Friday, August 17, 2018

Moral Progress

Moral Progress (20180817)
Alonzo Fyfe

I have been asked to explain moral progress and moral disagreement
I have written this presentation several times. However, I keep learning new things, so, rather than referring back to an original example, I keep hoping that each time I can do it better.

A Theory of Morality

I start with a physics model. I note how physicists, when they seek to explain physical forces, begin by assuming a simplified universe of frictionless surfaces, perfectly spherical bodies, massless strings, or a universe consisting of only two bodies. Once we understand the simple mechanics, we can add in complexities.

Simple Beginnings

My simple universe is a community of beings with only one desire - an aversion to their own pain. This aversion can be expressed as a propositional attitude - a “desire that I not be in pain” that assigns a negative value - a “to be preventedness” to any state of affairs where “I am in pain” is true. In having an aversion to their own pain, each person has a reason to avoid (to prevent or to stop) being in pain.

Some may hypothesize that everybody also has a reason to prevent or stop others from being in pain. On this hypothesis, there is something in the nature of “that entity is in pain” that generates a reason to prevent or stop it from being the case that “that entity is in pain”.

We are going to hypothesize that no such power or entity exists. Each entity has only one reason for action - the prevention of their own pain. This means that if a being encounters a situation where he must choose between (1) a mildly annoying scratch on his finger, and (2) excruciating pain for everybody else, his only reason for intentional action is to avoid the mild irritation on his finger.

However, we will postulate the existence of a reward system. This system processes rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) to generate new reasons for action or modify existing reasons. If, by pressing a button, one gets fed, one acquires an interest in pressing the button - not only so that one can get fed, but for its own sake. If, by pressing the button, one gets an electric shock, one acquires an aversion to pressing buttons. This is not just a means to avoid pressing buttons. One will tend to avoid pressing buttons even when one knows it will not produce a shock. One acquires an aversion to (and, thereby, a reason not to) press the button.

So, by praising and rewarding those who refrain from actions that cause pain to others, and punishing and condemning those who do cause pain to others, one can create in others an aversion to causing pain to others. In creating this aversion, others will come to have two reasons for intentional action: to prevent the realization of their own pain, and to avoid actions that bring it about that others are in pain.

In this way, others actually acquire a reason not to cause pain to others. However, it does not arise from the very nature of others being in pain. It arises as a result of rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) acting on their reward systems to create aversions to causing pain.

The effect is the same. As a result, agents come to have two reasons for action that sometimes conflict. Now, faced with a choice between a mild irritation on their finger and excruciating pain for others, the aversion to causing pain to others outweighs the aversion to avoid one’s own pain, and chooses the mild irritation. However, if faced with a choice between excruciating pain for oneself and a mild irritation for another, the agent may still choose the mild irritation for the other.

Explanatory Power

We have now a situation where everybody has a reason not to cause pain to others. However, it does not require the existence of a mystical power of one person’s aversion to his own pain to automatically (magically) generate reasons for others. Furthermore, it explains and predicts the ubiquitous use of praise and condemnation (and other forms of rewards and punishments) in morality.

It explains why punishment and condemnation are the appropriate response to wrong acts. Obviously, punishment and condemnation cannot prevent the action that has already taken place. However, the act shines a spotlight on an area where it would be useful to apply additional reasons-generating punishment and condemnation. It is the person who performed the wrong act who is deserving of condemnation and punishment precisely because there is reason to promote an aversion to doing that type of act. The punishment must be “proportional” to the wrong since the strength of the aversions we have reason to create is proportional to the strength of the reasons we have to create that aversion. We have fewer and weaker reasons to promote aversions to trivial wrongs than we do to massive large-scale wrongs. The theft of $5 deserves less punishment and condemnation than the rape and murder of a child.

The “inherent power to create reasons in others by the very nature of a wrong” cannot account for these features. Instead, these become arbitrary, unexplained elements of the mysterious reasons-generating power. In the same way that this power mysteriously generates reasons for others, it mysteriously generates a rightness to responding to wrong behavior with condemnation and punishment, and it mysteriously dictates the appropriate level of condemnation and punishment, none of which can actually be explained.

Note that it is not a valid objection to this theory to state that it cannot account for moral behavior – for the fact that one person helps another at what would otherwise be a cost to himself, or that a person refrains from taking the property of another even when she can do so without getting caught. It explains this behavior as a consequence of desires and aversion acquired through social conditioning.

A person with a desire to help others has a reason that may well tilt the balance in favor of helping, when all other concerns would have said not to help. A person with a learned aversion to taking the property of others without consent is no more likely to take the property of others when she can get away with it than a person with an aversion to pain is likely to burn herself when she can get away with it.

More importantly, the theory being proposed provides a more sensible real-world account of what those reasons are and how they came to exist. By praising and rewarding those who help, a society creates in others a desire to help that, at times, will tilt the balance against all other concerns. By condemning and punishing those who take the property of others without consent, we create an aversion to taking the property of others without consent, which leaves our property secure even when others can take the property without getting caught.

This system also explains why the reasons different people have do not have the same strength – why some people will not help when other people will not, why some people steal when others (better) people would not.

Part of the reason for this is because the basic biological foundation on which experience works on is not the same for all of us, so identical environments will still not produce identical results. Yet, even with this, we do not have identical experiences. One person may have taken property without consent as a child and gotten away with it, obtaining the benefits (which serve as a reward) without he punishments, thus not developed an aversion to taking property without consent. Taking property may have been essential to survival. As an adult, he teaches his children to take property successfully. This weakens the aversion to taking property in those children. Of course, those children may also experience the condemnation and punishment of others, and are certainly told of the harms of getting caught. Consequently, they may be torn – their feelings pulling them in two contradictory directions.

In the same way, this system explains the cultural variation in attitudes. Different people in different cultures experience different patterns of reward and condemnation, giving them different reasons for engaging in certain types of behavior. Growing up white in a culture of black slavery or white privilege, they experience rewards and praise for racist attitudes, and learn an attitude of contempt towards blacks. Growing up in a culture where homosexuality is condemned, they acquire negative attitudes towards homosexuals and homosexual acts. These are the consequences of rewards and punishments.

The Cost of Error

I have contrasted two theories of morality.

In one theory, the very nature of one person’s suffering generates in others a reason against causing suffering.

In the other theory, the very nature of one person’s suffering and the fact that he is surrounded by people whose brains contain a “reward system” implies that he has reason to use rewards and punishment (including praise and condemnation) to cause others to have aversions to causing suffering – aversions that give others reasons against causing suffering.

Both theories end up at the same point – a reason against causing suffering to others. There is nothing in this reason itself that carries a marker of its origins. All one knows is that one has a reason. It takes theoretical work to try to figure out where it came from.

This means that it is possible for a person who has a reason against causing suffering brought about by the second system to make a mistake and think that it came about through the first system. Such a person believes that the reason they have against causing suffering exists in virtue of being able to correctly perceive an intrinsic reasons-making property in other people’s suffering.

This can be a very costly error.

A person who believes that she is under the watchful eye of a guardian angel who will not allow her to suffer harm may take risks that she would not otherwise take. This could have unfortunate consequences as the act she thinks is safe turns out not to be safe at all.

The person who thinks that reasons come from the nature of things may fail to take steps to create those reasons in others – or to properly advocate that others in the community do the same thing. The result is a community where people are more prone to lie, steal, vandalize, engage in fraud, kill, and engage in prejudiced and discriminatory acts that they would not otherwise engage in if the causes of reasons were properly understood. The advocate of natural reasons is more prone to let the cards fall as they may. After all, the reasons already exist. It is not as if he needs to put any work into creating them.

More importantly, a person with a learned desire that p or desire that not-q who takes their reasons to realize p or prevent q to be in virtue of an intrinsic reasons-generating property is not going to be open to evidence that their attitude should change. His aversion to homosexual acts is taken to be caused by an internal “not to be doneness” built into homosexual acts. Any argument to the effect that this attitude is harmful and should be changed will be met with the response, “But it is wrong by its nature, and your arguments that we would do better with a different attitude are irrelevant.”

The intrinsic reasons-generating property theory is inherently conservative and resistant to change. It takes the learned attitude of the agent and makes it an intrinsic property of that being evaluated. Ultimately, the agent’s own learned likes and dislikes are taken to be a marker of all that which is good and right in the world. He ignores evidence concerning whether having such an attitude – having it himself and having it made universal throughout the community is such a good idea, and insist instead he is seeing intrinsic reasons-making properties that make such arguments irrelevant.

This is particularly dangerous when two people – or two groups – come into conflict. One of them has promoted in their community a desire that p, while the other has promoted a desire that not-p. Members of the first community have reasons to realize p, and members of the second community have reasons to prevent its realization. If each take their reasons to be generated by an intrinsic reason-generating power in p, they have a conflict, and there is no way to resolve this conflict short of war. If, instead, they realize that their reasons are grounded on learned preferences – taught through social customs of praise and condemnation – they can then ask, “Which learned preferences do we really have the most and strongest reasons to promote?” To answer this question, they can enter into debate and discussion.

There is a right answer. The fact that we are arguing about the relative merits of promoting particular sentiments universally (rather than about the intrinsic reasons-making properties of things) does not imply that the answer is merely a matter of individual taste or preference.

