwick's claim that pleasure is the only good, so let us try it there. We take Sidgwick's claim, "good" = "pleasurable". We apply Moore's open question test and translate Sidgwick's hypothesis into a question: "Drug induced highs are pleasurable, but are they good?" You do not need to find an example where the conclusion is clearly "no". Any example will do. The point that Moore wants to make is that, no matter what example you take, the question, "X is pleasurable, but is it good?" has no obvious answer. The question, "X is good, but is it good?" would be taken to have an obvious yes answer. Indeed, we can ask why anybody would even ask such a question. If "good" = "pleasurable", asking the question, "X is pleasurable, but is it good?" would be like asking, "X is red, but is it red?" or "X is in Denver, but is it in Denver?" However, "X is pleasurable, but is it good?" is not like these other examples. This shows that "pleasurable" cannot be the same as "good".

The argument then takes one further step. It claims that there is nothing natural or material that you can test in this way and come up with a closed question. Pick any natural property you want, it will fail the open-question test. If all natural properties fail the open-question test, them "good" must refer to a non-natural property.

That's the argument.

The problem is that the open question argument does not work when you are dealing with ambiguous terms. Terms that refer ambiguously to two or more natural properties generate open questions when they are subject to the open question test.

So, let's take the proposal, "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question."

Let us subject this to the open question test and ask, "X is such as to fulfill the desires in question, but is it good?"

Well, that depends. Are the "desires in question" the same in both cases?

The question could be asking, "X is such as to fulfill Agent1's desires, but are they such as to fulfill Agent2's desires?" This is an actual open question. The answer may very well be "no".

If we look at what desirism says about morality, we find that people quite often ask the question, "X is such as to fulfill those desires that people generally have reason to promote universally, but is it such as to fulfill Agent1's desires?" This is the way desirism understands the question, "Why should I be moral?" The answer may well be "no". There is no guarantee that doing the right thing will fulfill the desires of the agent. In fact, desirism understands most wrong action - most cases of people doing what they ought not to do - as cases where the agent does something that fulfills his desires, but does not fulfill the desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally.

In fact, things get worse for the open question argument when we introduce the idea of "conventional implicature". Conventional implicature is what happens when the perceived meaning of a term or phrase differs from the literal meaning. An example would be my wife shouting down to me as I work on a philosophy blog posting, "Honey, it's ten to six!" What she says is literally true. However, in this particular context, it means in this context is: "Quit working on that stupid blog posting and get ready for work!" We know what a term or phrase "really means" when we can imply that meaning from the conversational context.

Conventional implicature allows us to recognize rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions are questions with an obvious answer that tells the hearer to take this obvious answer and run with it. When we deal with an ambiguous question, conventional implicature typically allows us to judge when the agent is asking a rhetorical question (with an obvious answer) and when she is asking a serious question. A rhetorical question will be one that uses the same definition of the term in both parts of the sentence. A serious question uses different definitions in each part of the sentence.

Conventional implicature tells us to interpret the question, "X is such as to fulfill the desires in question, but is it good?" as a serious question. This means to interpret the question as, "X is such as to fulfill the desires in question, but is it such as to fulfill those other desires in question?"

This, indeed, is an open question - a question to which the answer is "no". This is because people do not ask questions like this if the answers are painfully obvious - and the answer would be painfully obvious if it referred to the same desires in question in both cases. Consequently, conventional implicature tells us to look for a different "desires in question" in each case. When we do, the question is a genuine open question.

So, I do not think that "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question" tells us the standard English-language meaning of the term "good". However, even if it was, you would not be able to use Moore's open question test on it. Ambiguous terms generate open questions by default.

British Ethical Theorists 0015: Moore's Isolation Test

One of the things that G.E. Moore is noted for is his "isolation test" of intrinsic value.

As Hurka reported in British Ethical Theorists, Moore ultimately defined intrinsic value in terms of what has value in isolation. "By saying that a thing is intrinsically good [our theory] means that it would be a good thing that the thing in question should exist, even if it existed quite alone" (Moore, Ethics, p. 27).

Of course, desirism denies that anything has value "in isolation". Rather, the value of any state of affairs depends on how it stands in relation to one or more desires. However, there is still an argument to be made that Moore's isolation test is helpful in finding out exactly what it is that the agent desires. We have a state of affairs S, and Agent1 finds value in S. This means that Agent1 has a desire that P and P is true in S. It seems as if Moore's isolation test may be a good test for making sure that Agent1's desire is a desire that P and not something else.

The most famous application of Moore's isolation test involved his comparison of two planets.

Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful....And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it 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. G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica.

First, of course, the value of each world depends on how what is true of the world stands in relation to certain desires. We may imagine that the first world is a pristine, safe, and healthy Earth-like world with green meadows, fresh water falling into a clear pool, and healthy animals flittering about or grazing. While we imagine the disgusting world as a huge ball of dung. We encounter an alien species that evolved from a type of dung beetle. They may well agree with us that it is better that a beautiful world exist. However, their idea of beauty is realized in the world that is a big ball of dung. Indeed, they may not be able to imagine a world more beautiful.

This illustrates that the value of the world is determined by how it stands in relationship to desires.

However, we are still left with a question. Do we find value in the beautiful world existing, or is it just the case that our experience of the world is that in which we find value?

This really is the question that Moore was trying to answer. He was responding to Henry Sidgwick's thesis that nothing has value but pleasure. This can be translated in desirism terms to mean that we have only one desire that P, and that is the desire where P = "I am experiencing pleasure". Moore's isolation test is an attempt to prove that this is false. He attempts to do this by asking us to make a choice where, in both cases, "I am experiencing pleasure" is false. Yet, Moore argues, we would choose. In desirism terms, it means that we must have a desire that P that is true in which the beautiful world exists but nobody experiences it. We must have a desire that the beautiful world exist such that we have reason to realize the state of affairs in which "the beautiful world exists" is true.

So, Moore's isolation test may do a poor job of picking out what has intrinsic value. However, it may be useful in picking out more precisely what are the objects of our desires - what states of affairs will actually fulfill our desires.

British Ethical Theorists 0014: The Values of Parts and Wholes

I, and others, typically speak as if there are two major types of value - means and ends. Within desirism, desires themselves provide the ends. If Agent1 has a desire that P (e.g., a desire that "I am not in pain"), then states of affairs where P is true (e.g., where "I am not in pain" is true) are states that have value to Agent1. That is to say, Agent1 has a reason to prefer states where "I am not in pain" is true over those where "I am not in pain" is false.

Other states, objects, actions, laws, institutions, and the like have value insofar as they can contribute to realizing such a state. So, if I have a headache (that is to say, I am in a state where "I am not in pain" is false), and I take some aspirin, I can realize a state in which "I am not in pain" is true. As a result, taking aspirin has value.

Some philosophers refer to those states that fulfill our desires directly as "intrinsically desired". I do not like this term since it implies that the state has value "intrinsically" rather than in virtue of the fact that somebody has a desire that is fulfilled in that state. I prefer to call such a state as being "directly desired", while anything that is valued as a means is "indirectly desired."

However, as Hurka points out in British Ethical Theorists, this is an oversimplification. If we look at this situation in a bit more detail, there are more relationships between objects of evaluation and ends than the ends themselves and the means towards those ends.

For example, G.E. Moore devoted a great deal of effort to understanding the relationship between parts and wholes. This is his famous "principle of organic unities".

The standard example that I use to discuss this is: take any part of the Mona Lisa painting (10cm by 10cm) and ask, "What is its value?" If we assume that the Mona Lisa painting has value, then that section has value. However, it is not valued for its own sake. Remove it from the painting and set it aside and it would have little value on its own. It may have value as a historical artifact, but not as a painting. It also does not have value as a means to an end. That is to say, it is not being used as a tool for realizing something else that has value. It's value is, instead, as a part of a whole.

Elsewhere, I have called this "contributory value". Hurka reports that W.D. Ross called it "contributive goodness." However, since it is also possible for something to contribute to something bad, I prefer "value" to "goodness".

