Friday, May 27, 2016

"A Good Life" Vs "The Life of a Good Person"

Is "Living the life of a good person" compatible with "Having a good life?"

Well, not directly. And it doesn't really matter all that much. But, indirectly, yes.

I am understanding a good life as a life that sees the fulfillment of one's self-regarding desires. The life of a good person is a life lived by a person who has those desires that people generally have reason to promote and lacks those desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.

The desires that people generally have reason to promote are generally going to be desires that tend to fulfill the desires of other people. A desire does not have to be other-regarding to fulfill the desires of other people; it can be a self-regarding desire that tends to fulfill the desires of others as a side effect. However, it is not unreasonable to expect that other-regarding desires are going to have a big advantage in this calculation.

Similarly, the desires that people generally have reason to inhibit are self-regarding desires - particularly those that thwart the desires of others.

Inhibiting self-regarding desires is not the same as thwarting self-regarding desires. There is a difference between the case in which an agent has a desire the P and P is false (the desire is thwarted) and one in which an agent has no interest in P and P is false. Since a good life is a life in which one's self-regarding desires are fulfilled, causing people to lack certain self-regarding interests, or weakening those self-regarding interests to the point that the agent cares little about them, will subtract nothing to little from "a good life".

Yet, in some cases, the other-regarding desires of morality will be set to override and force the thwarting of the agent's stronger self-regarding desires. This implies self-sacrifice in the name of being a good person.

So, why be moral?

There are two important things to note about the actions of a good person.

First, the good person still gets what matters most to him.

A person has $20000 to spend. He could spend it on a luxurious vacation, or he can donate it to an organization that is working to protect children from malaria.

Let's look at the vacation options. Our agent would really like a South Seas Island vacation, but would like a European vacation even more. She sacrifices the South Sea vacation for the European vacation, but she still gets that which she wants most.

Now, we give this agent an other-regarding interest in the health and well-being of children. We make this desire stronger than the desire for a vacation. The agent now sacrifices the European vacation for the sake of protecting the health and welfare of several children.

This agent is still doing what he wants most. He is, in effect, buying the thing that it is most important for him to buy with his money - the health and well-being of a number of children. In a sense, for the good person, acting to protect children rather than go on vacation is the same type of decision as the decision to go to Europe rather than the South Seas.

This still counts as an act of self- sacrifice. The agent is sacrificing self-regarding desires in order to fulfill other-regarding desires. However, for the good person, the sacrifice is still made for the sake of something he wants more than a European vacation.

Second, that which is other-person-regarding for the agent serves the self-regarding interests of others.

When the person contributes $20,000 to protect children from malaria, he is serving the self-regarding interests of those children.

If our agent is a part of a generally moral community then, at the same time she is acting on her other-regarding desires, so are others. She will be living in a community where others generally tell the truth, try to help those in dire need, keep promises, repay debts, refuse to take the property of others without consent, and refrain from acts of violence except in the defense of the innocent and helpless.

Living in this type of society will make it easier for the agent to actually fulfill more of even her self-regarding desires than living in a community of selfish, lying, violent, thieving murderers.

Consequently, by forming a community whose members take part in institutions that successfully promote other-regarding desires generally, many of her self-regarding interests (and, of these, particularly the strongest of those interests - the interests that people generally would want to secure) are protected.

As an added benefit, our agent will also be better able to fulfill her other-regarding interests in such a society.

So, back to our original question.

Is living the life of a good person compatible with living a good life?

Not directly. A good person has a number of other-regarding desires that will sometimes outweigh and thwart the self-regarding desires, the fulfillment of which makes up a good life.

But it doesn't matter. The good person who is fulfilling other-regarding desires is still doing what she wants most to do. What she is sacrificing is simply of less importance to her than what she is accomplishing.

And, indirectly, yes it is. One's self-regarding desires (particularly one's strongest self-regarding desires) have a greater chance of fulfillment in a community filled with people having other-regarding interests than it is in a community of selfish, lying, thieving murderers.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Heathwood's Theory of Well-Being - Part 5 - Mental State Theories

Some philosophers do not like mental state theories, often for these two reasons: (i) a person can be radically deceived about his situation and still lead a good life according to such theories; and (ii) a life filled with only ‘‘base pleasures’’ is still a good one (at least according the mental state theory currently under consideration). ("Desire Satisfactionism and Hedonism" (Philosophical Studies, 2006, 128:539-563). 
I do not like mental state theories.

However, I think that only the first of these objections gives good reason to reject mental state theories.

The second objection does not work. There is no standard by which we can judge a desire to actually be "base" - other than the fact that somebody has an aversion to it. However, if this is the case, we have the thwarting of the second-order desire to use to evaluate it. Doing so any other way seems to require a claim of intrinsic value or external reasons - an appeal to value entities that do not exist.

However, the first objection has some bite.

As I expressed in the Part 4 of this series, brain-state theories fall victim to Robert Nozick's experience machine objection. It implies that the best life one can hope for is to have the molecules in one's brain organized in a particular way. Once the brain is placed in a proper configuration, that is it. Nothing else matters.