Moral Progress

But is there moral progress? Can one culture be better than another?

Let us return to the starting community populated by people with an aversion to their own pain and a reward system. These people have reasons to prefer a community populated by people with an aversion to their own pain, a reward system, and an aversion to causing pain to others. The latter community is clearly better than the former community.

This community might well (falsely) believe that if they promote an aversion to causing pain to others that an all-powerful god will punish all of them with excruciating pain. Suffering from the effects of this belief, they actually condemn anybody who promotes an aversion to causing pain to others. Advocates of this vile philosophy that risks their god’s vengeance are burned alive as a warning to others. Regardless of what they believe, and regardless of the feelings that are generated as a result of this error, they still have more and stronger reasons to form a society that includes an aversion to causing pain to others. They are simply unaware of this moral fact.

Becoming aware of it, and then creating that universal aversion, represents moral progress.

The abolition of slavery, social equality for women, the combatting of child abuse, recognizing the moral permissibility of homosexual relationships, all represent moral progress. They all represent creating sentiments (like the aversion to causing pain in the hypothetical example) that people generally actually have reasons to promote universally.

Moral Argument

This also brings to the surface the possibility of error and moral debate. In the example given above, the people who (falsely) believe that a god will punish them with excruciating pain if they were to reward/praise behavior that avoids causing pain and punish/condemn acts that cause pain are barriers to moral progress. They are wrong. Regarding the reasons for promoting a universal aversion to causing pain to others, they are on the wrong side of the issue, and those who argue for creating such an aversion are on the right side. This goes hand-in-hand with the thesis that there is such a thing as moral progress, and the false believers are standing in the way of progress.

In some cases, it may be difficult to determine what attitudes we have reasons to promote. In the case of capital punishment, the “ultimate punishment” for the performance of certain types of crimes may be useful in promoting even stronger aversions to committing those types of crimes. This would give us reason to promote universal acceptance of – and even a desire for – this type of punishment. On the other hand, capital punishment is killing. Promoting a universal desire to kill may not be such a wise idea.

One might respond, “No, we are only cheering the killing of the guilty!” That might be the intent, but the cheering takes place in the real world and one has to look at the real-world effects. In a population of 300 million people, cheering the killing of the guilty will be internalized in some of the population as killing those who deserve it. They may classify as “deserves it” people who have committed the slightest wrong – who they perceive as having cut them off on the highway, looked at them without a proper acknowledgement of respect, or failed to hand over money the person thought he had a right to take. Attitudes about who deserves killing are going to differ. As a result, cheering killings may create more murders than it prevents.

We can have genuine disputes over issues such as government assistance to the poor, taxation, what to allow people to say and what to prohibit from being said, the treatment of animals, the treatment of future generations, the accumulation of wealth. We may well discover reasons for and reasons against promoting certain attitudes. We may find people claiming that reasons exist that do not, in fact, exist, such as the “vengeful god” referred to in the hypothetical example – the god that would inflict suffering on a community that promotes an aversion to causing suffering.

Disagreement does not imply that there is no right answer. Nor does it get in the way of people saying, “Here are good reasons to promote such an attitude” and backing it up with empirical evidence, and “Those are bad reasons for promoting such an attitude” and backing that up with empirical evidence as well.

Moral Persuasion

So, now, imagine that you have been captured and taken into the woods by somebody who plans to cook you slowly over an open fire and then eat you. You desire that this not be the case. You wish to try to prevent this from happening. What are your options?

According to the theory presented here, you have three options.

Option 1: You can try to point out to him that he already has a reason not to cook you and eat you that he might not be aware of. Perhaps you can convince him that you are riddled with parasites, and he certainly does not want to eat somebody riddled with parasites. Another option is to convince him that you have an all-knowing, all-powerful, invisible friend who will punish anybody who cooks and eats you, causing them endless suffering. This wouldn’t be true, but it might be effective.

Option 2: Change his desires. If you have a pill that causes people to have an aversion to killing and eating others, see if you can find a way to get him to eat it. Failing that, he has a reward system, and it may be that by praising the decision not to cook and eat you, and by condemning the decision to do so, you may effect a change in his desires and create within him an aversion to cooking and eating people. This takes a lot of work though – a lot of time and a string of experience – so it will likely not be effective if he plans on eating you for the evening meal.

Option 3: Prevent him from acting. Kill him, or escape, or . . . better yet . . . do both, in whichever order is most convenient (or possible) in the circumstances.

These are your three options. (1) Convince him that cooking and eating you will thwart a desire he already has, (2) create within him a new desire that would be thwarted by cooking and eating you, (3) make it impossible for him to cook and eat you.

You could try to tell him that, by its very nature, cooking and eating you has its own intrinsic reasons-creating property and that in virtue of this fact he already has a reason not to eat you that he might not be aware of. Personally, I would go with the story of the all-knowing, all-powerful invisible friend. It sounds more plausible.

There is another option, but it requires some advanced planning. If successful, you will not even end up in this situation, so you will not need to ask yourself what to do if you were in such a situation. This is to get together with others in your community and convince them that you all should use your collective powers of reward and punishment, including praise and condemnation, to promote universally an aversion to cooking and eating people.

Given the massive complexities of human society, the massive complexities of the human brain (including other genetic and environmental influences), and the massive varieties of experiences a person may have, one will not eliminate the possibility of being killed and eaten. However, to the degree that one can promote such an aversion, to that degree one can at least reduce the chances.

Once again, I want to remind the reader that, when it comes to “what desires do people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote universally using these tools of reward (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation)” has a right answer – at least in many cases. In our original simple universe, the value of promoting universally an aversion to causing pain was not a matter of opinion. In our society, the value of promoting aversions to lying, fraud, sophistry, theft, vandalism, assault, rape, murder, and the like is not a matter of opinion. There is an objective fact of the matter. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote, universally, these desires and aversions by praising those who act correctly and condemning/punishing those who act wrongly.


This, then, is a brief account of the position I have been defending.

There are no intrinsic reasons-creating properties in the natures of particular states of affairs. There is, instead, a set of desires and aversions and a learning system we evolved to have because it was useful in generating new desires and aversions. Once this reward system came into being, it was there for others to manipulate. All they needed to do was to manipulate each other’s experiences – their rewards and punishments – to generate behavioral rules useful to those who were doing the manipulating. With hole communities usefully manipulating everybody’s learned desires and aversions having, in their effect, the (unintended) well-being of the whole group, the institution of morality came into existence.

This system is so simple that animals could use it. If one animal performs an action that is perceived to threaten the interests of another animal – either its own interests or its interest in the well-being of others such as its children, mate, and friends – it has reason to respond with condemnation. This takes the form of snarling, growling, swiping with paws, and making other aggressive gestures. If they perform useful actions, others can reinforce those useful actions using rewards such as grooming, food, sex, or even positive gestures such as a smile or pleasant “approving” noises.

This does not need complex cognition. It needs nothing more than, “If it seems favorable, respond with rewards and praising noises. If it seems dangerous, respond with punishments and condemnation noises”. We become angry, shout, and insult those who perform actions that we perceive as a threat. That this seems so natural is no accident. It is because harm to us does not have any intrinsic reasons-making properties, but we can act on the reward systems of others to create those reasons nonetheless.

People generally have many and strong reasons to promote some desires and aversions universally. This applies to aversions such as lying, theft, assault, rape, and murder. It applies to desires such as keeping promises, repaying debts, and helping those in desperate need. There are right answers to the questions about what sentiments to promote and what sentiments to avoid promoting.

From this, without any need for the existence of intrinsic reasons-making properties, we get objective morality.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

RoME 2018 13: Desert

The Sad and Untimely Death of Desert
Stephen Kershnar

Commentator: Spencer Case (University of Colorado, Boulder)

Chair: George Sher (Rice University)

Abstract: The paper argues against the existence of desert. It begins by arguing that there is no adequate theory of what desert is. The paper then argues that there is no plausible basis of what makes people deserve things. Specifically, it argues that the intuitive notion of desert fits poorly with responsibility-internalism. There is no intuitively plausible basis for positive desert, and the basis for negative desert is not the opposite of that for positive desert. In addition to problems with the basis of desert, the paper argues that there is no plausible model of how desert and well-being relate to intrinsic value.

My general attitude towards a project such as this is that it is a waste of time. The reasons for believing this were actually brought up in the discussion following the paper. It is entirely unreasonable to expect that society will ever give up the concept of desert. We will be using the term for as long as civilization exists and making decisions of policy - deciding questions of life and death - on the basis of desert. If one wants to perform a socially useful activity, then one can propose refining it into something useful - something that will help us to make wise decisions.

I argue for this position in the case of morality. In a sense, I am a moral nihilist. Moral values - understand as intrinsic mind-independent oughtness - do not exist. So long as moral terms are understood to refer to such entities - as making claims about such entities - and using those claims to justify harmful behavior - we should get list of terms that ground harming others on the basis of properties that are wholly fictitious.

However, we are not going to get rid of moral terms. Therefore, the next best option is to argue for refining them - reforming them - turning them into something useful. Justifying reward and punishment on the grounds of their usefulness in the ways they act on the reward center to change ultimate ends provides us with a way of making moral terms useful.