For another example, consider each individual word in this tremendously valuable blog posting. Each word alone has no value. Furthermore, the value of the blog posting cannot be determined by adding up the value of each particular word. In fact, if we determined the value of the blog posting that way, then it would still end up with 0 value because the sum of the all of the 0 value words would be 0. It is only when all of those 0-value entities come together - and are put together in a particular structure - that you have value.

Speaking of which, we can go back to the Mona Lisa painting and consider the value of each atom - which is 0, except insofar as it is a part of the painting.

This illustrates an important fact - one that Moore focused on heavily - the value of a whole is not the same as the value of the sum of its parts.

I often speak about fulfilling the most and strongest of an agent's desires. However, if Agent1 has two desires - a desire that P and a desire that Q - then it is a bit simplistic to think that a state of affairs in which P and Q are both true satisfies those those desires. Agent1 may want to listen to some classical music. He might also be in the mood to listen to his Johnny Cash album. However, a state of affairs in which both Johnny Cash and Beethoven are playing at the same time will not likely fulfill either desire. (Though, in this case, when we combine the sound waves of both pieces of music we get a collection of sound waves that, we can say, is neither "classical music" nor "Johnny Cash", so - in a sense, neither P nor Q are realized in that state of affairs.)

Another example that I use involves putting butterscotch topping on a casserole. One may like a salad. One may like butterscotch topping. But butterscotch topping on a casserole is a state of affairs in which neither "I am having butterscotch topping" or "I am having a casserole" is true. One is, instead, eating a strange concoction that cannot be truly described - at least for desire-fulfillment concerns - as both "having casserole and having butterscotch topping".

Hurka describes Moore's position as follows: "[Moore] 30) assumed a ‘holistic’ interpretation, on which if a whole’s value differs from the sum of the values of its parts, that is because alongside the unchanged values in those parts there is a further value in the whole ‘as a whole’ that must be added to the values in its parts to determine its value ‘on the whole’ (PE 213–22)."

Restating this principle in desire-relative terms, if an agent has a desire that P and a desire that Q, and the state "P & Q" has a value that is different from the value that P and the value that Q, then there must be a third desire that R that explains that change in value. Though it could be, as is the case when playing two songs at the same time, that a state that may, in one sense, be described as one in which both P and Q are true (Beethoven and Johnny Cash music is playing), in fact, for desire-fulfillment purposes, the combination of sound waves is neither Beethoven nor Johnny Cash.

When the value of wholes is different from the value of parts, these two options seem to be required to explain it. Either there is some additional "desire that R" that is true in the state P & Q, or either P or Q or both cease to be true in the state that - in one sense - may be described in terms of a whole made up of those parts.

Note that, in writing on this topic, Moore was writing about intrinsic goodness as its own non-naturalistic property, not goodness in terms of being such as to fulfill (directly) the desires in question. So, he took himself to be talking about a thing in the world independent of desire and was trying to figure out what was true of that thing. Consequently, Moore needed to explain changes in value in terms of the emergence or destruction of this intrinsic property when parts united into wholes. Perhaps we should take a look at how Moore's intrinsic value might differ from "is such as to fulfill the desires in question."

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Metaethics 0006: Allan Gibbard - Plans

Choosing is about making plans, according to Allan Gibbard.

G.E. Moore's Mistake

As has been the case with non-cognivist, Gibbard starts with Moore's mistake. He did not see it as a mistake, of course, that is my characterization. However, there are few mistakes in philosophy that have gotten so many people chasing off in the wrong direction for things that are not there.

The mistake is to think that Moore's "open question argument" supports the thesis that morality must be outside of science.

Let me quickly interrupt this posting to repeat my standard best argument for thinking that morality must be a part of the natural world. It has the ability to change the direction and velocity of carbon atoms. When human beings act, carbon atoms move in a particular direction at a particular time. If a "reason" has anything to do with that action, then that "reason" must have the ability to cause carbon atoms to move in a different direction or at a different velocity. It must have the ability to cause a person to tell the truth, repay a debt, punish a villain, or aid a person in need. If it has no ability to change what is happening in the world, then why even think that there is such a thing? If, on the other hand, it can influence behavior in the real world - even if we are only talking about the power to engineer a particular thought such as, "I have a reason to do X", then it must be something in the material world.

Some may accuse me of scientism. I cannot answer the charge, because I have never understood what "scientism" is. I will grant that, if all else has been tried and there is still reason to believe that there are causes of motion that are outside of scientific study, then I would agree that we must go with their existence and transcend scientific study. But if we do not need to go there, we have good reason not to.

With those caveats in mind, let us look at what Gibbard says of Moore's open question argument. The open question is to be used on any theory that tries to reduce value to a natural property. It always generates an open question. If somebody says, "goodness is pleasure", Moore would respond with the claim that goodness cannot be pleasure because, if somebody were to ask, "X is pleasurable, but is it good?" would be an open question. It is not clearly obvious in the way, "X is good, but is it good?" would be obvious.

Gibbard follows other non-cognitivists in thinking that this fact gives us reason to think that value properties cannot be reduced to physical properties (in spite of the fact that they have the power to cause physical substance to move). Gibbard attributes to Moore, "Moore thought that moral facts somehow lie outside the world that empirical science can study. We can broaden this to a claim about the space of reasons as a whole, which, we can say, lies outside of the space of causes."

As another aside, desirism does not have this problem. Desirism says, "Good" = "Is such as to fulfill the desires in question." When somebody such as Moore says, "X is such as to fulfill the desires in question, but is it good?" is an open question, desirism says, "Of course it is an open question. We don't know if the "desires in question" in the right-hand side are the same "desires in question" in the left-hand side. It is quite possible that something can be "such as to fulfill the desires of the agent" but not "such as to fulfill the desires that people generally have reason to promote universally?" Until we can be certain that the "desires in question" are the same on both sides, it is quite possible that something can be "such as to fulfill the desires in question on the left hand side" but not "such as to fulfill the desires in question on the right hand side."

In a sense, expressivism does not have this problem either. If moral claims are the expression of an attitude, the attitude is the cause of the expression and, in addition, may be said to be the cause of the action - the agent doing that which is judged to be good or ought to be done. But, then, this answer needs to ask the question of whether (or why) this starts with Moore. If reasons are tied to attitudes, and attitudes are natural entities, then reasons are not non-natural entities. Moore seems to be a poor place to start regardless of the road one is travelling down.


Gibbard's focus is on how to handle disagreement. He uses the example of Jack, going up the hill to fetch a pail of water, falling down, and breaking his crown. He looks at the question of whether Jack ought to have gone up the hill. He imagines two people coming up with different answers, and asks how they can be in disagreement. Even with both of our investigators having access to all of the relevant facts, it is still possible for one to come to the conclusion that going up the hill was worth the risk, and the other to deny it. This is the sense in which the "ought" is outside of or beyond scientific investigation. This is the sense, according to Gibbard, in which I can think that Jack still should have gone up the hill, and you might think he should not have.

He denies that A.J. Ayer or C.L. Stevenson has a way of accounting for disagreement. If I say Jack ought to go up the hill, then I am expressing an attitude in favor of Jack going up the hill. If you disagree with me, then you must be saying that I am not in favor of Jack going up the hill. Yet, that does not seem to capture your claim that Jack ought not go up the hill.

I wish to offer a different account of this disagreement.

You and I both run a "Jack simulation" in our brains. We input Jack's beliefs and his ends (desires) and we run the simulation to determine if simulation-Jack goes up the hill. We can then test our simulation for accuracy by measuring its results against the real-life results of Jack's behavior. If our Jack simulations come up with different answers, then we disagree. But there is a right answer, made right by Jack's actions. If both of our Jack simulations are accurate, then we will both predict that Jack will go up the hill, or that he will not, and Jack will do what we predict he will do.

Predicting what Jack will do is not the same as making a claim about what Jack should do. Towards this end, we can run the simulation and see if the actions will realize Jacks' goals or ends. Since the laws of nature are the same within both of our simulations, we should still get the same results. If the results are different, one of our simulations needs adjusting. If Jacks ends are not realized, then Jack ought not to go up the hill. If we replace Jack's beliefs with true beliefs, Jack himself will agree that he has ought not to go up the hill - not if he is just going to fall and break his crown. The important point here is that there is still one answer and whoever gets the wrong answer needs to adjust their Jack simulation. There is, then, an answer to what Jack should do, given his ends, and that is whatever would realize his goal in a universe where he had true and accurate beliefs about the relevant facts.