Heathwood responds to this objection as follows:
The deceived life and the base life still rank high in terms of welfare, but we are inclined to judge them unfavorably because they rank poorly on other scales on which a life can be measured, such as the scales that measure dignity, or virtue, or achievement.
I allow that a person can sacrifice a "good life" for the sake of something else. However, these are cases where a person chooses to thwart self-regarding desires for the sake of fulfilling other-regarding desires. These are acts of self-sacrifice - sacrificing oneself for another person, for one's children, for one's country, or for the sake of scientific advancement or in the production of some aesthetic value. It would be odd to conceive of choosing to live an undeceived life as an act of self-sacrifice.

Choosing against the experience machine is, by definition, a sacrifice of pleasure and freedom from pain. If one stipulates that welfare consists of having the most pleasure and least pain then, by definition, the experience machine provides the most welfare. But is this sense of welfare the same sense that people generally use when they talk about human well-being?

I have given one reason to think that it is not - this being the fact that we do not consider refusing to enter the experience machine an act of self-sacrifice.

Another reason to believe that it is not is because it would be true by definition that a life inside of an experience machine is "the best possible life that I can have for myself - the life in which I am as well off as I can possibly be." Any disagreement with this point would constitute a failure to understand what "well-being" means.

Third, let's assume that I grab somebody off of the street and throw her into a Nozickian experience machine against her will. Under this conception, we would have to consider this to be a case of providing somebody with a forced benefit. It would have to be thought of in the same way we might think of injecting a person with a cure to a painful disease against his will. Such an action may violate a person's autonomy, but it does no harm. In fact, I should be able to use - without question - the defense that I did it for his own good, like pushing him out of the way of a runaway trolley car.

Indeed, debating a law that required everybody to enter an experience machine would have to be conceived of in the same way as a law that forced everybody to get immunized against a disease. It can be defended in virtue of being "for the public good". It would make everybody in the community as well off as they could possibly be.

If there is anybody in the community who would prefer to live their life helping others, then this, too, would have to consider the fact that the best thing one can do for others is to get them into an experience machine. They cannot be made any better off.

I am not ignoring the fact that Heathwood says that these other standards exist. However, to the degree that these other standards realize something of value, it is not in virtue of their contribution to well-being. Indeed, they must be things, for the sake of which, well-being is sacrificed.

So, it is not just the case that there are other scales that we use to evaluate a life. These are scales that we use to judge whether or not others are well-off. The common conception of welfare seems to be tied more to getting what people want for themselves. Of course, this includes experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain, However, these are just two of a long list of things that people want for themselves.

To be more explicit: there is no reason to base welfare purely on the desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain. There is nothing special about these desires that would justify including them and excluding others.

It was one thing to make the argument that these are the only desires that matter under the (false) belief that there are no desires but those for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. However, Heathwood himself has identified other things that people want: his "other measures": dignity, virtue, and
achievement. Heathwood, it seems would either have to argue that these things have intrinsic value, or that they are things that have value in virtue of being desired. Intrinsic values do not exist. Consequently, these must be other things that people desire. Furthermore, they desire these things for themselves and not just for others.

I think the experience machine adquately rules out any brain-state theory. Every brain-state theory says, "Organize the molecules in the brain in a particular configuration, and that is all that matters." Clearly, that is not all that matters. Our "desires that P" includes propositions "P" that have nothing to do with the state of the brain of the person with the desire.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Heathwood's Theory of Well-Being - Part 4 - Heathwood's Subjective Desire Satisfaction Theory of Well-Being

Chris Heathwood seeks to defend a theory of well-being that he calls "Subjective a Desire Satisfactionism" ("Desire Satisfactionism and Hedonism" (Philosophical Studies, 2006, 128:539-563). It's main elements are:

(i) Every instance of subjective desire satisfaction is intrinsically good for its subject.
(ii) Every instance of subjective desire frustration is intrinsically bad for its subject.
(iii) The intrinsic value for its subject of an instance of subjective desire satisfaction = the intensity of the desire subjectively satisfied.
(iv) The intrinsic value for its subject of an instance of subjective desire frustration = minus (the intensity of the desire subjectively frustrated).
(v) The intrinsic value of a life for the one who lives it = the sum of the values of all the instances of subjective desire subjectively satisfaction and frustration contained therein.
I will admit that well-being has not been a core interest of mine. However, a part of my reason for dismissing it has been on the grounds that well-being is only a portion of what matters. What matters, for a person with a desire that P, is the realization of a state of affairs where P is true. There are many "states of affairs where P is true" that do not translate into improved well-being even for the person with the desire that P.

Take the case of Alph. He has only one desire - a desire that the planet Pandora B exist. He has before him a button. Pressing the button will bring Pandra B into existence, but slay the person who pushed it. Alph, in this example, has no reason to continue living.