There is a particular point to "desert" that would be important to consider in reforming the term. It is used to distinguish when harms to others are justified, and benefits (rewards, praise) to others is advisable. It identifies when the standards of reasonable rewards and punishments, praise and condemnation, have been met. To the degree that we can fix those standards, we can fix the standards of desert.

Taken in this light, Kershnar's arguments may be taken as information on how the current understanding of "desert" is flawed and needs to be reformed.

One of the problems with desert is that people use it to argue for a right to some things based simply on the fact of one's existence. For example, it is sometimes said that people deserve a basic standard of living. They deserve to be provided with food (so long as there is plenty of food available). This does not need to be earned, nor can it be lost. except in the case where a person may have committed a capital crime. It is interesting to note that, in the virtue of having committed a crime, one can lose one's life itself, but not one's right to food and medical care while alive. (On the other hand, one can be deprived - on the basis of desert - of the means to obtain such things. One can lose one's job, which means losing the ability to buy food and medical care. And, yet, after one has lost the means to earn these things, others are still said to be obligated to provide them.)

On top of this, there are the things deserved as rewards and punishments.

The nature of Kershner's overall project is to identify things for which a person may "deserve" something and then, for each of the standards provided, produce some sort of counter-example where the standard does not determine desert. For example, he considers the claim that desert is determined by hard work and sacrifice. Yet, he points out that a person may work hard and sacrifice for an evil project. He cannot deserve rewards or punishments based on the consequences of his action (the benefits or harms produced) since they are often a matter of luck for which the agent warrants no credit or blame. He argues that a person cannot deserve something based on their motives because people are not responsible for their motives.

Note that desirism has a different way of looking at praise and condemnation. It sees praise and condemnation as actions. The reasons for actions - the reasons to praise or condemn - are determined by the desires (or, more precisely, on the desires that it makes sense to promote) that motivate the acts of praise and condemnation. Determining what is deserved involves determining the motives behind praise and condemnation, the value of those motives, and whether good motives would motivate praise or condemnation. It is on this standard that it is deserved.

Kershnar focus his attention solely on the intrinsic properties of the person being praised or condemned and argues that none of them work. If this account of praise and condemnation is accurate, we can well expect none of them to work.

People do not deserve praise because of their virtue. They deserve praise because people generally have many and strong reasons to promote that virtue universally. On this standard, it does not matter whether the agent is "responsible" for his virtue - has the power to pick it up. What matters is the effect of the praise - whether it would be useful in promoting or strengthening that virtue in the person praised and in others.

Kershnar will likely respond that if we use this model, then praise and condemnation, reward and punishment, are independent of desert. If desert is simply interpreted as that which is due to a person strictly based on the qualities that he has that he had the ability to choose freely then . . . yes . . . I would have to agree that there is no such thing as desert. Yet, in practical purposes, even if we take this to be a part of the meaning, it is only a part of the meaning. In its practical application, it is a term that we use to direct the acts of praise and condemnation, reward and punishment, rationally. In that sense, it is still useful to have a concept of desert.

RoME 2018 11: Ultimate Meaning

Ultimate Meaning: We Don't Have It, We Can't Get It, and WE Should Be Very, Very Sad
Rivka Weinberg

Commentator: Chris Heathwood (University of Colorado Boulder)

Chair: Daniel Muñoz (MIT)

Abstract: Life is pointless. That's not okay. I will show that. I argue that a point is a valued end and that, as agents, it makes sense for us to want our efforts and enterprises to have a point. Valued ends provide justifying reasons for our acts, efforts, and projects. I further argue that ends lie separate from the acts and enterprises for which they provide a point. Since there can be no end external to one's entire life since one's life includes all of one's ends, life as a whole cannot have a point. Finally, I argue that since we live our lives and structure our living-a-human-life efforts both in parts and as a whole, it is fitting to be sad to recognize that bothering to live is pointless. My discussion helps make sense of the literature that frequently talks around this topic, but often does so vaguely and indirectly.

This paper defends the conceptual possibility and utility of permissible-wrong action. Permissible-wrong action is a moral assessment according to which agents sometimes perform wrong actions that are nonetheless permissible. Initially, this will sound like a mistake. An action cannot be both wrong and permissible, since we take wrongness and impermissibility to be interchangeable, and an action cannot be both permissible and impermissible without a straightforward contradiction. The apparent inconsistency hangs on the assumption that all morally wrong actions are morally impermissible. Driving a wedge between “impermissibility” and “wrongness” and arguing they are different types of moral assessments about actions reveals the possibility of permissible-wrong action. Permissible-wrong action helps to provide solutions to many of moral theory’s other most challenging puzzles. I focus on genuine moral dilemmas and asymmetrical assessments of permissibility in Doctrine of Double Effect cases in this paper.

It is with regret that I report that Weinberg spoke extremely quickly, prohibiting me from any hope of taking notes without fear of getting hopelessly lost in a torrent of words . . . when, in fact, I ended up getting hopelessly lost anyway.

Best made plans and all of that.

First lesson: When I give a presentation, it is my duty to communicate with the audience. This means making sure that I ask myself not only if my ideas make sense, but if I am presenting them in a way that is useful to the listener. I truly think that Weinberg's mode of presentation is a fault.

Be that as it may, let me try to see if I can reconstruct something that sounds like an argument - though I cannot guarantee that this can be attributed to the speaker.

WEinberg's goal seems to be to determine whether a whole life can have value.

To have value in the sense that she is interested in is to serve a purpose, that it aims at a valued end. This valued end has to be external or beyond that which is serving it. A hammer serves an end of constructing a house - where the construction of the house is external to the hammer. For a life to have value it, too, must serve an end.

She admits that a part of a life can have value. One can dedicate a portion of a life to some purpose - e.g., getting a law passed to provide health care to everybody in a community regardless of ability to pay. However, the question that Weinberg takes herself to be addressing is the question of whether a whole life can serve an end. However, once the project ends, then what? What end does that serve? Now, there is nothing. No purpose. Indeed, there is no purpose that serves as an end for a whole life, only as an end to a part of a life.

Desirism holds that all value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. Consequently, a life is good to the degree that the propositions p that are true of a life are those which are an object of the desires of the people who lived it. This makes it possible that an agent can desire "that I have a life with qualities Q1, Q2, Q3, . . . Qn" and discover at the end that she has lived a life with qualities Q1, Q2, Q3, . . . Qn. It is a good position to be in. I wish to have a life where I have made some contribution to the overall understanding of morality. If my life has that property, then it would have fulfilled the desires in question, which would have given it value.

If, as Weinberg argues, life has no point, what does that matter? This only matters if an agent has a desire that life have a point. In this case, the fact that life does not have a point would thwart his desire. His desire attaches some value to this not being the case. The same line of reasoning applies to a person who has a desire to serve God. If he has this desire, and there is no God, then this desire must remain unfulfilled. However, if he does not have this desire, then the fact that his life does not serve God ends up being unimportant. There is no reason to care unless there is a desire that would be served by that which the object of one's thought.

There are people who care greatly that their life serves some end that has intrinsic moral worth. We can imagine a person who desires that he live his life in service to God. He discovers that there is no God. Therefore, his life is meaningless . . . pointless . . . a waste of effort. One should not casually dismiss the severe pain that this type of revelation can have on an individual. It can be painful to the point of suicide. Having a life with meaning in this sense is that important to them.

The fact that it is extremely important to some people does not change the fact that this importance is contingent. It is not necessary that a person desires that his life serve God. This is something he was taught within an environment that praised and promoted an interest in that which can never be obtained. Somebody else can be quite content with a life that does not serve God or some sort of intrinsic good or not have a point. That person is not mistaken, just somebody with different interests.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

How Reasons Work

The following are additional posts and comments that I have made on the Desirism facebook group.

I am bringing up out of the depths of a comment section below a response I have written to the thesis that we have direct experience of evaluative valence.

My response:

I am one of those people who has experienced drugs which allows a person to experience pain without an aversion to pain. As a child, I had a severe sore throat where I refused to eat or drink anything - which was not healthy. The doctor gave my mother some pills. I took a pill and, an hour or so later, she gave me a glass of orange juice.



But, I drank the orange juice and it "felt" the same way it has been feeling. I felt the same sensation in the back of my throat.

But, I didn't care.

The reason I did not care is because "pain" is processed in two parts of the brain. The feeling is processed near the top of the skull (the somatosensory cortex). The badness of pain is experienced near the stem (the limbic system). The drug inhibited brain signals in the "I hate this" part of the brain, but the signal in the "I feel this" part of the brain was not effected.

So, I learned to distinguish pain from the aversion to pain. Pain does not have an inherent badness. Rather, we evolved to respond to feelings of pain with, "MAKE IT STOP!" because it served evolutionary purposes. The feel of pain is one thing, the MAKE IT STOPNESS!" something else entirely.

Now, if I may restate my position:

Pain is a mental state that assigns a negative value (-V) to the proposition "I am in pain" being true, which, in turn, provides the agent with a reason to prevent the realization of "I am in pain".