This is not an informed desire account. An informed desire account assumes that if Jack had more accurate beliefs, he would have different (better informed) desires. Here, we are denying this. Giving Jack more accurate beliefs does not change his desires at all. It simply allows him to make plans that would allow him to more successfully reach those desires. What Jack "should do" in this situation is what a person with accurate beliefs but the same ends or goals would do - what will actually, in fact, realize those ends.

We could also run the Jack simulation by substituting different ends. However, in this case, we are no longer asking what Jack should do. We are asking what somebody else with different ends should do if that person were in Jack's place. A common example would be to ask what we would do if we were in Jack's place. In this case, we remove Jack's ends and insert our own ends in their place. If you and I both do this, then we should not be surprised to discover that Jack's situation plus my ends yields different results from Jack's situation plus your ends. This does not count as disagreement.

We can also run the Jack simulation using ends other than Jack's, yours, or my actual ends. We can evaluate the ends themselves and determine if they have any merit. There is a sense in which our ends are under our voluntary control. We cannot decide, at a given moment, to have a particular end or not. However, we can still decide whether we ought to cultivate (or not) certain traits. This is the same type of control that we have over our weight. I cannot decide, on a moment's notice, to weigh 10 pounds less than I do now. However, this inability to instantly choose to weigh less does not prevent me from making sense of the claim, "I ought to lose a few pounds" and to create a plan to realize that end. Similarly, we can wonder whether we "ought to desire that P" and see if we can make a plan to cultivate a desire that P.

In one type of case, this is easy to do. For example, a person can choose whether or not to have a desire to smoke. Somebody wishing to acquire a desire to smoke can typically do so by smoking and allowing the nicotine to impact his brain in such a way so as to create a strong desire to smoke. He can choose to avoid having such a desire by not smoking. Other desires are not so easily acquired or extinguished, but there are still things an agent can do to acquire, strengthen, weaken, or extinguish many of them. A person who answers the question, "Ought I to desire to smoke" with "No" can take steps to help to ensure that she does not acquire a desire to smoke.

We can ask similar questions about, for example, a desire to deal honestly with others, an aversion to taking property without consent, a desire to help those in desperate need, and an aversion to breaking promises. We can count these among the desires that agents ought to have. Here, we should consider not only the ends that Jack has reason to cultivate in himself, but the ends that others have their own reasons to cultivate in Jack (and everybody else, perhaps) such as the aversion to breaking promises.

Now, we have the option of running the Jack simulation where - in the relevant cases - we substitute Jack's ends with the ends that Jack has reason to cultivate in himself and that people generally have reason to cultivate universally. What Jack would do in that case, given his beliefs, gives us another answer to the question of what Jack should do. We can also ask about what Jack, with good desires, lacking bad desires, and having true and relevant beliefs would have done.

When we ask what the Jack with good desires and lacking bad desires would do, we may disagree because we may disagree on what the good and bad desires are. This is still a case of genuine disagreement. We are asking if this is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally, and we may find ourselves having a difference of opinion on that matter.

What I have done here is created a whole set of "should" or "ought" statements. I see no problem with that. "Ought" is am ambiguous term. We get these different answers given the different inputs. Any time two people plug the same belief and desire inputs into the Jack simulation, they should get the same response. If they do not, one of them is mistaken. If, instead, they each plug in different belief and desire inputs, they should not be surprised if they get different answers. That is not a sign of disagreement. Disagreement comes from getting different results using the same beliefs and desires, or in determining which beliefs and desires meet a particular selection criteria.

In this way, genuine dispute is possible.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Metaethics 0005: Mark Schroeder - the Frege-Geach Problem

What follows is, in my view, one of the most powerful arguments against the claim that moral statements are not capable of being true or false.

The argument is that they certainly act like statements that are capable of being true or false.

Peter Geach (and, independently and less famously, John Searle) presented this argument in the 1960s against non-cognitivist moral theories like that of R.M. Hare. As discussed in Metaethics 003: R.M. Hare's Prescriptivism, Hare held that moral statements are commands much like the instructions in a cookbook or an order to "close the door." These types of statements do not have a truth value, and (according to Hare) neither do moral statements. Emotivism and expressivism similarly assert that moral statements are not truth-bearing. They are expressions of emotion (e.g., slamming one's fist on the table) or of other states (expressing a preference), none of which have a truth value.

Against the idea that moral claims are not statements, Geach - drawing from Gottlob Frege's distinction between what a statement means and its "assertoric force" (or force as an assertion) - provided an argument that they certainly act like regular statements. Indeed, they do not act like the types of claims (expressions) that the expressivists said they are.

Note that, in the false dichotomy that currently rules moral philosophy, if moral statements are not expressions then they report facts, and they cannot report facts unless intrinsic values exist. Intrinsic values certainly must exist. Consequently, we need to go back to these expressivist theories and figure out a way to fix the Frege-Geach Problem. Indeed, if I thought that the only alternative to expressivism was intrinsic value theory, I would be frantically searching for a way to fix expressivism as well. Fortunately, I do not have to do this.

Let's look at this problem in a bit more detail. The objection notes:

[T]here is no linguistic evidence whatsoever that the meaning of moral terms works differently than that of ordinary descriptive terms. On the contrary, everything that you can do syntactically with a descriptive predicate like ‘green’, you can do with a moral predicate like ‘wrong’, and when you do those things, they have the same semantic effects.

What the heck does this mean?

One example: you can turn a moral statement into a question. We can take the statement "lying is wrong" and turn it into a question: "Is lying wrong?" We cannot do this so easily with a command. "Do not lie" does not translate well into "Is do not lie?" We could, perhaps, turn the statement, "This is good" into "Is this good?" However, asking "Is this good?" is not the same as asking, "Do I commend this"? Since we can turn evaluative statements such as "lying is wrong" into a question but not imperatives like "do not lie", this suggests that moral statements actually are not imperatives. If they were, then they would behave the same way.

As an aside, let me quickly say that we can take the statement, "Lying is an act type that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to using praise and condemnation" and turn it into the question, "Is lying an act type that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to using praise and condemnation?" So, desirism is immune to the Frege-Geech problem. It only applies to desirism's non-cognitivist rivals.

Anyway, back to the argument:

The statement "This is green" has truth conditions. It can be true, or it can be false. If it is true, then "this is not green" is false. If it is false, then "this is not green" is true.

The statement "this is good" according to expressivism does not have any truth conditions. It is neither true nor false. However, it certainly looks as if it is the case that "this is good" behaves the same way as "this is green". That is to say, we certainly treat "this is good" as if it is capable of being true or false. If it is true then "this is not good' must be false. And if it is false, then "this is not good" can be true. How can it be the case that "this is good" works the same way as "this is green" if the latter can actually be true or false and the former (according to the theory being challenged) has no truth value?

As Schroeder reports, there is no argument that the non-cognitivist cannot answer the challenge of providing a semantic that handles these types of cases in the way a descriptive statement handles them.

This is true not only for questions, negations, and conditionals, but also for quantifiers, modals, tense, attitude-verbs, generics, adverbs of quantification, intensifying adverbs like ‘very’, and so on. Noncognitivists believe that moral terms have a different kind of semantics than ordinary descriptive terms, but somehow every complex-sentence forming construction manages to do exactly the same sort of things with them that it does with ordinary descriptive terms.

The challenge is that it would be a complex and difficult job - towards which I would argue, "Why go through all that effort if you do not have to?" Following the principle that the easiest course of action is the best, we should go for the easiest option of taking moral statements to be truth-bearing statements. Once again, those who do not think that this is the easiest option tend to think that the only other option is an unreasonable form form of realism.

The Higher-Order Solution

Simon Blackburn tried to solve this problem using higher-order disapprovals. He sought to make sense of the following argument form:

(1) Stealing is wrong.
(2) If stealing is wrong, then murder is wrong.
(3) Therefore, murder is wrong.

