Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Non-Identity Problem

My thoughts about graduate school recently have been thoughts about how I am doing it wrong. I have been focusing too much on the student aspect. That should change.

In the realm of learning . . .

I do not think I have written on the "non-identity problem". The problem, at least in the way we are discussing it, goes as follows:

Wilma wants to conceive a child and goes to her doctor for a checkup. The doctor tells her that she has a rare condition whereby, if she were to conceive a child, the child would be born blind. However, he can provide her with a prescription that will cure the disease. After about two months on this medication, she will be able to conceive a child that would - all else being equal - have normal eyesight.

This example comes from David Boonin's book, [I]The Non-Identity Problem and the Ethics of Future People{/I] (who is also the professor who is teaching the ethics class during this three-week period).

Wilma decides not to take the pills and to have a child without waiting, even though the child will be born blind.

Did Wilma do anything wrong.

The vast majority of the people say that her actions are immoral. She did something wrong.

However, Derek Parfit noticed a problem with this.

Who did Wilma harm with her actions?

We will assume for the sake of argument that her choice puts no additional burdens on other people. This means that no other people have any reason to condemn her for her actions.

It is also the case that her choice did not harm her child (whom Boonin names "Pebbles"). If she had taken the pills and waited, Pebbles would have never been born. Instead, some other child (Boonin names "Rocks") would have been conceived two months later from a different sperm and a different egg. So, Pebbles will be born blind and will have to deal with the handicap. But, as Pebbles gets older she should come to realize that there was no way in which she could have been born without being blind - she was destined either to be blind from birth or to not be born. All things considered, she judges that her life is worth living. It would have been a lot better if she could have seen the world, but what she had was better than nothing.

Of course, Rocks has no claim on Wilma. To say that Rocks had a right to be born would be to say that it would have been wrong for Wilma to go childless.

So, why is Wilma's act wrong if nobody was harmed?

Actually, desirism does provide an account of how Wilma's act can be wrong, if certain additional facts hold.

Desirism states that an act is wrong iff a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not have performed that act in those circumstances. (Good desires tend to fulfill other desires, while bad desires tend to thwart other desires. A desire is fulfilled iff the proposition that represents the object of the desire is made or kept true; thwarted if the proposition that is the object of the desire is made or kept false.)

Wilma's actions may be that of a person who has a callous disregard for the happiness of those around her. In fact, we are often invited to think that it is the case that Wilma made her choice merely because she did not want to be bothered by the inconvenience of taking the pills. She has no interest in whether the people around her are happy or sad, whether they are fulfilling their desires or struggling. She just doesn't care about these things. She is indifferent to having a daughter who must struggle with blindness versus a son who would be able to experience the pleasures and conveniences of sight.

If it must be the case - if a person who cared about the happiness and successes of those around her would never have opted to have a blind child over a (different) sighted child - desirism would say that her act was wrong. A person with good desires would care about whether those around her are happy and successful in achieving their ends, or struggling with a serious handicap such as blindness, and thus (except in some extraordinary circumstance) would have taken the pills in order to have a child that she could experience as being happier and more successful in realizing his ends.

But, is it the case that a person with good desires would necessarily have selected to have a child that lacks a certain benefit when that person could have had a child that had the benefit?

Consider Fred.

Fred is white. Fred has a choice. He could either marry a black person and have a mixed-race child, or he could marry a white person and have a white child. The mixed-race child will be missing all of the advantages of white privilege. This will effect everything from how the child is treated by others, whether his accomplishments in school will be properly recognized, the ability to get into a good college, his ability to get a job (particularly a higher-level management job) and to have his contributions and abilities respected and recognized. The white child, in contrast, would have these advantages.

So, if it is wrong for Wilma to have a child that lacks the advantages of sight instead of opting to have a child who can see, it seems we must also declare that it is wrong for Fred to marry a black person and to have a mixed-race child that lacks the advantages of white privilege rather than to have a white child that has white privilege.

Yet, in this comparison case, not only do we declare that Fred's actions are not wrong, we turn our wrath on those who would condemn Fred.

I have never been a fan of moral intuitions, so the fact that intuitions conflict does not concern me. The fact that is relevant here is that the existence of white parents in mixed-race relationships tells is that the claim that only a person with a callous disregard for the interests of others would have a child that lacks certain advantages. I know of no evidence that white parents of mixed-race children demonstrate a strong lack of interest in the degree to which others are happy and successful.

There are, I argue, two ways in which somebody can be interested in the happiness and success of others.

One way of showing this concern is by surrounding oneself with happy and successful people and shunning all others. In this way, Wilma is being told to bring Rocks into the world and to shun Pebbles, as her handicap and the struggles and unhappiness that come with it goes counter to the plan of surrounding oneself with happy and successful people.