When it comes to an aversion to causing pain to others (a mental state that assigns -V to "I am causing pain to others") this is not a direct perception of an evaluative valence. This is an aversion, perhaps with some evolutionary foundation, but largely socially engineered through a long history of praise and condemnation, reward and punishment, inflicted on you directly, threatened hypothetically, inflicted on others in your presence, and experienced through gossip and works of fiction. All of these are processed through the reward system. Rewards and punishments do not just have to happen to you. (Thus, the importance of role models.)

These moral rules tended to be encoded in the prefrontal cortex. There is a brain pathway - the mesolimbic pathway - that connects the reward centers of the brain to the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for receiving these signals of reward and punishment - including praise and condemnation - the using them to encode these behavioral rules.

In other words, in your life you experienced a number of cases of reward and punishment, of yourself and others. These acted through your reward system to encode "do not cause pain to others" in your prefrontal cortex. And to assign to this rule a negative value (a "-V") that you can then use to compare this concern with others that might arise.

What makes morality objective is that there is a right answer to the question, "What do people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote universal desires for and aversions to?" People's beliefs and feelings on the matter do not change this truth. It is sitting out there, waiting to be discovered.

What follows now is a comment that I wrote a bit later as the discussion continued.

My mental states have a great deal of causal efficacy concerning my behavior. I can tell a nice story about how pain signals travel up the nerves in my body to my brain, where it is processed to generate signals that will then cause my actions so as to avoid similar sensations in the future. I can tell how a part of that signal will activate the mesolimbic pathway to encode a rule in the prefrontal cortex that will give me an aversion, not to pain, but to that which causes pain. A few bee and wasp stings will give me a strong dislike for bees and wasps - causing me to avoid them, not as a means for avoiding pain, but as an end in themselves. I can augment this with an evolutionary story about how the development of this system kept my ancestors alive and having children.

How does this connection between the signals travelling up the nerve endings to my brain connect to your brain to generate reasons for intentional action?

Knowing that you also have a reward system, it follows that if I want to avoid being in pain, I have reason to activate your mesolimbic pathway in such a way so as to encode in your prefrontal cortex a an aversion to causing pain to others.

In turns out that we evolved a disposition to respond to praise and condemnation the way we respond to rewards and punishment. Among animals, the bearing of teeth, growling, snarling, the relatively harmless slap of a paw, beating one's chest, signals with ears back and tail low, all represent the animal equivalent of condemnation. Grooming, smiling, hugging, the sharing of food, and sex all serve as rewards. In this way, animals control each other's behavior through systems that do not cause physical injury.

This is the system by which one animal's mental states influence another animal's mental states.

Let's apply this to a the case where I am screaming and on fire and you are holding a blanket.

IF you have an aversion to my suffering, THEN you will have a reason to act so as to help put out the fire. However, IF you have no such aversion - and if you see no other advantage (e.g., a reward or some other form of compensation - some other desire of yours that would be served by putting out the fire), then you have no reason to do so. And if you have a desire THAT I suffer the agony of being burned, then you may have been the one who lit me on fire, just to watch me suffer.

That's the difference between a good person and an evil person. A good person has those desires that people generally have reasons to promote. A good person is a person who acts in ways we have reason to praise - so as to trigger the reward systems of others to encode dispositions to engage in the same types of behavior. An evil person has reasons to act so as to cause harm to others - actions that people generally have reasons to condemn and to punish, so as to trigger the reward systems of others to encode aversions to those types of action.

If you stand and watch me burn, or if you are the person who sat me on fire so that you could watch me suffer, then that would make you the type of person that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn. They have many and strong reasons to trigger the reward systems of people generally to have an aversion to watching people suffer, and condemning and punishing you for your act would be one way to accomplish that.

The greater the distance between the reasons an agent has and the reasons she should have, the greater the evil.

Anyway, I can handle the situation where a person helps another who is on fire. And I can handle the situation where a person sets another person on fire. They have to deal with the different ways the limbic systems of the two agents are wired and the rules encoded in their prefrontal cortex through a lifetime of rewards and punishments.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

RoME 2018 08: Non-Identity Problem

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 08. Timothy Campbell
‘The Bullet-Biting Response to the Non-Identity Problem’
Commentator: Michael Tooley (University of Colorado Boulder)

Abstract: According to the bullet-biting response to the non-identity problem: Given a choice between creating a well-off child, A, and a different child, B, that is significantly worse off than A, it is not wrong to create B. David Boonin has presented an argument for the bullet-biting response. He claims that although the conclusion of his argument is implausible, the rejection of the argument is even more implausible. But Boonin’s argument is more implausible than he realizes. Three specific premises, together with what I call the existence requirement—that creating a child cannot make that child better or worse off than she would otherwise have been—jointly entail that it is not wrong to create children whose lives contain only pain and suffering. This is a damning objection. It can be avoided by rejecting the existence requirement, but this would undermine two other premises of Boonin’s argument.

This is an issue that I have written about a few times recently.

It concerns a woman, Wilma, who is given a choice between conceiving a child (Pebbles) now who will be born blind, or taking a tiny pill for two months and giving birth to a child later, Rocks, who will be a healthy child capable of leading a regular life.

Many have a moral intuition that for Wilma to conceive Pebbles now, rather than taking the pills and conceiving Rocks later, would be immoral. As I interpret it, it means that she would be deserving of condemnation.

For me, when I hear this argument, I am treated to memories growing up when I was told that I would deserve condemnation if I were to marry a black person and conceive a mixed race child, rather than marry a white person and give birth to a white child. The arguments that I heard growing up were the same arguments used here. I was told that my decision to bring the disadvantaged person into the world rather than the person who has all of the advantages of white privileged was selfish. I was, for all practical purposes, expressing a willingness to harm a child for the sake of what I want.

Of course, I would not be harming anybody. I would give that mixed-race child the best life I could, under the circumstances. If the quality of her life is less than the quality of life Rocks would enjoy, that is not my responsibility. So long as Pebbles would have, in the end, decided that she would have rather lived than not lived, then I could be content that, in giving her as much and as good as I could have given her (Pebbles), I have given her enough.

Timothy Campbell wants to reject this line of reasoning and argue for the condemnation of the Pebbles' parent - whether it be Wilma in Boonin's story, or the mixed-race child in my own.

Campell's line of reasoning is to come up with a rule that would allow us to condemn the person who wishes to parent the child that will have the lower quality of life. However, he is concerned about a parallel case in which a person is faced with a choice in which he must choose between (1) saving an existing child with the quality of life of Pebbles, or (2) replacing Pebbles with another child that will have the quality of life of Rocks. Campbell thinks that he can find the difference in the fact that failure to save Pebbles will be a "significant cost" that the would-be parent of the would-be child with the lower quality of life does not inflict on their child. Campbell's would-be rescuer is prohibited from inflicting that cost.

One objection to make here has to do with asking whether one is inflicting a cost or providing a benefit. In fact, rescuing Pebbles may be better understood as providing her with a benefit. That benefit is a continued life of a particular level of quality she can obtain in the face of her disability. Now, if we assume - as we must - that the quality of life of Pebbles rescued from the fire is identical to the quality of life of Pebbles conceived by not taking the pill, then we have no way to distinguish the two cases. If one is permissible, then so is the other.

In another part of the argument, Campbell drew a bar graph on the blackboard that indicated Pebbles' quality of life. He then drew a dotted line identifying the minimum morally respectable quality of life. However, he drew this line above that which Pebbles would enjoy. This is in spite of the fact that Pebbles would, ex hypothesi, consider her life worth living. Against this, I asked by what justification does Campbell draw the line for the minimum level of an acceptable life ABOVE where Pebbles would have drawn it for herself. Campbell at least needs to give an assumption in Pebbles' favor, that she knows the minimum acceptable quality of her life better than Campbell does, unless Campbell can override this presumption with superior evidence.

For these reasons, I conclude that Campbell has not given any good reason to condemn the parent who would intentionally choose to have a mixed-race child that would have a lower quality of life than the pure blood child he could have otherwise fathered.

Moral Realism

Another post from the Desirism page on Facebook that I wanted to stash here for safe keeping.


I claim that Desirism is a realist moral theory.

This is dangerous. When people see the terms “moral” and “realism” together they are prone to draw two quick implications, neither of which are true.

(1) Intrinsic value
(2) Mind independence.

Value realism is assumed to mean realism about intrinsic, mind independent values.

Desirism denies both of these. Values are relational properties (not intrinsic), and they relate objects of evaluation (states of affairs) to desires, which are certainly NOT mind independent.

So, can I justify using the term “realism” in this way?

First, I cannot simply switch to using the term “anti-realism” because this contains its own mistaken implications. People who see the terms “moral” and “anti-realism” together assume that morality is merely a matter of opinion. They assume that what it takes for something to be right or wrong is that the agent “feels” a certain way about it.

None of these are true either.

So, I am forced to decide which set of false assumptions I want to deal with, and those are the false assumption associated with the word “realism”. They are easier to deal with because, outside of morality, “realism” implies neither of these things. Outside of morality we are realists about relational and mind-dependent property.