I am using Bernard Williams' account of what it means to "have a reason".
A has a reason to φ iff A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing.
Alph, in this example, has no reason to continue living - it does not serve his one and only desire. However, he has a reason to push the button, which will realize a state of affairs in which P, "Pandora B exists" is true. He presses the button - bringing Pandora B into existence, and ending his life.

Alph got what he wanted, but got nothing in the way of well-being.

With this in mind, I divided desires up into self-regarding desires and other-regarding desires.

Self-regarding desires take the subject (the agent with the desire) as the object of the desire. "I desire that I am not in pain" is a self-regarding desire.

Other-regarding desires take other persons and other things as a desire. Alph's desire that the planet Pandora B exist is an other-thing-regarding desire.

Well-being is the objective fulfillment of self-regarding desires.

Because well-being is only one of several things that can matter to a person, I did not give it much more thought than this. I have been concerned with people getting what they want - and arguing that morality is grounded on this - and not with various subsets of those wants.

However, now that I have been drawn into the discussion, I think I can say a few things about it.

I agree with Heathwood on the matter of defective desires. Namely, a desire is not defective unless it is instrumentally bad and, if this is the case, the reduction of well-being is attributed to the desires instrumentally thwarted by the fulfillment of the intrinsic desire.

I like the way that Heathwood handles now-for-then desires. Specifically, he argued that what matters for well-being is the subjective satisfaction of a desire when the agent has it. For me, this would translate into the fulfillment of a self-regarding desire when the agent has it.

I also like the way that Heathwood handles harm-to-self desires, which are self-regarding desires that diminish overall well-being when satisfied. Namely, the satisfaction of the specific desire contributes to well-being but implies the thwarting of a number of other desires that result in an overall reduction in well-being.

However, I have problems linking well-being to the subjective satisfaction of a desire as opposed to the objective satisfaction of a self-regarding desire.

The difference between the two has to do with truth value. A "desire that P" is subjectively satisfied if the agent believes that P. A "desire that P" is objectively fulfilled if P is true.

I would argue that, when a desire is subjectively satisfied, this often leads to the objective fulfillment of other self-regarding desires. Specifically, it generally results in an experience of pleasure, and thus objectively fulfills the self-regarding desire that "I feel pleasure". Similarly, the subjective frustration of a desire (e.g., the false belief that one's child has been killed in an accident) would objectively thwart the self-regarding aversion to pain.

(NOTE: Later in this article, Heathwood equates the subjective satisfaction of a desire with pleasure. That is a further complication that I cannot fit into this post - so I will be ignoring it for now.)

Anyway, what I can say is that the subjective satisfaction or subjective frustration of a desire does contribute something to well-being. They bring about either objectively fulfill a self-regarding desire to experience pleasure objectively thwart a self-regarding desires to avoid pain. However, that does not make them the be-all and end-all of well-being.

The objection that I have to Heathwood's account goes back to Nozick's experience machine.

If Heathwood is right, then no life goes better than the life of a person who is hoooked up to a Nozickian experience machine. The experience machine will feed the agent signals that will generate beliefs that her desires (self-regarding and other-regarding) are fulfilled. If she desires to be a beloved President of the United States, the experience machine will give her that experience. But, in fact, she will live and die as a body laying in a pool of goo, doing nothing.

I find it odd to say that the best possible life that a person can hope for is a life that many people (including me) would run away from.

On the other hand, the "objective fulfillment of self-regarding desires" answers the experience machine example accurately.

It says that if a person's self-regarding desires consist solely of, "that I experience pleasure" and "that I not be in pain", then the experience machine is a good option.

However, a person who has self-regarding desires that cannot be fulfilled within the machine - e.g., "that I contribute to well-being of others" or "that I become President of the United States," the experience machine fails to provide a tempting offer.

Let me repeat, I have not given a lot of thought to theories of well-being. Specifically, I have not spent much time searching for objections to the "objective fulfillment of self-regarding desires" theory. It does seem to have one advantage of Heathwood's subjective desire satisfaction theory. However, the world is a large and complex place filled with landmines that can still blow this alternative to pieces.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 0015 - The "Location" Analogy

In the previous posting, I address the question of whether values are objective.

They clearly are not objective in one sense. Values exist as relationships between states of affairs and desires. There are no values without desires; thus no "objective values" in this first sense.

However, values are completely objective in another sense. Claims about the relationships between states of affairs and desires are as objectively true (or false) as any claim in science.

If an agent has a desire that P, and there is a state of affairs S where P is true in S, then S has value to that agent. The agent has a motivating reason to realize S as a matter of fact.

In such a universe, this relationship exists as an objective fact. A person does not know these things lacks some knowledge about the universe. A person who denies any of these things is, quite simply, wrong.

To understand how this works, think of the property of location.

Nothing has an absolute, intrinsic location. Absolute, intrinsic location does not exist.

In fact, you cannot give the location of anything other than by giving its position relative to something else. Denver is in Colorado. The earth orbits the sun. The keys are in my coat pocket. The land mine is seven meters ahead of you and one meter to your right.

All location claims are relational - describing relationships between one thing and another.