Remember, validity has nothing to do with the truth of the premises. In logic, this argument forms the pattern that logicians call "modus ponens" and is recognized as a valid argument type. Generalized, it takes the form, "P", "P -> Q", "Therefore, Q". The problem for the expressivists as discussed above is that "if stealing is wrong" in (2) does not express an anti-attitude towards stealing. So, it does not have the same meaning as "stealing is wrong" in (1). Blackburn wants to provide a way of expressing (2) that preserves this con-attitude.

Blackburn's answer is to claim that (2) expresses a con-attitude towards condemning stealing but not murder.

However, Mark van Roojen pointed out that this is not the only way to express a con-attitude towards both stealing and murder. He replaced (2) with

(2') It is wrong to both disapprove of stealing and not disapprove of murder.

However, (1), when combined with (2'), does not in fact yield (3). One cannot infer that murder is wrong in this case. The problem is that Blackburn did not provide the type of incoherence that we find in believing that P and believing that not-P. His incoherence is the type found in believing that P and believing that one does not believe that P. All higher-order solutions will have this problem and can be rejected for the same reasons.


I am going to end this here. The problem that the non-cognitivist are trying to handle does not exist. Since moral statements are descriptive statements, we do not need to worry about why moral statements act like descriptive statements.

Metaethics 0004: Simon Blackburn - Quasi-Realism

Expressionism holds that moral statements express attitudes - much like slapping one's hand on the table top expresses anger. And, like slapping one's hand on the table top, moral statements do not have a truth value. Such expressions are neither true nor false. They just are. Though, also like slapping one's hand on the table, such expressions can be justified or unjustified.

Expressivism is the view that Simon Blackburn has defended.

Expressivism and Truth

Desirism can accept some of this. After all, desirism holds that a moral statement is, in part, a statement of praise or condemnation. That is to say, it expresses praise or condemnation. It does so in an attempt to trigger the reward centers of the brain in others to generate a behavioral rule in favor of doing acts like those that were praised, or to avoid doing acts like those that were condemned. In this sense, desirism is an expressivist moral theory.

However, desirism holds that moral statements do this by adding expression to a proposition that can be true or false. In the same way that slapping one's hand on the table can be used to express a particular emotion, the utterance of a certain type of truth-bearing proposition can express an attitude as well. It may do so as a matter of evolutionary fact, or it may do so as a matter of social convention, but, either way, the slapping of a hand on the table and the use of a certain truth bearing proposition says more than is found in the literal meaning of the action.

Furthermore, desirism holds that the truth of the proposition and the praise or condemnation being expressed are linked in a particularly important way. If the proposition is unjustified, then the expression is justified. For example, if a stranger were to pick up what I think is my backpack and start to leave the room, I may shout, "Hey, that's mine!" My statement expresses a particular attitude. It is also a truth-bearing proposition. Furthermore, if the person who is the object of my attitude were to demonstrate that the proposition is false (e.g., that the bag he picked up has his stuff in it), then he has not only showed that the proposition is false, but also (and at the same time) that the condemnation was unjustified.

Blackburn's expressivism does not work that way. Or, more precisely, Blackburn never states explicitly that truth-bearing propositions can be used to express an attitude and that the justification for the attitude depends on the proposition being true.

Direction of Fit

There is an often used slogan that describes the difference between beliefs and desires. "If what is true in the world is not the same as what you believe, then change your beliefs. If what is true in the world is not the same as what you desire, change the world."

Blackburn, following Elizabeth Anscombe, notes that morality is about "changing the world". Consequently, he considers relating morality with desires. He considers the prospect that moral claims are claims about what we desire - but clearly what we desire is often quite different from what is moral. Furthermore, this view does not make sense of disagreement, since it is certainly possible (indeed, quite common) that one person can like one thing and another person like something else.

Blackburn looks at the desire to desire thesis. However, here he would have been better served if he had noted a distinction. There are second-order desires that take the form "I desire that I desire that P". And there are reasons to desire that take the form, "If I were to desire that P then this would help to fulfill my other desire that Q, desire that R, and desire that S". These are different situations, though, ultimately, both of them fail. Desirism fails because, even though morality is grounded on desires, they are not grounded on the desires of the agent. This also counters a third option that Blackburn considers, the most central and core desires of the agent with which the agent most identifies - also a view that wrongly focuses on the desires of the agent.

There is a reason why moral philosophers tend to focus on the desires of the agent. There is the view that moral statements are intimately tied to the agent's motivation. For an agent to call something good is for the agent to be motivated to realize that which the agent says is good. Because the agent must be motivated to realize that which the agent says is good, there must be some link to the agent's desires.

Here, I fear that some authors may be ignoring the fact that all speech acts are actions. As such, they all have a motive. However, it is a mistake to bury the motive for the action into the meaning of the term. A teacher may tell his students in a history class, "George Washington was the first President of the United States." His motive may well be so that he could get a paycheck and pay his rent. Yet, the motive of getting a paycheck and paying the rent is not a part of the meaning of the phrase, "George Washington was the first President of the United States."

Similarly, it may always be the case that an agent is always motivated to bring about that which he calls "good". However, we may be being a bit rash if we were to import this into the meaning of the phrase. It may well be the case that, by calling something good, I will tend to bring about, so I should limit my use of the term 'good' to that which I have a reason to bring about. Or, at least, that I not use the term when I do not want to bring about the end. Imagine that somebody were to hook up a light so that the light turns off every time I say the word 'snail'. Observers would not that I never used the word 'snail' in conditions where I wanted the light on. Yet, they would be making a mistake if they thought that this told them something about the meaning of the term 'snail'.

Desirism holds that moral terms offer praise and condemnation, which trigger the reward system so as to generate mental behavioral rules to do that which is praised and avoid doing that which is condemned. Consequently, people tend to use moral terms when they want to promote such rules and negative terms when they want to inhibit such rules. But it does not follow from this that the meanings of the phrases themselves are linked to the agent's desires - simply because the motive for making the statement must be.

The Appearance of Realism

One of the reasons that I have for adopting motivational internalism - the view that "X is good" if and only if "I have a reason to do X" is because it goes against some of what we understand about morality - mostly, its objectivity.

Blackburn expressed the idea this way:

We also recognize that moral truth is often ‘mind-independent’. Our thinking something is right or wrong does not make it so. Our responses have to answer to the moral truth. They do not create it.

Indeed, since desirism holds that "X is wrong" means "people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally an aversion to doing X by condemning those who do X and praising those who refrain," and since whether or not this is true is entirely independent of the mental states of those who are praised or condemned, desirism has no interest in making a moral claim "about" the mental states of the agent. It is not about the states that the agent has, it is about the states the agent should have - the states that others have reasons to cause him to have.

Blackburn mentions the question of whether women should have the right to vote. He reports that we consider the proposition within different possible worlds and it invites condemnation. Therefore, we condemn it. Certainly, we condemn it within a particular moral framework, but that is all that we can hope to do. According to Blackburn, "One cannot pass a verdict without using those parts of one's mind that enable one to pass a verdict." However, this is fully consistent with there being a community that denies women the right to vote, who imagine women having a right to vote and being repulsed by the idea. They would not be mistaken.

If moral terms concerned the attitudes that a person should have - that people generally have reasons to cause others to have - then an individual could, in fact, be mistaken. By giving votes only to men, the interests of women tend to be subjugated. Women have a reason to promote an aversion to denying them a vote, and a reason to use praise and condemnation to promote such an aversion (praising pro-suffrage individuals and condemning anti-suffrage individuals).

Regardless of the attitudes a person has, there may be many and strong reasons to cause him to have a different attitude - thus legitimate reasons to praise or condemn him. He cannot deflect that criticism simply by asserting, "I do not wish it to be true."

Study Questions

Why does Blackburn think that non-cognitivists were the real beneficiaries of Moore's open question argument?

G.E. Moore's open question argument establishes a distinction between facts and values. As Blackburn wrote, "But the Open Question Argument asserts that people might take all the empirical and scientific facts as settled, but still have room to doubt whether a particular moral judgment, or judgment of Goodness, is the one to make in the light of those facts." Because the evaluation is outside of or external to all of the known facts, it can be neither true nor false.