Relational Properties

We are lunar realists. Moons are real. Nobody is required to be anti-realists about moons. Yet, nothing is a moon in virtue of its intrinsic properties. To be a moon, an object in space must stand in a particular relationship with something else. It must “orbit” that thing. And that something else cannot be a star. If it were a star, the object would be a planet or asteroid or comet, not a moon.

Similarly, we are realists about comparisons. We are realists about “taller than”, “more massive than”, “three feet away from.” These are real properties that can appear in any scientific paper without anybody questioning the fact that the author is describing reality.

So, “realism” does not require “intrinsic property”. One can sensibly assert that values are relational properties, but relational properties are real. Reality is filled to the brim with relational properties. Some of these relational properties are “orbits”, some are “values”.

Mind Independence

The visual cortex is real. That is the part of the brain at the back that the eyes are attached to. A scientist can include the term “visual cortex” in a scientific paper, and nobody would object that what the scientist is studying is not real. Of course it is real.

However, there can be no “visual cortex” without minds. That it is a “visual” cortex requires that there be perceptions obtained through the eyes. Perceptions require minds.

Indeed, if “realism” requires mind independence, then neuroscience cannot be a science. Any attempt to study the brain and how it functions - any attempt to study the mind - cannot be studying anything real if realism requires mind independence. The very phrase, “minds are real” would be a contradiction because “minds are real” can never be true in a universe where minds do not exist.

We can add to our list of real mind-dependent entities that are real certain illnesses or disabilities such as Parkinson’s Disease and blindness. You cannot talk about these things without talking about minds, yet we hold that they can be legitimate objects of scientific inquiry.

Do you think pain is not real? Put your hand on a hot stove and then tell me with a straight face that the pain is not real. Try doing anything with a straight face - one not distorted by the contortions of a person who is experiencing real pain.

So, mind-dependent properties are real.

Too Broad?

Have I now defined “realism” so broadly that it has lost all usefulness?

Not at all. I am not at all a realist about the meanings of terms. In English, the fact that the term “nova” means “exploding star” is not a fact of the world. It is true only because people who speak English have adopted a particular convention. In a different culture, "nova" could mean something different, like "new". In a different culture at a different time, "atom" could mean "without parts" and "malaria" could mean "bad air". It all depends on the arbitrary attitudes adopted within a culture at a time.

Scientists did not discover in a laboratory that Pluto was not a planet. Scientists, instead, have a linguistic custom of preferring to classify like objects with like. Evidence suggested that Pluto has more in common with objects in the Kuyper belt than it does with the set {Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune}. So, they sought a new set of definitions that lumped like with like. How did they settle the issue? Answer: They took a vote.

Here, one might object, "But are you not arguing that you have the one true and correct definition of 'realism'? Are you not treating realism as if it has an objectively correct definition?"

No, I am not. All of the arguments that I used made reference to conventions and practices. We have a convention, everywhere outside of morality, of taking relational properties as being real properties. We have a convention of treating the mind itself as real and as something about which we can make objectively true and false claims. I am arguing for doing the same thing to "moral realism" that astronomers did with the term "planet" - adopt a new convention that lumps like with like - that respects the fact that relationships between states of affairs and desires are real in the scientific sense.

Morality is not like this. One can make slavery legal or illegal by taking a vote, but one cannot make it right. One can adopt a social convention of


So, when I say that desirism is a realist moral theory, I should be understood as saying that I am going to use the term "realism" when we talk about morality as we use it everywhere else in science. According to this use, minds and relational properties are real. Consequently, statements describing relationships between the properties of minds (desires) and objects of evaluation are real. Moral properties are real. Somebody may believe that people generally have many and strong reasons to sacrifice the virgin in the volcano, and it may be a cultural tradition to do so, but, in both cases, they are wrong. Objectively wrong.

Monday, August 13, 2018

RoME 2018 07: Moral Reasons

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 07: Anne Jeffrey
How to Get Metaphysical About Moral Reasons Without Losing Your Mind Dependence”

Commentator: Michael Bukoski (Florida State University)

Abstract: This paper proposes a way of being serious about the metaphysics of moral reasons (as serious as the robust realist) while embracing the thesis that moral reasons are mind dependent (usually forwarded by the quasi- and anti-realist). The view I introduce to do this work is what I call Moral Reasons Hylomorphism. According to Moral Reasons Hylomorphism, moral reasons are objective entities whose existence and persistence conditions are determined by certain of an agent’s mental capacities, and whose contents—that is, what they count in favour of or against—depend on certain of an agent’s mental states. I defend the hylomorphic account by showing how it uniquely solves a familiar puzzle arising from metaphysical and conceptual assumptions about moral reasons while avoiding pitfalls of other mind-dependent accounts.

I had difficulty understanding this presentation. Allow me to try to explain it as best as I can.

The first problem I had is that I had no idea what "Hylomorphism" is, and the author did not explain it. Perhaps she suspected that we all already knew what it was - and perhaps I should have already known what it was. But, I did not. Fortunately, about 5 minutes into the presentation while being totally lost, I remembered that had come to the presentation with Google, so I asked Google what this was.

Google told me, "Hylomorphism is a view that physical objects result from the combination of matter and form."

A statue exists not only in virtue of the matter which makes up the statue existing, but with the statue having a particular form. The same is true of a particular person - who is made up of certain organs, but also depends on those organs being structured in a particular way.

It would seem, then, that Jeffrey wants to argue that moral reasons can be understood as some sort of combination between matter and form, and this would solve some problems that people are thought to have with respect to moral reasons.

Those problems have to do with moral reasons having two properties:

(1) Moral reasons must be action-guiding or motivating.

(2) Moral reasons must be objective.

The problem with these two properties is that they seem to not be compatible. In order to guide or motivate action, a moral reason must be one or more of the agent's mental states - a state that is capable of causing an intentional action and, at the same time, still allow that the intentional action is the agent's intentional action. Whereas objectivity seems to require that the moral reason exist as something outside and independent of the agent's mental states. As can be expected, it is difficult for something to be both one or more of the agent's mental states and independent of the agent's mental states.

And . . . that is about as far as I could go with this presentation. I cannot explain how Jeffrey thought that Hylomorphism about moral reasons would solve this problem. I cannot even say how Jeffrey thought that moral reasons were hylomorphic.

I am sorry that I could not do better.

I will add a comment about how desirism handles this issue. Moral reasons are not action-guiding. Moral reasons have to do with the desires and aversions that other people have - specifically, reasons that they have to praise or condemn conduct in order to create mental states in the agent. Morality is not concerned with the mental states an agent has, but with the mental states the agent should have. Naturally, if the agent had those mental states they would motivate her action. In the absence of those mental states, the agent lacks reason to do what is right (or, at least, lacks the right reasons), and that is what makes her evil.

However, this does not pay any attention to the concept of "hylomorphism". So, I regret, I cannot really even provide a summary of Jeffrey's views on this matter.

RoME 2018 06: Praise

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 05: Nathan Stout
“I Have To Praise You Like I Should”

Commentator: T.M. Kwiatek (Cornell University)

Abstract: In recent years there has been an explosion of philosophical work on blame. Much of this work has focused on explicating the nature of blame or on examining the norms that govern it, and the primary motivation for theorizing about blame seems to derive from blame’s tight connection to responsibility. However, very little philosophical attention has been given to praise and its attendant practices. In this paper, I identify three possible explanations for this lack of attention. My goal is to show that each of these lines of thought is mistaken and to argue that praise is deserving of careful, independent analysis by philosophers interested in theorizing about responsibility.

The main focus of this paper is to argue for a study of praise as something distinct from the study of blame. Praise has not gotten much analysis at a time when many people are talking about blame. As such, Stout is going to present many interesting facts about praise. Over the course of the discussion he will be saying some interesting things about blame as well.

In advance, I want to note a bit of what desirism has to say about praise. Praise is an action. As such, the reasons for praising are the same types of reasons that provide reasons for other types of actions - to fulfill the desires of the agent who performs the praising.

I also wish to note that Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder in the book In Praise of Desire uses a different set of distinctions than Stout does, and I think those distinctions make sense. Specifically, Arpaly and Stout deny that praise is the opposite of blame. Blame, they argue, is an attitude, while praise is an act. I can blame a co-owner of my business for the decline in profitability last year without doing anything, but if I praise her I must perform an action. The true opposite of blame, according to the authors, is credit. That is to say, I can credit my co-owner for an increase in profitability last year without doing anything. And the true opposite of praise is condemnation, which is also an action.

This may have an impact on some of Stout's arguments.

Stout attempts to demonstrate that there are several ways in which praise is not the opposite of blame.

Stout argues that a person is blameworthy for doing the wrong thing for bad reasons, but it is not the case that a person is "praiseworthy" for doing the right thing for right actions. Many right actions are not praiseworthy. However, this may be a result of the failure to draw proper distinctions as mentioned above. Act-types are typically divided into three categories, not two. These are: obligatory, permissible, and prohibited. If Stout puts the sole category of "prohibited" and sets it up to match "blameworthy", then sets both categories of "obligatory" and "permissible" up against "praiseworthy", then this could account for the lack of parallel structure. We would need to ask whether the parallel structure could be preserved by matching "praiseworthy" with "obligatory" and "blameworthy" with "prohibited".