Furthermore, there is no law of nature that dictates which item must be used as a reference point. When it comes to choosing a reference point (Colorado, the sun, my coat pocket, you), we choose what is conventional and convenient under the circumstances given the context.

There is an infinite number of ways in which I can describe the location of Denver. It is in Colorado, in the United States, on planet earth, about 30 miles southeast of Boulder, and where Brian lives (assuming the speaker and listener both know who Brian is). All of these are legitimate location claims.

We do have standards - such as latitude and longitude - that we use in making location claims. We choose to use the equator as one axis, and a line going through the north and south poles and Greenwich, England as the other axis. Why Greenwich, England? There's a historical reason for it - but nothing that justifies the claim that it is the one true and correct base reference point for longitude. We just . . . decided.

If philosophers were to debate the one right and true reference point for all location claims, they would be wasting a lot of time.

However, in spite of these facts, nobody has any trouble including location claims in scientific publications. Location claims are taken to be as true (or false) as any claim made in science.

In particular, the fact that a reference point is selected by custom and convenience is never used to question whether the relationship claim is true or false - or to challenge the claim that, if it is true, then it is true as a matter of fact and not as a matter of opinion.

All of these are true of relationships between states of affairs and desires as well.

We cannot tell the value of a state of affairs without describing its relationship to one or more desires. When we describe such a relationship, we describe what a particular set of people has reason to realize or prevent. It is only in virtue of having the requisite desires that one has the reasons to realize or prevent such a state of affairs. However, they have those reasons as a matter of fact.

There is no law of nature that dictates which desires are relevant in making such a claim. We can describe how a state of affairs stands in relationship to the desires of Uncle Joe, to the people of Atlanta, my pet rabbit Fluffy, or to those living near the coast.

When we choose a reference point, we choose it as a matter of convenience and convention - not because some law of nature dictates that particular use. It is because, "This is the relationship that we have decided to talk about. Other relationships exist, but we are talking about this relationship - in the same way that other rabbits exist, but we are talking about Fluffy."

There are some relationships that people have many and strong reasons to make a part of our conversation.

Take 'health' for example. This is a term used to describe changes in the functioning of the body or mind relative to the desires of the person whose body or mind is being evaluated. People, having reasons to avoid illness and injury, have many and strong reasons to make these relationships a topic of conversation. For convenience sake, we use the term 'health', 'illness', and 'injury' to describe these relationships.

Where these relationships exist, they exist as a matter of fact.

I will be arguing that the best use of moral terms uses them to describe relationships between malleable end-desires (or intrinsic desires) and the other end-desires of those they interact with. To make this case, I will need a universe with many people, with malleable desires, and with an ability to mold those desires through the use of tools such as reward, praise, condemnation, and punishment.

However, as far as this book goes, we are not yet in that universe. All we have at this point is a universe with one agent (Alph) and one desire (to gather stones).

Our universe so far is one in which Alph, as a matter of fact, has a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs where "Alph is gathering stones" is true. It is a world where Alph sometimes has a reason to scatter stones (though not an intrinsic reason), just as he has a reason to know where the stones are, to avoid falling off of a cliff, and to eat or drink that which allows him to realize a state in which he is gathering stones.

Gathering stones has value for Alph.

And that - within this hypothetical universe - is a fact.

Reading Notes: Korsgaard on Hume and Moral Justification

If we find upon reflecting on the true moral theory that we still are inclined to endorse the claims that morality makes on us, then morality will be normative. I call this way of establishing normativity the ‘reflective endorsement’ method.
(Christine Korsgaard, Sources of Normativity, Cambridge University Press, 1996)

After Christine Korsgaard presented her "reflective endorsement" standard of normativity, she attempted to argue that David Hume (among others) used this method to justify his moral theory.

According to Korsgaard, Hume recognized a distinction between the work of the theoretical philosopher - which was to explain morality, and the practical philosopher - which was to promote moral behavior. Neither actually justifies moral claims. In the first case, it is quite possible that once we can fully explain morality we may discover that it is a field whose claims we cannot justify (e.g., they are divine commands where there is no God). In the second case, it is possible to promote something that lacks justification.

So, how do we get moral justification?

However, Korsgaard shows that, for Hume, once we explain morality we find it to be something that people have reason to embrace.

As a side note, Korsgaard represents the work of the "sentimentalists" such as Hume as being in contrast to that of the "realists". I dislike these terms since they implies that sentiments are not real - or that they are distinct from that which is real. I hold that statements about sentiments - and the relationships between objects of evaluation and sentiments - describe reality. They are real. A morality that talks about relationships between objects of evaluation and sentiments (or, actually, desires) is a part of the real world.

However, I don't believe that one can read the morality of something directly from one's own sentiments. Morality has to do with the sentiments that people generally have reason to promote - not necessarily the sentiments an agent has.

According to Koorsgaard, Hume may agree with this.

According to Hume, moral judgments are based on sentiments of approval and disapproval which we feel when we contemplate a person’s character from what he calls ‘a general point of view’.