Specifically, Moore's argument created a dilemma. If moral statements were truth-bearing propositions, then they violated the is/ought gap and fell victim to the open question argument. If, instead, then they seem to have no connection to reality (dealing with "particular types of entities" that we can know about through a "particular faculty of intuition". Blackburn's response is to say that the way out of this dilemma is for moral statements to be expressions of attitude.

What is the main difference between expressivism and emotivism?

Expressivism, as Blackburn describes it, "leaves open what is expressed". Emotivism may be understood as a species of expressivism where one expresses one's emotions. The example of a person slapping a desk in anger would qualify as emotivist. Expressivism could, for example, include the expression of a desire or wish, one that is relatively free of emotion. The choice of chocolate over butterscotch ice cream for desert need not be associated with expressing any particular emotion . . . it simply expresses a preference.

What is quasi-realism?

Quasi-realism refers to a form of non-cognitivism that has the trappings of realism. People can have debates, see certain issues as right or wrong, and even asserting that there is only one correct answer to a question. For an example to the latter, if one person wants X and another wants not-X, they simply assume that there is only one correct answer to the question and they keep debating the question until there is only one winner. The principle of "only one right answer" is a principle of practical guidance.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Metaethics 0003: R.M. Hare's Prescriptivism

Richard M. Hare held that moral claims are not sentences at all. They are commands. The statement that "lying is wrong" is like the statement "do not lie."

Is the statement "do not lie" true or false? No. It makes no sense to attach terms like "true" and "false" to commands. If a Sergeant tells a Private to dig a hole, the private cannot say that the order is false. He can say it is a bad idea. He can say that no sensible person would issue such a command. But he cannot sensibly say that the command itself is false. Similarly, if somebody were to say "lying is wrong," somebody can object that the command not to lie is a bad idea. He can say that no sensible person would issue such a command. But he cannot sensibly say that the command itself (understood as "do not lie") is false.

This is a rough account of Hare's position in R.M. Hare's, The Language of Morals.

For me, the very idea that Hare's thesis implies that moral claims cannot be true or false is enough to defeat the theory. At least, it shows that Hare is not talking about something that the rest of us are talking about when we talk about morality. When we are talking about morality, we are talking about something that has claims that are capable of being true or false. So, if Hare is talking about something that cannot be true or false, then he cannot be talking about morality.

Be that as it may, let me at least address the study questions associated with Hare's account.

How do imperatives acquire their meaning?

For the sake of the reader, let me be thorough in this.

Hare considers the option that imperatives are like statements. For example, if I tell you "close the door," what I am really saying is "I want you to close the door." However, imagine that I were to say "close the door" and my identical twin cousin was to say, "do not close the door". If these were statements of preference this would be like my saying, "I want you to close the door" and my identical twin cousin saying "I want you not to close the door." The two expressions of sentiments do not put you in a bind the way that the two commands would. Similarly, Hare argues that imperatives such as cooking instructions, "Take four eggs . . ." hardly express the desires of the author of the recipe, "I want you to take four eggs . . ." Now, in this case, I do not think that Hare makes a strong point.

Certainly, instructions do not express the desires of the author. Instead, they express a hypothetical, "If you want to make this type of omelette, first, take four eggs . . ." This is a statement which, if false, means that the individual isn't going to be making that type of omelette. We can make the same claim about the two commands to close the door. The do not express the wishes of the speaker, but they do tell the hearer, "If you want to be spared my wrath, you will close the door." Meanwhile, my identical twin cousin is saying, "If you wish to be spared my wrath, then you will not close the door." Now, we have an account that puts the agent in a bind - assuming the agent wants to avoid everybody's wrath.

I think that if we want to take the commandment, "do not lie" and convert it into a statement, we can do quite well by saying, "if you do not want to be the type of person that people generally have reason to condemn and, perhaps, to punish, then do not lie." Insofar as moral statements are commands, then it seems that it is not entirely clear that we cannot express them in terms of declarative statements that link the behavior commanded to some implicit or explicit consequence related to the agent's desires.

Of course, I deny that moral statements are commands. I hold that - among other things - moral statements are meant to have an effect on the brains of others regardless of what those others may think. This is a relationship of pure cause and effect. If I were to tickle you, then you would laugh (involuntarily) - but my tickling use does not have any type of propositional content that entails you laughing. If I were to condemn you, this would cause your brain to form an aversion to doing that for which you were condemned, but this does not imply that my condemnation has some sort of propositional content that entails you forming that aversion.

Mind you, moral claims do have propositional content, and they can be proved true or false, but that is because they are complex.

Hare also considers the thesis discussed in the entry, which I discussed recently under Metaethics 0002: C. L. Stevenson - Emotivism that moral claims were meant to "effect causally the behavior or emotions of the hearer". I agreed with Ayer on persuade or to change behavior. I agree with this, though Stevenson argued about producing a more immediate effect regarding a specific act, and I argued for producing a long-term effect by altering a person's desires and aversions.

However, Hare needs to reject the thesis that this is also true of commands. We can see this in the case of the command to "take four eggs . . ." if one wants to make an omelette. This instruction is clearly not meant to cause the hearer to take four eggs. That is to say, it is not a command to make an omelette. It is merely the instructions for doing so. Consequently, would be a mistake to interpret commands or instructions as efforts to change behavior. As I see it, this is another strike against Hare's prescriptivism. Moral claims do aim to change behavior and, if commands fail to do so, moral claims are not commands.

Hare objected that the persuasion theory made it difficult to distinguish moral claims from propaganda. However, in the case of desirism, moral statements are also, at the same time, propositions capable of being true or false. Much of what counts as propaganda is false. Hare also objects that the persuasion theory cannot separate moral claims from "threats, bribes, torture, mockery, promises of protection, and other expedients." To the contrary, it distinguishes between incentives and deterrence (which plays on the desires and aversions an agent already has) and tripping the reward system to create new rewards and aversions that the agent ought to have. Of course, this does not help to defend Stephenson from Hare's criticism.

The final answer to Hare's instructions is that moral commands are instructions. However, I see this as problematic, since instructions generally aim at a goal (such as building an omelette), and it is difficult to determine the end or goal of moral imperatives in Hare's account.

According to Hare, what is the difference between prescribing and convincing?

This question has been answered in the passages above. Prescriptions are instructions. A cookbook does not aim to "convince" somebody of anything, it simply announces how to get from having a pile of ingredients to having a particular prepared meal. Hare distinguishes between "telling a person to do something" and "getting them to do it". The cookbook tells a person what to do (if the reader desires a particular end), but does not give him a reason to do it. As I wrote above, I think this is a flaw with Hare's prescriptivist account - moral claims aim at getting people to behave in a particular way by altering their desires and aversions. They are more than mere instructions.

What points does Hare believe are established by the case of the missionaries and cannibals?

One purpose seems to be to show that value is not a secondary quality such as redness. It is possible that two people, speaking two different languages, each knowing what the term "good" means, can still use it to refer to two different things. However, it is not the case that two people, each knowing what the term "red" means, can use it to refer to two different things. If the people of one language were to see the people of another language pointing only to what he sees as "blue" and calling it "red", he would draw the conclusion that "red" in their language means "blue" in his. However, if he seems them pointing to a group of things that he thinks is bad and calling it "good", and - this is important - commending it to others - he would say that they find such things to be good.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0013: Roger Crisp's demon

If you are trying to defend desirism, and you come across somebody who has a good idea of what she is doing, she is going to summon Roger Crisp's demon. This is not a demonic version of Roger Crisp. This is a demon that Crisp discovered that threatens to be the bane of "ought to desire" theories everywhere.

More specifically, you are going to tell this person that a good desire is a desire that people generally have reason to promote. This is because the desire tends to fulfill other desires. Consequently, those with the "other desires" are going to have reason to see it promoted.

After she gets done laughing hysterically and she catches her breath, she is going to say the following.