Strictly speaking, this does not seem to raise any objections. The parallel structure is broken in part because "the right and the good" contain a category of supererogatory actions (praiseworthy actions that are not obligatory), whereas there is no similar category on the blameworthy/prohibited side. That, itself, suggests a distinction.

Stout also mentioned that blame always has an affect (emotional component) but praise does not. That is to say, when we blame somebody, it seems to always be the case that there is some form of contempt lurking in the background. However, praise can be heartless.

There is polite praise but not polite blame. Everybody who asks a question in a presentation must begin by praising the speech. This called into my mind the custom of tipping. It seems obligatory to give a tip, even in some case regardless of service, where tipping in one sense seems to have been meant at as a way of expressing praise. I can gratuitously give people something good, but may not gratuitously harm them. I can freely give somebody $100, but not so freely take $100 away.

Stout further argues that blame suffers from a problem of hypocrisy that does not apply to praise. We disregard blame when it comes from somebody who does what he condemns, but bit praise when one does what the praise giver does not do.

Finally, a lack of capacity reduces blame, but seems to expand praise. A child may escape blame due to a lack of capacity, but the praise of children is not limited due to lower capacity. Indeed, children seem to get extra praise. Indeed, children are praised for actions expected from adults. However, we expect these actions from adults on the assumption that they received proper moral education as a child.

Note that desirism sets praise and condemnation on a foundation of molding desires. The use of praise and condemnation is to trigger the reward system. However, praise and condemnation are also actions that are themselves governed by reasons, and the reasons to praise and condemn is not limited to molding desires. Other interests also motivate (provide reasons to do or forbear) praise and condemnation. This is an example where it is tempting to argue (falsely) that there is only one morally relevant reason to praise or condemn. This is as false here as it was in Session 01.


This is another post taken from the Desirism group site on Facebook


This is a sticky subject.

Desirism is not a tolerant moral system. It is all about using rewards and punishments, including praise and condemnation, to alter how others think. Punishment and condemnation are not polite actions.

At the same time, desirism pays attention to psychological facts. Indeed, the fact that people have a reward system and that this gives us the ability to influence others through the use of rewards and punishments is central to desirism.

Please note, rewards and punishments are not being used here to provide incentives and deterrence. That is a possible and, sometimes, legitimate use. However, desirism concerns the use of these tools to alter sentiments (desires) themselves.

Condemn the racist, the sophist, and the thief and the hope is not only that people will refrain from acts of racism, sophistry, and theft as a means of avoiding condemnation. The hope is that people will adopt an aversion to racism, sophistry, and theft. The goal is to cause people to have an attitude of contempt and disgust towards such people.

It is hoped that this will motivate people to refrain from performing these types of acts even when they can otherwise benefit, and when they can avoid getting caught. “I hate these types of people and I certainly do not want to be one.”

Desirism is intolerant of racists, sophists, and thieves.

It is tolerant of homosexuals. But this is not because. “Tolerance is good.” It is because homosexual acts - and being constituted so as to find value in such relationships - is not bad. There are no reasons to find it intolerable.

Having said this, we must recognize some other relevant facts about human beings.

First, humans are self-centered. They are prone to condemn “that which I do not like” rather than “that which people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.” Consequently, people are disposed to condemn things that are not wrong. To fight against this danger, we have reason to promote a certain type of tolerance. This type says, “Just because you don’t like it, that does not imply that it’s wrong.” People must be taught to tolerate that which they merely dislike. This does not imply tolerance towards what people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.

Second, people are arrogant. People tend to think of themselves as paradigms of wisdom and virtue. This s a main cause of sophistry, drunk driving, and other forms of recklessness. “I do not need to be careful. I have super powers” this arrogance causes people to be too quick to condemn and punish. Pay attention to the misplaced condemnation you encounter and you will often find yourself squinting against the speaker’s glaring ego and arrogance.

Third, humans are tribal.

This element is particularly important and needs some more detailed development.

Condemnation works as advertised when two people belong to the same tribe. This likely has an evolutionary foundation. The brain structures that make condemnation effective evolved in an environment where people lived in small tribes. Tribal members primarily used these tools on each other.

Research suggests that condemnation by a member of one tribe against members of another tribe not only fails, it produces the opposite effect. It reinforces the attitude one is condemning, and it drives the members of the other tribe together and binds them on this trait that is being attacked.

In fact, the members of this other tribe views condemnation as an attack. They view the person condemning them, and the tribe that person represents, as hostile and as a threat. They huddle together for usual ai and support against this threat. The very quality that one condemns becomes the very quality that distinguishes friend (ally) from foe. The effect tends to be to motivate the whole tribe to rally around an even more extreme version of that for which they are being attacked.

Ironically, condemning a tribe for extremism tends to cause them to become adopt even more extreme ideas.

And don’t think that you are immune. If you are a human being, then you embrace some attitudes more strongly because other tribes have attacked your tribe on those grounds and you are using it to bond with others in your tribe.

Me, too.

So, how are we to engage in inter-tribal condemnation, for certainly members of other rival tribes are sometimes wrong.

Answer: Don’t. You will just make things worse. Or, more precisely, do not turn it into an inter-tribal conflict.

Condemn the individual as an individual and the specific act type as an act-type deserving condemnation. You criticism will automatically universalize to anybody who fits that description, regardless of tribe.

Condemn the Muslim terrorist for being a terrorist, not for being a Muslim. Condemn the Republican racist for being a racist, not for being a Republican. That is, unless you want more terrorism and more racism, in which case, you’re doing fine.

This, then represents another type of tolerance. This argues for tribal tolerance and respect, but not act-type or attitude tolerance and respect. It argues for addressing wrong act-types and bad attitudes effectively, rather than using methods tha5 actually make the situation worse.

In short, we actually have reason to condemn the practice of expressing condemnation as attacking a tribe, rather than attacking an act-type or attitude. indeed, our justification for condemning wrongs in inter-tribal terms is grounded explicitly on the idea that one out not to encourage the types of act and attitudes that deserve condemnation.[/I]

Saturday, August 11, 2018

RoME 2018 05: Good Reasons for Action

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 05: Keshav Singh
“The Right “Right Reasons” Theory of Rationality”

Abstract: According to an influential way of thinking about the rationality of actions, beliefs, and other rationally evaluable responses, rationality is a matter of correctly responding to one’s reasons. Relevant theories of rationality hold that when one acts or believes (etc.) for reasons that are in some sense the ‘right reasons,’ one is thereby rational. In this paper, I argue that several recent versions of this ‘right reasons’ approach fail because they are committed to too thin a conception of what it is to correctly respond to reasons. Whether they hold that rationality consists in responding to objective normative reasons, or merely apparent reasons, such theories all take responding to reasons to consist in having a range of reasons-sensitive dispositions. I argue that because such dispositions can’t ground creditworthiness, they can’t explain why responding rationally is a way of being creditworthy for one’s responses. I conclude that we need a more robust conception of responding to reasons that involves the representational capacities of the agent.

Rationality is correctly responding to the right reasons for action.

This invites us to ask two questions: (1) What is a right reason? (2) What is it to correctly respond to such a reason?

Singh is interested in the first of these questions: what counts as the "right reasons"? In this, he examines two potential answers to this question:

One family of responses says that the "right reasons" are objective facts, and that correctly responding to right reasons involves correctly responding to those objective facts. If the forecast calls for rain tomorrow, then rationality involves correctly responding to this objective fact by wearing a raincoat.

As a counter to this, I would like to note that I often go out without a raincoat simply because avoiding getting wet is not worth the bother. More generally, wearing a raincoat is only a correct response to the objective fact of a forecast for rain if one had a reason to avoid getting wet, one had no other option for avoiding the rain (staying inside until it was over), and the burden of getting wet was greater than the burden of dealing with a raincoat. So, now, what is the correct response to an objective reason?

The objection to objective reasons accounts that Singh discusses is known in the literature as the "new evil demon objection". This asks us to imagine a world that is much like ours - at least from the agent's point of view - except that everything is being manipulated by an evil demon. An agent in this world is responding to a evil demon's manipulation to generate a forecast of rain, rather than an objective fact of rain. All of the agent's decisions are made from the same kind of evidence, but the agent is not responding to objective facts.

Another option was a set of theory that defined rationality in terms of competent response to reasons. However, this seems to simply push the questions concerning rationality back a bit - as we now have to determine what counts as competence.

Much of the discussion of this topic centered around the question of whether to call an attribution of rationality a statement of praise.

One argument in favor of the credit/blame approach is that it handles the new evil demon problem. Because the person in the real world and the person in the demon-run world are coming to the same conclusions based on the same reasons, there would be no sense in claiming that one deserves credit while the other deserves blame. Their levels of creditworthiness and blameworthiness seem identical. Though this does cause me to ask whether we may be begging the question. Perhaps we now need to ask what makes some forms of reasoning creditworthy and others blameworthy.

Mark Boespflug, who commented on the paper. Commenter Mark Boespflug tried to separate rationality from creditworthiness by identifying a number of cases in which rationality exists but creditworthiness does not exist. For example, beliefs formed from perception are rational, but the agent who forms such a belief does not deserve any praise or credit for this.