The degree that these two accounts can be reconciled depends on the degree to which we can match up contemplating a character from a general point of view and desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. For one thing, the latter does not require contemplation or a point of view - it describes a relationship that exists in the real world. On the other hand, both approaches may still yield the same conclusions.

There is a feature in Korsgaard's account of Hume's ethics that I have long thought to be a mistake in philosophy. This is the struggle to find something in an agent's motivational set that gives the agent reason to do the right thing or be the right sort of person - always. In fact, some philosophers seem to take it that a moral claim cannot be justified if somebody, somewhere, lacks a reason to do what she "ought" to do.

In this article, we find Korsgaard discussing Hume's attempt to argue that everybody has a reason to be moral because - apparently - everybody has an aversion to others thinking poorly of them. This is not just a reason to do the right thing, but a reason to be the right sort of person - the type of person that others can admire and respect.

We can wonder whether everybody indeed has such a desire and, even if they do, the strength of that desire.

Ultimately, Hume argues that, even where people lack this aversion at the start, they are disposed to acquire it. The attitude that others have towards an individual (or the attitude that one knows that others would have "if they only knew") is an attitude one eventually adopts towards oneself. Everybody has a reason to be the type of person others can respect because that is the only way they can respect themselves.

Even where this is true, these interests would still be a small set of the interests a person may have. In some people they may be the weaker concern - potentially too weak to support the conclusion that an agent must act in a particular way.

We can also wonder what it would mean for morality if somebody lacked that desire. Would it no longer be wrong to do what society disapproved of?

More importantly, we need to worry about how this would work in the case in which a person lives in an immoral society. We can imagine a person being condemned because she is working to free the slaves or hide Jews from the Nazis in a society where a great many people have adopted the Nazi's attitudes towards Jews (the way many in America today share Trump's attitudes towards Muslims).

In another type of case, there are people with desires that others condemn without having a good reason to do so. We must consider the case of homosexuals seeking to live in accordance with their interests in a society that condemns homosexuality.

In short, what people may condemn and what is immoral are often not the same thing.

Desirism holds that there may be a gap between the desires that a person has (and, thus, what the agent has a reason to do) and the desires an agent should have (the desires that people generally have reason to promote). This gap is the distinction between a good person and an evil person. The possibility of a person not having the desires or interests she should have is not a problem - it is a fact. Indeed, it is the presence of this gap (and the reasons that exist to promote certain desires) that justifies condemnation and punishment.

Similarly, there can be a gap between what a society does condemn and what it has reason to condemn. A society can condemn homosexuality while lacking any good reason to do so. Similarly, people generally may have good reason to abolish slavery even where a few manage to convince the majority of non-slaves that this is not the case. A person can want to be the type of person others can respect. However, a person can also recognize that, even though others would likely condemn the individual if they knew some relevant fact (she was freeing slaves, hiding Nazis, or in a homosexual relationship) she can say that the fault is in society, and not in her.

If normativity requires that each and every individual have compelling reason to do what is right - then morality lacks normativity. This gap between what an agent desires and what an agent should desire guarantees that we cannot always persuade people to "do the right thing" by showing that it fulfills her current desires. Sometimes, we have to reward, praise, condemn, and punish in order to create the desires that would then motivate an agent to do the right thing (and not do the wrong thing). If morality cannot tolerate such a gap, then there is no such thing as morality.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Morality Without Free Will

Well, I got a response to my email to Dr. Johnson.

He seemed to raise no objection to the claim that people can still have reason to reward, praise, condemn, and punish even if there was no free will - if these tools worked to rewire the brain. It is a legitimate alternative to "brain surgery", provided that it is effective.

Dr. Johnson raised doubts as to how effective it is. However, that is a different (and empirical) question.

Still, Dr. Johnson did argue that removing free will from the equation and thereby removing the fact that people are punished because they "deserve" it would imply the end of morality. Punishing people for deterrance or rehabilitative reasons is something other than morality.

I am not so certain that this is the case.

I don't think that free will ever played much of a role in morality. Consequently, I think we can eliminate free will from the equation and what we call morality will be substantially unchanged.

One of my reasons for believing this is because, if this thesis is correct, morality emerged a long time before any human even had the capacity to think of "free will".

We see the roots of morality as I have described it - the use of reward, praise, condemnation, and punishment to alter intentional mental states and, thereby, to alter behavior - even among animals. It is particularly common among social primates.

A snarl or a snap, the showing of teeth, a swipe of the paw, beating one's chest - these all display a primitive form of disapproval or condemnation. Grooming, the sharing of food, a smile, and a caress are rewards - they show approval or praise. Yet, these animals know nothing of free will. They simply know the effectiveness of such displays on behavior. They use these as simple tools - as they use sticks and rocks.

As humans became more intelligent, we can expect a number of changes to occur.

First, they will become more efficient at the use of these tools to control behavior in a number of ways. They will be able to better determine not only the immediate but the long-term effects of actions on the fulfillment of other desires. They will be able to better discriminate when something is the result of an agent's malleable intentional states and when they have some other cause - thus better able to determine when to apply the tools of reward, praise, condemnation and punishment and when they are not called for.