"Here, let me summon Crisp's Demon. Crisp's Demon is going to torture people mercilessly if they do not admire President Trump. (Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that President Trump is not the type of person that one would generally regard as being admirable.) To say that Donald Trump is admirable is not to say that people admire Trump. There are certainly people who admire him. However, for Trump to be admirable he would have to be somebody that deserves admiration - something that people have a reason to admire. Well, if Crisp's Demon threatens to torture people unless people admire Trump, then people have a reason to admire Trump. If they have a reason to admire Trump, then they ought to admire Trump. And if they ought to admire Trump, then Trump is somebody that people ought to admire. Right?"

By the way, this objection comes from: Crisp, Roger (2000). “Review of Jon Kupperman, Value…and What Follows.” Philosophy 75: 458–62.

Clearly, for Trump to actually be admirable, he would have to have those qualities that make him worthy of admiration. Threats against those who do not admire Trump are the wrong kinds of reasons - they do not make Trump admirable. Yet, desirism states that for Trump to be admirable, it must be the case that admiring Trump is such as to fulfill other desires - such as fulfilling the desire to avoid the pain that Crisp's Demon would inflict if we did not admire Trump. So, desirism promotes the wrong kinds of reasons.

One response is to say that, even though one might not like Crisp's Demon, this is, in fact, where many of our values come from. Crisp's Demon is named "Evolution", and Evolution simply killed people who valued certain things while he let other creatures live. Those who had an aversion to certain sensations that indicated disabling damage to the body lived, those that did not have his aversion died. Those that liked the taste of ripe fruit and fresh meat lived, and those who liked the taste of rotten food died. Those who liked to take care of their offspring had offspring that had their own offspring, those who did not are now extinct.

Evolution gave us a reward system that works the same way. Reward/praise people who tell the truth and punish/condemn those who lie, and you end up with a population that values telling the truth and has an aversion to lying. If you currently view lying as something bad - if you have an aversion to lying - it is likely because Crisp's Demon has rewarded you in the past for honesty and punished you for lying. If not you personally, then you learned it by experiencing others (some real, some fictional) being praised and rewarded for honesty and punished and condemned for lying.

A second response to this problem is that different value-laden terms answer the four questions of value differently. The four questions are: given the standard use of the term, (1) what is the standard object of evaluation, (2) what are the relevant desires in question, (3) does the standard object of evaluation fulfill or thwart those desires, and (4) does it fulfill or thwart those desires directly or indirectly?

When we talk about admiration, we are evaluating character traits. We are asking if those traits are traits, if they were made universal, would tend to fulfill desires. An admirable trait could fulfill desires directly or indirectly - that part does not matter. The most powerful influence would be the tendency of the trait, if made universal, to fulfill desires indirectly. Direct fulfillment of desires simply would be too small to count for much.

So, given that "admiration" is based on "having a trait that people generally have reasons to promote universally," the question becomes whether the demon can make a trait one that people generally have reason to promote universally. If a trait could actually be made a trait that people generally have reason to promote universally, then it could be made admirable. However, in the real world, there are a great many reasons not to promote universally Trump's bigotry, dishonesty, arrogance, foolishness, and intellectual recklessness. Imagine if everybody were like Trump.

British Ethical Theorists 0012: Ought to Desire


Desirism is concerned centrally with what an agent ought to desire. in fact, it says that this is the central question of morality. Praise and condemnation, right and wrong, virtuous and vicious, all are to be interpreted, in one way or another, on what an agent ought to desire.

Thomas Hurka in his book British Ethical Theorists reported that the British Ethical Theorists had a lot to say on this topic.

The overall program for the BETs (according to Hurka) was to reduce moral concepts to the smallest possible number. In general, this set of philosophers tended to settle on two basic concepts: "good" and "ought". This is made explicit in W.D. Ross's famous book The Right and the Good.

However, there were some who tried to reduce this to one basic concept. This required either understanding "the right" in terms of "the good" and vica versa.

"Ought to desire" fits into the attempt to reduce "the good" to "the right". Hurka attributed this move particularly to A.C. Ewing. For Ewing, for something to be good is for it to be that which it is fitting to desire. In other words, to say that something is good is to say that one ought to take a pro-attitude towards it. So, we can eliminate "good" from our vocabulary and replace it with "ought to desire".

The difficulties that they had with this tells us things that desirism needs to take seriously.

Please note that "ought to desire" does not mean "does desire". The BETs were not defending a subjectivist theory that states that the goodness of something depends on the agent wanting it. On their account, it was quite possible that a person "does desire" something that they "ought not to desire".

However, this leaves us with a question, why is it that somebody ought to desire something? If we say that the agent ought to desire it because it is good, then we have a problem. Now, our definitions are circular. We are saying that "good" can be explained in terms of "ought to desire", and that an agent "ought to desire" something because it is good. If we are going to make "ought to desire" work, we need to get it out of this vicious loop.

Desirism and "Ought to Desire"

Desirism, of course, has a concept of "ought to desire." Furthermore, what an agent ought to desire may be different from what the agent does desire. An agent cannot search her feelings to decide what is right and what is wrong. The agent has to find moral ought in the world. Here, desirism shares something with Ewing's theories - an assumption of moral facts.

The way that desirism handles the concept of "ought to desire" is easier to explain when we focus on something that is wrong and towards which a person ought to have an aversion. Let us use as our exemplar the wrongess of lying. Within desirism, to say that lying is wrong is to say that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, universally, an aversion to lying. Of course, it can be true at the same time that (1) people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to lying, and (2) Donald lacks an aversion to lying. So, there is no necessary connection between what an agent ought to desire and what he does desire. No person can "search his feelings" (or his attitudes) and expect to flawlessly determine what is wrong.

Furthermore, though the BETs sought to reduce everything to a basic moral term, desirism does not have a basic moral term. Desirism seeks to reduces all of morality to non-moral natural properties. The descriptive entity "desire" is the foundation for all value, and all value claims get reduced to claims about relationships between states of affairs and desires. As I wrote in The Good, "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question." At the same time, "Agent ought to do X" gets translated into "there is a reason for Agent to do X" which, in turn, is understood as "there is a desire that would be served by Agent's doing X." Note that there are different types of "ought" for different types of "desires in question." There is "prima-facie ought" (a specific desire), practical "ought" (all of an agent's desires), and "moral ought" (the desires of the agent with good desires and lacking bad desires). Good desires are, of course, the desires that people generally have reason to promote universally, which means that they are the desires that tend to fulfill other desires regardless of whose they are. Everything, as I said, gets reduced to desires. That is why it is called "desirism".

Now that we have a basic idea of how the BETs and desirism think of the concept "ought to desire", let us look at what the BETs said on the subject and how they effect Desirism.

Agent Relative Ought to Desiredness

The BETs were concerned with the relative importance of values to different individuals. For example, let us assume that I promised to pay Mary $100. We would say that there is a goodness to be found in my paying Mary the money I promised to pay her. However, it would make no sense for this to be an intrinsic agent-neutral goodness. If it was, everybody would have the same obligation to make sure that I pay Mary $100 as I have. However, this implication is absurd. Consequently, the goodness of following an obligation cannot be agent neutral.

In British Ethical Theorists 0010: Intrinsic Rightness, I discussed the fact that my obligation to keep my promise to pay you $100 can have a different amount of value for me than it does for you. At least, it ought to provide me with far more motivation to pay the $100 than it provides you to make sure that I pay the $100.

Desirism handles this by including indexicals in its desires. The desire that people generally have reason to promote universally is the desire "that I keep my promises". This will motivate each person to keep their promise, but does not give any person any reason to make sure that others keep their promises. This is different from promoting a universal desire "that promises be kept" - which would motivate each agent to make sure that each promise is kept no matter whose it is. The latter version would be an unrealistic desire to promote universally. It would require that we condemn all people universally for each promise that is broken - and that simply is not practical. Consequently, we adopt the practice of punishing and condemning people only for their own unbroken promises.

From this, we also get the active/passive distinction. There is more wrong in killing somebody than there is in letting that person die. Utilitarian theories have trouble with this idea. Utilitarianism measures the value of an act from its consequences. The consequences of letting a person die are just as bad as the consequences of killing somebody. In both cases we suffer the loss of an innocent life. However, desirism focuses on desires that people generally have reason to promote universally.