Against Boespflug's objections, it was brought out that many of our intentional actions (e.g., my correctly spelling the word 'word' on this example) are not praiseworthy either. This is because it is a morally neutral act. However, it is still within the realm of intentional actions and, while I deserve no praise if I were to correctly spell a word, I would deserve some condemnation for incorrect spelling (unless it was done for some other purpose such as to make a point). Analogously, an agent may not be praiseworthy for adopting a belief based on perception, but may be blameworthy for failure to do so.

A credit/blame theory of rationality would require - as Singh himself argues - that rationality be attributable to an agent. It must, in some way, be "me" forming the beliefs before somebody can sensibly be crediting or blaming me with attributions of rationality or irrationality

On the desirism account, backed by some research that appeared in In Praise of Desire by Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder, a trait is attributable if it is linked in some way to the reward centers of the brain (the center of desires). That is to say, the consequence must, in some way, be influenced by desires. The empirical research shows that people who perform actions not mediated by the reward center (e.g., Turrett Syndrome) do not experience the actions as "theirs" or attribute it to themselves, but as something that happens to them. If we follow this model, then rationality properly so called must be based on dispositions that are, at least, capable of being influenced by activity in the reward system. This is not to say that the belief comes directly from desire, but that the belief comes from habits or dispositions that can be influenced (improved upon or changed) as a result of desire-dependent actions. Arpaly and Schroeder provide evidence that deliberation itself is an act - often an intentional act - and the motivation to perform such acts comes from the reward center.

There seems to be some merit to this credit/blame conception of rationality. However, I have no opportunity to go into this topic further at this time. It is something worth keeping in mind.

RoME 2018 03: Perfectionist Bads

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 03: Gwen Bradford
“Perfectionist Bads?”

Abstract: Pain, failure, and friendlessness, all make a life intrinsically worse. In spite of the obviousness of their badness, it is difficult to explain. There are many theories of wellbeing that give accounts of our good, but it is a challenge not just to name what is bad, but also to explain why it is bad and how it is related to what is good. Perfectionism has particular difficulty in accounting for bads. Otherwise, it is a theory that has quite a lot in its favour. This paper explores some ways that perfectionism can potentially account for bads. Ultimately, a new framework for perfectionism is proposed: tripartite perfectionism. In the end, perfectionism has more resources than previously acknowledged, and can explain bads in its own terms.

Perfectionism is a theory that states that there is a number of things that have intrinsic value such as knowledge, friends, health, and that the quality of life is determined by the accumulation of these ends. To explain these ends, the perfectionist looks at aspects of human nature. We are rational , knowing creatures, so knowledge is a perfectionist good. We are social creatures, so friendships are good.

Gwen Bradford notes that perfectionist theories have problems accounting for badness. Badness is more than just the absence of goodness. The badness of pain, for example, is not the absence of some good-making function.

Bradford examines and rejects a number of attempts to deal with this problem:

Option 1: Instrumental Bads. One way to attempt to account for badness in the perfectionist system is to say that, while there are no intrinsic bads, there are instrumental bads. Nothing is bad in itself - it is only bad in virtue of its consequences. Pain, for example, is bad because it prevents one from doing studying, or from getting around, or from doing many of the things that a person pursuing the things made good by her nature would pursue. However, it seems simply false to say the only thing wrong with pain is its instrumental badness. Besides, some pain is instrumentally good. In fact, we evolved to have pain precisely because it is useful - it directs the agency with a disposition to behave in ways that avoid pain, which helps it to avoid states that are detrimental to the being's success.

Option 2: Intrinsic Bads. This option adds a list of intrinsic bads to the list of intrinsic goods grounded on human nature. However, this option has problem coming up with a foundation for badness. All good things are thought to have a common type of foundation - a human capacity - for knowledge and understanding of the world, for friendships, for health. If one adds intrinsic badness to the list, then this must somehow find its foundation in some aspect of human capacity, or it seems arbitrary and ad-hoc.

Option 3: Inhibited capacities. In the attempt to link badness to capacities, this tries to link badness to states that inhibit the exercise of the capacities. (I find it difficult to see how this is distinguished from the instrumental bads option.) The inhibition of a capacity should not be confused with the absence of a capacity - the latter would have neutral or no value. A capacity is hindered or blocked by facing actual opposition. not like this option because, in part, some challenge is good. The person who overcomes a challenge to climb a mountain or to acquire an understanding of some difficult field of understanding in fact obtains more good by exercising that capacity in the face of difficulties.

Having rejected these options, Bradford offers her won proposal. She suggests a "Tripartite View." The exercise of a capacity can result in (1) success, (2) a null result, or (3) failure. For example, in exercising our capacity to acquire knowledge, we can either succeed (acquire knowledge), obtain a neutral result (no new knowledge), or fail (acquire a false belief). These negative results of exercising our capacities are the things that are bad. She calls this "malfillment" of a capacity.

The test case for perfectionist theories seems to be that of pain. Bradford seeks to argue that we can understand the badness of pain as a failure of exercising the capacity of practical rationality. An end of practical rationality includes the avoidance of pain. The malfilment of practical rationality is pain.

But, what is it that makes pain a failure of practical rationality? As I see it, we have to identify pain as bad - as something to be avoided - before we declare that one of the goals of practical rationality is to avoid pain. The experience of pain is not bad because it is a failure of the exercise of the capacity of practical rationality. The experience of pain is a failure of practical rationality because it is bad.

Furthermore, if we need an account of why pain is bad, this is sufficiently well understood in terms of our biological history - the theory of evolution. We evolved to have an aversion to pain because this aversion to pain causes us to live longer and have more and healthier children. Pain has further evolved to become a part of the learning system - pain is processed in a way that it creates dispositions for behavior so that agents avoid, for its own sake, those things that come to result in pain.

I am also going to object, of course, that a perfectionist cannot account for the goodness of exercising a capacity. In one sense, we can defend the goodness in virtue of the fact that the capacity serves some evolutionary purpose or we would not have acquired it. (A proper understanding of evolutionary theory implies that this is not strictly true - but it is true in general.) But, then, the ends of evolution are not good in themselves - they are the unintended side effects that have influenced natural selection. They are not intrinsic values.

I am going to stick with the desire fulfillment theory of goodness and badness. X is good = X is such as to fulfill the desires in question. X is bad = X is such as to thwart the desires in question. All else is neutral.

Friday, August 10, 2018

RoME 2018 02: Hedonism and Monism

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 02: Adam Shriver (Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics)
“Is Hedonism a Version of Axiological Monism?”

This presentation concerned the issue of whether hedonism is a monistic theory of value. More specifically, it asked whether pleasure and pain were tow versions of the same overall value, or two different types of value. It asked whether hedonism was a monistic or dualistic theory of value.

Just for contrast, desirism is a pluralistic theory. It holds that each desire identifies its object as an end. This is why a person can feel regret if they find themselves in a situation where fulfilling one desire results in the thwarting of another. That other desire still identifies a separate end, which has its own value, and a reason to regret being unable to realize that value. If the choice between realizing different desires were realizing different intensities of the same value then, like having to choose between $10 or $5, one does not regret the choice of $10 because one lost out on the ability to obtain $5.

Be that as it may, Shriver argued against hedonistic monism, arguing that pleasure and pain are two different things. Desirism, of course, holds that the desire for pleasure and the aversion to pain are two different mental states.

More specifically, Shriver argues that we need positive and negative value.

An objection to hedonistic monism is that there appears to be an asymmetry regarding pleasure and pain. It is more important to avoid intense pain than to obtain intense pleasure. People are more strongly motivated to avid pain than to obtain pleasure.

As an example of our different regard for pleasure and pain, Shriver brings up an example that we consider it a particularly bad thing to bring a child into the world that will suffer extreme pain, but not to fail to bring a child into the world that will experience great pleasure. This particular example does not work, I think, because it seems to assume that the pleasure or pain of another person has an intrinsic value property. It assumes pleasure and pain to be intrinsic values to be maximized or minimized, rather than agent-centered reasons for action. I wish to dismiss these types of concerns because of a false assumption of intrinsic merit. Still, the first accounts are applicable to pleasure and pain as agent-centered reasons. However, the agent-centered reasons still show that we do not adopt parallel attitudes towards pleasure and pain, suggesting that they are two different kinds of values.

Furthermore, an examination of the scientific findings of pleasure and pain show that they are processed in different ways in different parts of the brain. The idea that there are higher and lower pleasures has run into the problem of discoveries showing that what are considered higher pleasures and lower pleasures are processed in the brain the same way. The idea that they are distinct types of pleasure seems not to hold up. Yet, pleasures and pains show up as having different processes, which at least refutes one possible argument that they could be the same.

Shriver also mentioned the distinction between wanting and liking - the distinction between motivational force and affective response. In the realm of pleasure, we can motivated by things we do not like, and like things we are not motivated to bring about. Shriver argues that this does not seem to be the case with respect to pain. We hate pain, AND we are motivated to avoid it. These two seem to be linked. (NOTE: I am not entirely sure that this is the case. As somebody who has experienced pain that I did not mind - that I had no aversion to - as a result of being given certain drugs for pain when I was a child, I think it is quite possible to separate pain from motivation.)