Second, they are going to make these practices a topic of conversation. Responses that were in the form of snarls and smaps will be in the form of words, phrases, and sentences. They will invent a language that will allow them to debate when to snarl and snap at somebody and when praise and reward.

Even rudimentary language will arise long before any person ever thinks of a concept as complex as "free will" and applies this to the practice of morality.

For these reasons, I consider "free will" to be a part of a theory that was applied to try to explain and understand a set of practices that existed even when humans were prehisotoric social primates. It was applied to a set of practices that existed before the idea of free will was even thought of, and among beings who could not even have a notion of counter-causal free will.

It was a bad theory, and one we have since discovered many reasons to abandon.

Accordingly, I think that morality can easily survive the discovery that the "free will" hypothesis was just a bad idea to begin with. We still see the original purpose and function of morality in the ways people use it. In practice, people never lost track of the idea that intentional actions are caused by beliefs and desires, and that desires can be molded through the use of reward, praise, condemnation, and punishment.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Heathwood's Theory of Well-Being - Part 3 - The Desire to Be Worse Off

It is time to get back to Dr. Chris Heathwood's desire-satisfaction theory of personal well-being.

Heathwood is defending a thesis he calls Concurrent Intrinsic Desire Satisfactionism - a thesis that says that the quality of a life depends on the satisfaction of what he ultimately desires (desires as an end, rather than as a means) when the agent wants it.

But what happens when a person desires not to be well-off?

Heathwood illustrates this type of case as follows:

Imagine a man who, ridden with guilt for past crimes, wants (intrinsically) to be badly off. In order to satisfy this desire, the man takes an arduous, boring, and insignificant job. He’s pretty miserable. "Desire Satisfactionism and Hedonism" (Philosophical Studies, 2006, 128:539-563

The problem is that this agent is getting what he wants (to be miserable) when he wants. Consequently, Concurrent Intrinsic Desire Satisfactionism would say that this "getting what he wants (being miserable) when he wants it" is making for a good life.

So, the agent is having a good life by making himself miserable.

This sounds a bit odd.

Heathwood's proposed solution is to say that, yes, this agent is getting one of the things that he wants when he wants it. However, we have to weigh this against all of the things that make his life miserable.

It it is impossible (conceptually, metaphysically) to experience things like misery, boredom, arduousness, etc. without having desires frustrated.

However, Heathwood also claims that the satisfaction of the desire to be miserable must be outweighed by all of the frustrations of those desires that are being thwarted.

But the satisfaction of this desire to be badly off must, of necessity, count for less, in terms of welfare, than all the daily frustrations he racks up. If it were otherwise, then the man wouldn’t be badly off, and the desire to be badly off would no longer be satisfied. So Concurrent Intrinsic Desire Satisfactionism implies, correctly, that the man is not well off, that he has succeeded in becoming badly off.

For me, this raises another question. How is it that the agent chooses to make himself badly off?

If the desire to be badly off is so weak, and all of the frustrated desires combine to something so much greater, then it would have to be the case that the agent has far more reason to ignore and set aside this weak desire to be badly off than he has to act on it.

I am assuming that the amount of desire satisfaction we get from a desire depends substantially on its strength. The satisfaction of a weak desire counts less towards well-being than the satisfaction of a strong desire.

If this agent's desire to be badly off counts so little towards welfare, then it must be weak. If it counts for significantly less than the desires that are being frustrated, then it must be significantly weaker than the desires that are being frustrated. However, if it is significantly weaker than all of the other desires, then why (or how) is it the case that it can overpower all of those other desires?

The only way in which this desire to be badly off can overpower the other desires and be the desire the agent acts on is if it is stronger than the combined force of the other desires. However, if this is the case, then it seems we must give up the claim that this desire to be badly off counts for less (provides less desire satisfaction) than the desires being thwarted.

This is as much of a problem with the account of well-being I tend to defend as it is for Heathwood's. I argue that well-being depends on the objective fulfillment of self-regarding desires. The desire to be badly off is a self-regarding desire. Consequently, its fulfillment would contribute to the well-being of the agent. And, just as against Heathwood's theory, the strength of the desire (and, thus, its contribution to well-being) has to outweigh the combined strengths of the desires being thwarted in order for the agent to act on it. Otherwise, the other desires would overpower it and prevent the agent from acting to make himself badly off.

It would seem that an agent cannot - or, at least, cannot rationally - will himself to be worse off. It will always result in fulfilling a stronger desire than those that were thwarted.

However, there is a way in which a person can choose to make their life worse off. This method exploits the fact that desires do not have backwards causation. Consequently, future desires, no matter how strong they are, have no influence on current decision making. This is what makes addictions possible and explains part of the reason why diets are difficult. The agent knows that her actions will thwart future desires, but those future desires cannot weigh against the force of the current desire to eat, smoke a cigarette, drink alcohol, and the like. Consequently, the current desire causes the agent to act in ways that she knows will ultimately make her worse off.