Imagine living in a world where you were expected to feel just as bad about every person that has ever been killed as you may feel towards a person that you killed yourself. To create this rule, we will have to take up the practice of condemning and punishing everybody equally for every person who is killed. In fact, we would have to punish everybody as if they were guilty of murder. The reasons people have not to do this far outweigh any reasons they may have to establish such a system.

Ought to Desire, Goodness, and Order of Explanation

Another problem that the BETs addressed with respect to "ought to desire" concerns the "direction of explanation". Hurka states this common objection to the "fitting attitudes" account of "ought to desire" that Ewing (in particular) promoted as follows: "It is natural to say ‘you ought to desire x because x is good’ but not ‘x is good because you ought to desire it’, though the opposite should be true given the fitting-attitudes view."

Our natural way of understanding things is to say that something is good and, in virtue of its having this quality of goodness, people with properly tuned senses would desire it. In other words, they ought to desire it. We use goodness to explain "ought to desire." We do not us "ought to desire" to explain "goodness".

Desirism throws the direction of explanation out the window entirely. It does not say that agents ought to desire P because P is good. Nor do they say that P is good because it is something that agents ought to desire.

Instead, desirism states that people generally ought to desire P because desiring P is good. Note the difference here. In one case, we say that an agent ought to desire P because P is good. But the view for desirism is that we ought to desire that P because the desire that P is good. And why is it the case that the desire that P is considered good? It is because the desire that P tends to fulfill other desires. This property of the desire that P is what gives others reason to promote that desire universally by praising those who exhibit the desire and condemning those who do not.

For example, people ought to have an aversion to lying. It is not the case that they ought to have an aversion to lying because lying is bad. Nor is it the case that lying is bad because it is something that people ought to have an aversion to doing. Rather, people ought to have an aversion to lying because there are reasons to promote (universally, in this case) an aversion to lying.

Looking back to the concept of "ought to desire", this account states that Agent ought to desire that P is to be understood in terms of "there are many and strong reasons to promote a desire that P".


The BETs say more about "ought to desire", but this is enough for one blog posting.

It identifies a couple of important characteristic. First, we saw how desirism explains the agent-relative nature of certain duties such as keeping a promise. Desirism asks what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would have done in the circumstances. Sometimes, the relevant circumstances would include "I made a promise." The aversion to breaking promises applies to the person who made the promise and no others.

It also pointed out an error of trying to understand "ought to desire that P" in terms of the value of P instead of in terms of the value of "desires that P". Once we realize that "ought to desire that P" asks if there are reasons for promoting a desire that P, we see that the solution is to look for reasons to promote or inhibit a desire that P.

British Ethical Theorists 0011: Admiration

There is a view in metaethics that holds that “X is good” is reducible in some way to “Agent(s) ought to have a positive attitude towards X”

I say “Agent(s)” because this thesis takes two forms. In one form, X’s value is intrinsic and independent of the agent. In these cases, all agents should have the fitting attitude towards X. In the other form, X’s value is relative to the agent in such a way that it is fitting that different agents have different attitudes towards the same object.

I discussed this in the previous post, "Intrinsic Rightness" using the example of my keeping my promise to pay you $100 (a promise that is still hypothetical, so don’t expect to see any money). My fitting attitude towards the state of paying you $100 is more demanding than anybody else’s fitting attitude.

As Thomas Hurka reported in his book British Ethical Theorists, Ewing argued that different objects demanded different fitting attitudes. Some things were “ought to be desired”, some were “ought to be admired in a non-moral sense”, and others were “ought to be admired in a moral sense”.

Hurka wrote that, “[Ewing] was unsure whether moral admiration is irreducibly distinct from other forms of admiration or differs only in its object, which is an action with volitional qualities such as devotion to a good end.”

Desirism provides an easy answer to the “Admiration” question. Admiration is a form of praise. It aims to promote the behavior being admired, not only in the agent, but in others. There is a difference between those traits that we have reason to promote universally, and those that we do not. In the first sense, we can admire the person for his honesty or generosity. Honesty and generosity are dispositions we have reason to promote universally, so this counts as moral admiration. There are other traits that we seek to promote, but not universally. One example of this would be the piano player or the gymnast, who we can admire (and praise) non-morally.

We do not tend to use the term "admiration" in its moral sense for everybody moral actions. For example, we do not admire the person who walks into a store and walks about again without shoplifting, even if a clear opportunity presented itself. We do not admire those who queue up to get on the bus (though we condemn those who cut in line). Instead, moral admiration tends to be attached to the types of actions that are generally called "supererogatory" or "above and beyond the call of duty."

Desirism defines a supererogatory act as one that people generally have reasons to promote universally but, because of human nature, simply cannot expect to get reasonably close to that level. The person who donates a kidney to a stranger, for example, has gone above and beyond the call of duty. Our world would be better off if we could promote that level of charity universally. However, no matter how strongly we praise people who perform such actions and condemn those who do not (recognizing that we would have to hold ourselves in contempt if we do not do that which we promote universally), we can never expect to succeed. Consequently, we praise the action in order to promote the dispositions, but we do not condemn its absence expecting that this would do more harm than good.

In this analysis, we are going to have to recognize a possible distinction between what we do admire and what we ought to admire. There may well be people who admire President Trump. Yet, to say that Trump is admired is not to say that he is admirable (or that he "ought to be admired"). To admire Trump is to praise and, thereby, to promote and encourage lying, intellectual recklessness, bigotry, arrogance, and a number of other traits that - as a matter of fact - people generally have many and strong reasons to discourage universally. When this is the case, we can truly say that the person admired is not admirable. That is to say, the person with the traits that people are promoting universally both has traits that people actually have no reason to make universal, and lacks traits that they do have reason to make universal.

If we take "admirable" as "having those traits that people ought to admire" or "having those traits that it would be good for people to admire" or "having those traits that it would be right for people to admire," we need to provide some account of this quality "ought to admire", "good to admire", or "right to admire". I am going to address this in my next post about what an agent ought to desire.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0010: Intrinsic Rightness

In Thomas Hurka's book British Ethical Theorists, Hurka has the British Ethical Theorists (BETs) presenting an impressive argument against the idea that doing one's duty is intrinsically good.

To be clear, we are talking about an argument against a particular interpretation of this intrinsic goodness, but it is an important interpretation. This is the view that promise keeping, for example, can have a type of agent-neutral intrinsic value.

It is important to note that if something has intrinsic value, then this value does not depend on its relationship to anything else. The intrinsic value of something - like its mass - is the same no matter who encounters it. The standard method that I have used to deny the existence of these types of things has been to use an "Occam's Razor" approach. I have no use for them - they do not exist. The argument that I am going to consider here says that, at least in the case of ought, they fail to make sense of our use of moral terms.

To illustrate this point, let us assume that I have promised to pay you $100 by next Tuesday. Don't get excited, this is just a thought experiment - it isn't real. Because I made this promise, I have an obligation to pay you $100. Paying you $100 would be be a good thing. My not paying you $100 would be a bad thing.

Is this goodness or badness an intrinsic value property?

Hurka presented this view in discussing a point of debate between Henry Sidgwick and G.E. Moore. Sidgwick held that obligations could be agent-relative. Egoism held that each person could pursue their own good - that each person's good was of particular value for him. Moore thought this was absurd - that if something is actually, honestly good then it has agent-neutral goodness.

It is hard to see how an object can have this kind of property ‘for me’ but not ‘for you’, or ‘from my point of view’ but not ‘from yours’. Surely it either has the property or not. Compare being square. An object cannot be square for one person but not for another; it either is square or not. (It can look square to one person but not to another, but looking square is different from being square.) The same is true of goodness if that is unanalysable, which means the only duty to promote the good must be agent-neutral. (p. 57)

However, if this were true, then my obligation to keep my promise would have this agent-neutral value that would be the same no matter who was viewing it. If it has this agent-neutral value, then my obligation to pay you $100 would correspond to Agent3's obligation to make sure that I pay you $100, which would correspond to Agent4's obligation to make sure that Agent3 made sure that I paid you $100 (because Agent 3's obligation would also represent an agent-neutral value).

However, these implications seem quite absurd.