This still leaves the problem of how to combine pleasure and pain to get a single overall result - to motivate a single action when one facts options of acquiring pleasure and avoiding pain.

Desirism already has an answer for this. It uses the analogy of forces. We know how to add together different forces - electromagnetic, gravitational, etc. - without being a force monist. We can still allow that these are different forces. Each desire and aversion has a direction (the realization of that which is desired) and a magnitude (motivational force). We can combine these force values as we combine the values of physical forces to get an overall motivational vector. This no more requires monism in desires/aversions than it does in physics.

The Wrongness of Slavery

I posted this on Facebook. I thought I would put a copy here for future reference:

[I]From the dawn of civilization until about 150 years ago, people widely approved of slavery.

Yet, slavery was always wrong.

Slavery was always wrong because it was always the case that people generally (including the slaves, including any who may be enslaved, including anybody who cares about somebody who may be enslaved, including anybody concerned by those harmed by the harmful effects of approval of slavery, had many and strong reasons to promote a universal condemnation of slavery.

This view does not require that everybody has overwhelming reasons to promote an aversion to slavery. Some people may have more and stronger reasons to support slavery - the slave masters, for example. Yet, in such a situation, it would also be true that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who approve of slavery - to condemn the masters. It s still the case that slavery is wrong.

Furthermore, the wrongness of slavery does not depend on people believing it is wrong.

The fact that a particular view is held within a society - even if it is unanimously held - does not make it right. A society can believe that they have reasons to sacrifice a virgin by throwing her in a volcano. They can unanimously agree that they have such a reason. Yet, they can still be mistaking.

Similarly, the reasons that people generally have to promote an aversion to slavery exist regardless of whether the people believe that they exist. There is a fact of the matter - a fact to be determined if we were to look at the implications of living in a society where people had an aversion to impose such harms on other people for their own benefit as is represented by the institution of slavery.

Indeed, one piece of evidence that suggests (though does not prove) that slavery is wrong is that, if there were a single person to emerge in that society who were to claim, "slavery is wrong," and to give those reasons, then he would be correct and everybody else would be mistaken. This is not true unless it is the case that everybody was still mistaken even if this person did not exist.

Now, the next question that comes up is the culpability for slavery in those times and places where it was considered permissible. Are those people living in societies that endorsed slavery morally blamable for being supporters of slavery?


There are non-culpable errors. We cannot blame Ptolemy for having a false belief that the Earth was the center of the universe.

However, blaming and praising are actions that we perform. This means that we have to look at the reasons we have for performing them to determine if they are justified or not.

This means that the question of blame is a question about whether we are justified in condemning.

On that measure, we have many and strong reasons to make it clear that the attitudes that those people had towards slavery were attitudes are to be shunned. People ought not to adopt to those attitudes. To fail to blame the slave owner is to say that, under those circumstances, slavery is permissible. One is not saying, "slavery is wrong but they did not know it". To fail to blame them is to say "slavery was not wrong - and they were correct to their judgment."

Thomas Jefferson regularly raped his young teenage slave Sally Hemmings. Do we say that such actions deserve no condemnation - that it is morally permissible to rape young teenage slaves in the situations like those that Thomas Jefferson was in? Even if we note that others at Jefferson's time, would have condemned the action as adultery, they did not condemn it as rape.

Furthermore, if we are not to blame them for their faults, then consistency demands that we not credit them for their virtues. We praise them for their virtues as a way of promoting those virtues today. For the same types of reasons they deserve our condemnation for their vices - to promote the idea that having such attitudes makes one worthy of condemnation.

One final consideration to throw in here is that we praise and condemn fictional characters. It is absurd to think that our moral judgment of fictional characters depends on the thought that we can change - or they could have had - a different attitude than the author assigned to them. We praise and condemn fictional characters as an expression of - and as a way of promoting - certain attitudes among living people. The praise and condemnation of historical characters follows suit.

So, then, this is how desirism handles the wrongness of slavery, and the culpability of slave owners.[/I]

RoME 2018 01: Resisting Oppression

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 01: Tamara Fakhoury (UNC Chapel Hill)
“Forbidden Projects and Harm Independent Grounds to Resist Oppression”

Abstract: Oppression is a serious injustice and everyone ought to resist it if they can. But what are the moral grounds of this obligation for oppressed persons, and what does fulfilling it entail for each one of us, given that we are differently situated in our means, abilities, and knowledge of oppression? On one consequentialist view, the only reason people morally ought to resist oppression is in order to lessen its unjustifiable harms. For them, only acts that are reasonably likely to lessen the harms of oppression count towards fulfilling the obligation to resist. I argue that we should recognize additional grounds to resist oppression that are independent of reducing its harms. Insofar as relationships of love might also generate obligations to resist, victims of oppression can fulfill those obligations through acts that do not aim to primarily to reduce oppression’s overall effects and that may even increase the oppressiveness of their individual situation.

From the point of view of desirism, the very claim that, “the only reason people morally ought to . . . “ is problematic. No person exists with only one desire - one motive. So, there is no possibility that an agent can ever act on only one reason.

The closest we can get to this is for our many and various reasons to motivate us to adopt a rule that has only one criterion. In making investments, a person can adopt a rule that says, “Invest only in that mutual fund that has the highest 10-year rate of return.” Such a person can still be motivated by such things as care for the environment, love for her spouse and children, a fondness for pumpkin pie, and still judge that this principle is the best expression of her desires. These provide the motives for adopting a rule that examines only one criterion. These motives include concerns over the efficient use of her time, and evaluation as to the effectiveness of researching other options as opposed to using her time elsewhere better fulfilling those other desires. All of these may recommend, in a specific case, a rule with only one criterion.

However, the only way in which this can justify the thesis that the only morally legitimate reason to resist oppression is reduction of harm, it must be the case that, for each person, a consideration of all of his or her desires suggests a practical rule having only one criterion. Even then, this is a practical rule, not a moral. rule.

Even if we further qualify the input to consider only morally legitimate reasons, those reasons concern not only good desires and bad desires but morally neutral desires - the desires that motivate optional choices such as what to eat, what to read, where to shop, who to befriend, and what to do for entertainment.

All of this goes to say that the thesis that Fakhoury is arguing against is an implausible thesis to begin with, so she begins with a significant advantage.

Fakhoury argues that a love for a forbidden project also provides a morally praiseworthy reason to resist oppression. This is true, she claims, even if it is not likely to be effective in reducing material and psychological harms.

I could apply this to a case of somebody such as David Hume, who studied moral philosophy in a culture where his disregard for religious morality had a negative impact on his ability to get a job at a university. One can embellish Hume's case and make it one where official retaliation against him for his work could have brought about even greater harms to others as well, as it increases the diligence of enforcement. Consequently, his pursuit of this passion would not reduce the harms of oppression. Yet, somebody like Hume may continue to pursue the project precisely because he has a passion for understanding morality.

Please note, I am not saying that this Humesque person is acting out of a project of maximizing social utility. It is his love for moral philosophy that motivates his action, not any concern for the public good. This is his project.

The position that this is not morally permissible - that the only motive that is morally permissible is to reduce the harm of oppression - implies not only that the agent must not act on such a passion, but is not permitted to have such a passion. To even have a desire to understand morality is to be in a state where, if the harms of pursuing the project versus the harms of not doing so are nearly balanced, but the harms of not pursuing the project are slightly greater, the love of the project will tilt the motivational scales in favor of engaging in the forbidden project anyway. The only way to prevent this type of situation from arising is to have no interest - no passion - for anything other than the reduction of harm from oppression. This conclusion seems to reduce the original position to absurdity.

Once again, I want to make clear that I am siding with Fakhoury against the harm-minimizing ethicist.

Another part of the thesis that Fakhoury argues against states that one ought to weigh one's own interests equally to those of others. Fakhoury accurately claims that this is not possible. For my part, an agent can only act on his or her desires. Insofar as an interest or desire that is not one's own causes an intentional action, then that action belongs to the person whose interests motivated it. If I were to hook up a machine that allows me to control your body through remote control, the actions that your body engages in would be my actions, not yours. I would be culpable for any wrongdoing committed by your body, not you.

So, to consider all interests equally would require that an agent himself have only one desire - a desire to fulfill all interests impartially considered. This is an unreasonable conclusion for any moral theory.

In her response to the paper, Amy Berg (Rhode Island College) argued that a consequentialist can understand consequences in terms of the fulfillment of any desire, and not just a desire to reduce the harms of the oppression. Thus, the thwarting of a project would, itself, count as a harm, and the pursuit of the project would count as reducing the harms of oppression.

To be fair, this objection was not applicable to Fakhoury, who was arguing against a specific view identified above. However, this does not imply that it lacks merit.

Yet, this would still require that the agent have only one project - a project of maximizing desire (project) fulfillment. For this to be the only motivating force is for this to be the only desire or interest or project that the agent has. This is not only a non-human ethics, it is not even coherent.

So, in short, the motivation to fight oppression can come from any morally legitimate desire. Hatred of oppression, love for one's children and a desire to secure a better future for them, and even a desire for fame and reputation. The latter, though not the most noble of desires, is still legitimate.