An agent with a current desire to be worse off would be able to intentionally act in ways that would end up thwarting more and stronger future desires. When the future arrives, then the agent would experience the frustration of those desires when she had them, which would diminish the quality of the person's life. This type of case would fit in with Heathwood's Concurrent Intrinsic Desire Satisfactionism.

Morality in a Determined Universe

In preparation for going to graduate school, I have been reviewing some general philosophy. Specifically, I have been going through the lectures in, "The Big Questions in Philosophy" taught by King's College professor Dr. David K. Johnson.

It prompted another of these letters I have been writing as my studies have caused me to imagine that I might have something useful to say on some subject.

Lecture 18 in this series had to do with free will. Dr. Johnson ended the lecture by suggesting that admitting we do not have free will would imply replacing a system of moral responsibility and punishment with a system that viewed criminal behavior as a mental disorder to be cured.

I thought I would suggest to him that these might not be mutually exclusive options.

Dr. Johnson

I hope that you will pardon this intrusion.

I have been going through your lectures on "The Big Questions in Philosophy" from "The Great Courses" (which I find extremely valuable and interesting).

At the end of Episode 18, in which you discuss free will, you end the lecture imagining a future society in which neuroscience was so far advanced that the notion of free will is no longer defensible.

You suggested that, in such a case, we would no longer "punish" people who engaged in criminal behavior "because they deserved it". Instead, you said, "We would simply discover the way they were neurally miswired, and then correct it so that they no longer behaved that way."

I would like to suggest that morality itself is, and always has been, a tool for rewiring the brain in a manner substantially like what you have described above.

I am assuming that you do not intend to limit the list of acceptable procedures specifically to surgery - you were simply using this as an illustrative example. If the "rewiring" can be done by the use of chemicals - anti-psychotic drugs, lithium, or hormones - then this would also fit your model. Similarly, if we could rewire the brain through, for example, a non-invasive procedure such as sonic waves or magnetic fields, that would also count. What matters is not the method used, but the effect that method has on rewiring the brain and, thus, altering behavior.

Well, then, what if the rewiring were to be caused by subjecting a population to rewards and punishments?

I want to suggest that moral rewards and punishments - including moral praise and condemnation - actually works to rewire the brain in ways that tend to reduce dispositions to behave in ways harmful to others and increase dispositions to behave in ways helpful to others (or, at least, in ways that are harmless).

Rewards and punishments act to change behavior in two main ways.

One of these ways is not relevant to the idea that I would like to present here. Rewards provide incentives for engaging in certain behaviors ($25 million reward for information leading to the death or capture of a known terrorist leader) while punishments - or the threat of punishment - provide a deterrence ($500 fine for speeding in a school zone).

These functions do not involve rewiring the brain, and are not the functions that I am concerned with here.

The effect that I am interested in is the effect that rewards and punishments have in changing what an agent actually comes to like and dislike.

Punish a child who tells a lie and the child learns not only to tell the truth to avoid punishment, but acquires an aversion to lying for its own sake. The child then tells the truth, even when there is no chance if getting caught and punished, because the child has become averse to lying. She simply does not want to lie.

Note that the child is not punished because we consider her morally responsible in any robust way. The child is punished to "teach her a (moral) lesson" - a lesson that is learned as the punishment rewrites a portion of the child's pre-frontal cortex.

In your lecture, you spoke of Phineas Gage, the unfortunate railroad worker who had a tamping rod driven through his brain, destroying a large portion of his pre-frontal cortex. What he lost as a result of this brain damage was the ability to conform his behavior to social norms.

This illustrates the fact that the pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that interprets rewards and punishments, extrapolates from them a set of social norms, and then conforms behavior to fit those norms. By analogy, it seems to work in the same way that the auditory parts of the brain take sounds and extrapolates from them the meanings and grammar of language, allowing the agent to communicate with others.

If we are going to correct a person's wiring to prevent criminal behavior, it seems that we are going to be looking for a way to rewire the pre-frontal lobe, at least in many cases.

One way we have for rewiring the pre-frontal cortex is through rewards and punishments.

Rewards and punishments are processed in the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens has a direct connection to the pre-frontal lobe. One of the effects of reward and punishment is to send signals to the pre-frontal robe, where it initiates this rewiring. As I mentioned above, the brain takes these rewards and punishments and extrapolates from them a set of behavioral rules to generate behavior that makes rewards more likely and punishments less likely.

Please note, I am using rewards and punishments in their biological sense - not their social sense. An animal is "punished" if an action results in an electrical shock (for example) - even though the animal is not being blamed for that action. In other words, the claims about rewards and punishments I made above are just as applicable to an animal living alone in the wild where natural rewards and punishments also generate rules of behavior.

For us social creatures, this process extrapolates and promotes conformity to the social rules that we teach through a system of rewards and punishments.

There are two more relevant claims to add to this hypothesis.

(1) Praise acts on the brain as a reward, and condemnation acts on the brain as punishment. Consequently, praise and condemnation can also be used to rewire the prefrontal cortex.