By the power vested in us by the rules of logic, if A implies B, and B is false, then A must be false as well. If the murderer had red hair, and Agent5 does not drive a red car, then Agent5 cannot be the murderer. Applying this principle to the argument above, if obligations have agent-neutral intrinsic value, then everybody is obligated to see that they are carried out. It is absurd to hold that everybody is obligated to see an obligation carried out. Therefore, obligations do not have agent-neutral value.

This means that obligations must be agent-relative. As Hurka put it, "my keeping my promise is a greater good from my point of view than it is from other people’s." (p. 57).

Desirism has no problem with agent-relative duties. The right act is the act that a person with good desires (the desires that people generally have reason to promote universally) and lacking bad desires (desires that people generally have reason to inhibit universally) would have done in those circumstances. One of the relevant circumstances is the circumstance, "I have made a promise." If a person makes a promise, a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would keep it. However, there is no reason to promote universally a desire for everybody to keep their promise that would be nearly as motivating. This would be overkill and overburden everybody. It is best that those who made the promise take the responsibility for ensuring that it be kept.

The main point of this essay has been to dispute the claim that keeping a promise has agent-neutral intrinsic value. I hold that such things do not exist. Even if they do exist, we clearly are not talking about such a thing when we discuss obligations as we typically understand the term in English. Certainly, when I make a promise to give somebody $100, I am not thereby creating an agent-neutral good that suddenly binds everybody to the commitment of making sure I pay that $100. If that were the case, we would quite quickly loathe anybody who ever made a promise.

Metaethics 0002: C. L. Stevenson - Emotivism

In the beginning, I was told that "emotivism" is a non-cognitivist moral theory. This means that it does not allow for the possibility of moral facts. As such, I dismissed it. Any theory that implies that there are no moral facts is flawed (since there are moral facts) and must be rejected.

I have learned that this first impression is mistaken. I do not claim to be mistaken in thinking that there are no moral facts - there certainly are. My mistake is in thinking that the existence of moral facts was not compatible with emotivism. Many of the things Stevenson argued for are true. The claim that it is incompatible with the existence of moral facts is not true.

Something Stevenson Gets Right: Moral Claims Seek to Cause Influence

Moral statements are not only used to report facts, but to alter the behavior of others. He describes this fact particularly in contrast to theories that state that value claims report interests - of the form "I like X". When we make a value claim - particularly a moral claim - a part of our objective is to get other people to have the same attitude.

Their major use is not to indicate facts, but to create an influence. Instead of merely describing people's interests, they change or intensify them. They recommend an interest in an object, rather than state that interest already exists.

Desirism fully agrees with this. The moral terms "right" and "wrong" are, in part, statements of praise and condemnation. Insofar as this is true, they offer rewards and punishments in the psychological sense. The reason to offer rewards and punishments in this sense is to trigger the reward systems of others into forming motivational rules, encoded in the brain. These rules (desires and aversions) dispose agents to repeat that which is praised and avoid that which is condemned.

This story of influence is not exactly what Moore had in mind. Moore wrote about a more direct and immediate type of influence - to touch upon the hearer's sympathies, likes, and dislikes. He talks about two agents having a dispute over whether to go to a movie or a concert, each bringing up facts that touch upon the other's sentiments in such a way as to dispose them to accept the activity that the other proposed. In another case, Stevenson wrote:

A, for instance, may try to change the temperament of his opponent. He may pour out his enthusiasms in such a moving way-present the sufferings of the poor with such appeal that he will lead his opponent to see life through different eyes. He may build up, by the contagion of his feelings, an influence which will modify B's temperament, and create in him a sympathy for the poor which didn't previously exist.

There is nothing in desirism that disputes this. Stephenson may be right, as far as this analysis goes. Desirism would simply add that Stephenson has not gone as far as he should on this matter. He is ignoring the ways in which a society-wide disposition to praise those who perform certain types of actions and condemn those who do not are meant to have effects beyond or outside of the scope of immediate persuasion. The effects are larger and systematic.

Something Stephenson Gets Wrong: Motivational Judgment Internalism

One of the main things that Stephenson gets wrong is his endorsement of motivational judgment internalism. Effectively, this states that a person can only talk about relationships between objects of evaluation and their own desires. Talking about relationships between objects of evaluation and desires other than his own is, if not impossible, at least not done. Phrased as I have put it here, this motivational judgment internalism seems absurd. And I find it to be absurd. Nonetheless, it is a very popular belief.

Let me present it in a less derogatory way. Typically, when a person says that something is good it is because he is, in some way, motivated to bring it about. If he says that it is bad then he is motivated to avoid it. This is because the agent's motivation is built into the judgment that something is good or bad. A person who uses the term "good" to refer to something he is not motivated to bring about does not understand the meaning of the term - is not using the term correctly. The same is true of somebody who uses the term "bad" to refer to something he is indifferent towards. Indeed, we would consider it quite odd to hear a person say that he agrees with us with respect to our judgment, but does not agree with us in terms of motivational inclination.

One of my arguments against this has to do with the type of reasons that people accept when disputing a moral statement. If "X is wrong" implies "I am motivated to prevent X" is true, then we can prove the moral claim to be false by proving that the conclusion is false. For example, if "slavery is wrong" implies "I am motivated to put an end to slavery," then "I am not motivated to put an end to slavery" would imply "slavery is not wrong." Yet, we do not involve evidence of an agent's lack of motivation as proof that what he wants to do is permissible.

This becomes a matter for desirism since desirism holds that the moral evaluation of action concerns relationship between acts of that type and what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires will do in those circumstances. These are things that an agent can know, assert, and argue about. Yet there is no necessary connection between, "Action1 is that which a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do," and "The person making the assertion has the relevant good desires and lacks the relevant bad desires." Consequently, there is no necessary connection between the rightness of an act and the motivational state of the agent.

Something to Discuss: The Relationship between the Descriptive and Prescriptive

Stephenson is considered a non-cognitivist. Desirism is a cognitivist moral theory - there are objectively true and false moral facts. Consequently, there must be another point of disagreement between the two somewhere.

Stephenson seems to assume that descriptive statements and emotive-causal statements are mutually exclusive. Desirism denies this - and holds that both elements can exist in the same statement. Assume that somebody picks up your computer and begins to walk away with it. You may shout at him, "Hey! That's my computer!" In tone, you condemn that person. However, the statement that you utter is a proposition capable of being true or false. It has a fact value. So, here, you have a descriptive statement and an emotive causal statement wrapped up in the same utterance. More importantly, the two features are related. If your the agent can refute the factual component, one of the implications is that he has undermined the justification for the condemnation.

We want to know how people can have a moral disagreement. This is one way. Where praise and condemnation are wrapped up in fact-bearing propositions in such a way that the truth of the proposition is a necessary condition for justifying the praise or condemnation, two agents can dispute the justification for the attitude by disputing the truth of the proposition.

The most direct way to link the two - the praise or condemnation with the factual component of the proposition - is to allow the relevant fact to be, "people generally have reasons to praise/condemn those who perform the type of act that you performed." Now, if you can disprove the factual claim, you can show that there is no reason for the praise or condemnation that the speaker had mixed into the accusation. "What you did was wrong" becomes "What you did is something that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn." From this, "It is not the case that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn what I did" implies "What I did was not wrong."

However, note that this analysis is at odds with the motivational judgment internalism mentioned in the previous section.


For the reasons mentioned here, I have gone from thinking that Stevenson's non-cognitivist emotivist theory was completely mistaken to thinking that he made a significant contribution. The non-cognitivism was wrong. However, his thesis that moral claims are used for more than to report facts was accurate. Moral claims are used to cause changes. We now know - more precisely than Stevenson did - how they cause changes. Praise offers rewards and condemnation offers punishments that act on the reward system to encode dispositions of behavior that makes it more likely that the agent will do that which was praised and avoid doing that which was condemned. Stevenson was wrong to claim that we can only use moral terms to talk about how things relate to our own motivation. He was also wrong for his failure to recognize that factual statements can have emotive-causal content whose justification depends on the factual statement being true. But he was right (or mostly right) on the reason people make moral claims.