(2) Rewards/praise and punishment/condemnation work not only on those who are rewarded or punished, but on others who consider even the possibility of being rewarded or punished. Through the faculty of empathy, we can put ourselves in the position of those who are rewarded or punished and, in experiencing the reward or punishment this way, have our own pre-frontal cortex rewired without actually being the person rewarded or punished.

This "someone else" does not even have to be a real person. It could be a character in a story.

If this is correct, morality as a tool for rewiring the pre-frontal cortex of people within a community, to inhibit behavior that tends to cause harm and promote behavior that tends to produce benefits.

We could say that "ought to have done otherwise" implies "could have done otherwise" has to do with distinguishing that which reward/praise and punishment/condemnation can influence and that which is outside of its influence.

We do not condemn/punish the person who failed to teleport a child out of a burning building because no amount of condemnation or punishment can create in people an ability to teleport a child out of a burning building.

On the other hand, we praise/reward those who go into a burning building to rescue a child because praise/reward has the capacity to rewire the pre-frontal cortex, not only in the person doing the rescuing but in others as well, to promote generally a disposition to take risks to save others. Thus is something we each have reason to want others to be disposed to do if we should end up in such a dire situation.

In our day to day lives we use rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) to cause people to acquire (for example) an aversion to lying or to taking the property of others without their consent. We promote an interest in helping those in dire need and an interest in upholding and defending certain political and social institutions.

In other words, even in a determined world, people have reasons to reward, to praise, to condemn, and to punish. These are the scalpels we use to perform brain surgery - to rewire the pre-frontal cortex and, in doing so, generate behavior that conforms to social rules.

The future world you imagine, where neuroscience has reached such a state of advancement to show that there is no room for free will, may well continue to be a world where rewards and punishments are used because of their determined effects on rewiring the brain.

In fact, this is what morality has been doing all along.

Well, this is just an idea that I thought I would toss your way for your consideration. I do hope that you find some value in this and that it was worth a bit of your time.

Sincerely,

Alonzo Fyfe

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Christine Korsgaard on Justifying Moral Justification

Christine Korsgaard has a theory for justifying justification.

It is difficult to justify justification without begging the question.

If you believe that a particular set of rules justifies a set of conclusions, how do you go about justifying the statement that "these rules justify those conclusions"? How do you prove the rules of logic without either using the rules of logic, or using something else which, then, needs its own justification?

When it comes to justifying moral claims, Korsgaard suggests testing whether the method of justification survives the act of revealing what they are. Once we know, "This is what provides the foundation for our moral claims," does the sense that moral claims are justified remain? Or does it (can it) vanish?

If we find upon reflecting on the true moral theory that we still are inclined to endorse the claims that morality makes on us, then morality will be normative. I call this way of establishing normativity the ‘reflective endorsement’ method. (Korsgaard, Christine (1996): The Sources of Normativity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

She explains this system in one case by describing an account of morality in which it fails.

Evolutionary theory says that moral claims are justified through a moral sense that we have evolved to have because it promotes the survival of the species.

Now, we take an agent and put him in a situation where she needs to make a moral choice. She can delete an email and nobody will know that it ever existed, or she can turn it over to investigators. She ponders that moral sentiments are sentiments that evolved in order to promote the survival of the species. However, she can go from here to ask, "The fact that people have sentiments that I should turn this over to the investigators that came about through evolution - does that really tell me that I must turn this email over to investigators?"

The agent in this case may share this evolved sentiment - having an aversion to deleting the email and failing to do her duty, but she is still open to taking this as an unfortunate side-effect of evolution, rather than a moral requirement.

At this point, I do not have space to discuss the merits of this test. I hope to do that later.

However, would like to report that desirism seems to pass this test.

Desirism holds that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform, and good desires are desires that people generally have many and strong (desire-based) reasons to promote.

The reasons to promote a desire comes from the desires that would be fulfilled by the desire being promoted if it were universally adopted.

For example, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to gaining an advantage through deception - by lying and by fraud. The reasons for promoting such an aversion come from the desires that would be fulfilled by a widespread aversion to these types of deception. An act of lying or of fraud is wrong, then, because it is something that a person with such an aversion would not do. It warrants condemnation and, perhaps, punishment because these tools promote the overall aversion to these types of deception.

Now, we apply Korsgaard's test. Would knowing that this is the case undercut the sense that the moral claims are justified?

Knowing these things will not change the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to these types of deception. It will not change the fact that they can promote this aversion through the condemnation and punishment of those who engage in these types of acts. It does not change the fact that the person who does such an act has done something that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn or to punish.

This ties into one of the arguments that I have used (though perhaps not stressed enough) for this whole project.

Let us say that I am entirely wrong in claiming that this is an account of morality. Let us say that I am totally confused about this. perhaps morality essentially involves divine commands or intrinsic values that do not exist.

It would still be the case that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to deception, that they can do so by punishing and condemning those who engage in the practice, and that a person who commits such an act is somebody that people generally have reason to condemn or to punish.

In other words, this is still a useful project to develop, even if we do not call it morality.