The other takes people as they are and tries to add some happiness to their lives. This is the type of person who would volunteer to work in a soup kitchen or in a hospital, or even travel to parts of the world where people need help in order to provide goods and services. This is the type of person who becomes a doctor or a social working - people who are not in the business of surrounding themselves only with others who are happy and successful. The white parent of the mixed-race child simply accepts the child, and then works to raise that child - whether blind or sighted, white or of mixed-race - as well as possible.

The intuition seems to come from a hidden assumption that Wilma must be showing a callous disregard for the happiness and success of those around her. This is an unwarranted assumption in the case of white parents of mixed-race children, and we have no call to make this assumption about Wilma either - not without additional evidence to the contrary. Even if we find this evidence, the specific act of choosing to have Pebbles rather than Rocks is not "an act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not have done". Instead, we can well imagine the person with good desires and lacking bad desires thinking, "The only options for Pebbles are to be born blind or not at all. I am going to give her a chance at life. It may not be as good a life as the life a sighted person would have, but I will do what I can to make sure that it is a life she will consider it worthwhile to have lived."

Friday, October 27, 2017

Social Engineering

Our readings in Environmental Philosophy this week were largely examples in which the author proposes a plan for how to save the planet. All of the plans under consideration seem to follow the same two-step approach.

Step 1: Identify a model set of beliefs and sentiments.

Step 2: Make them universal

These views are common enough. More precisely, the author thinks we all need to value something (e.g., nature) a particular way way and, once we all adopt this particular attitude or point of view.

Another way of describing these sets of proposals is as social engineering projects. The author proposes re-engineering society, creating a type of person in a type of culture that the author suggests will produce or realize some sort of ideal (or at least significantly better) state. The suggestions that we are considering here are particularly concerned with engineering a new relationship between humans and nature. This seems to require also engineering new relationships between and among humans.

Social engineering has certain similarities with geoengineering. The geoengineer wishes to deal with environmental problems such as climate change by rebuilding the physical world. An example of a geoengineering project is to deal with climate change by creating some type of solar shade that blocks or reflects back some of the solar radiation reaching the surface of the earth, rather than converting that energy into heat. Social engineering seeks to produce less global warming by re-engineering humans (and, with them, human society) so that we produce less climate change.

By means of illustration, note that the following two policies also aim to change behavior. However, they do not seek to re-engineer humans.

A "carbon tax" would seek to cause humans to behave in ways that produce fewer greenhouse gasses. However, it does so by recognizing the fact that humans have they are tend to look at the personal costs of performing an activity in determining whether to engage in that activity. By increasing the cost of engaging in activities that produce greenhouse gasses, a carbon tax seeks to provide people with an incentive to consider other non-greenhouse-gas producing alternatives.

Also, investing in new technology such as more efficient solar power systems is not a social engineering project. Neither is it a geoengineering project. It is simply the opposite of a carbon tax. Where a carbon tax makes greenhouse-gas-generating activities more expensive, subsidies and investments in solar power aim to make non-greenhouse-gas-generating activities less expensive (and, thereby, more attractive).

Social engineering, in contrast, aims to change people - to change their values and dispositions of behavior.

Unfortunately, social engineering projects face a dilemma. They seem to be limited to two possible futures.

Possible Future 1: Only a very small fraction of the people adopt them. There are countless social engineering suggestions in the market of ideas, and different systems appeal to different people. While the proponents of any particular social engineering ideal speak of the global benefits we would harvest if everybody adopted this ideal of beliefs and sentiments, it is not realistic to expect that people will actually adopt any one of the countless competing ideals of beliefs and sentiments.

Possible Future 2: Hope for a Constantine. The only times in human history in which large populations have made a unified cultural shift of this magnitude has been when a powerful leader has commanded the shift. The paradigm example is when the Roman emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion on the Roman Empire. In more general terms, an individual embraces one of these social engineering projects, makes himself a virtual dictator over a large population, and then tries to impose this social engineering project on that population. Examples of this kind of change include Lenin's attempt to form a communist Soviet Union and Mao Tso Tung's "Great Leap Forward" in China. The results have been less than ideal. One of the significant problems is that people, on their own, tend to adopt a number of different and competing projects, and the Constantine figure needs to force them to adopt his favorite.

Those who oppose geoengineering on the basis of the possibility that they could produce a large disaster should, given human history, be just as suspicious of attempts at social engineering.

This is not to say that it is impossible to argue for some type of global standard.

To illustrate the possibility, I would like to suggest imagining a community made up of people who have only one concern - an aversion to their own individual pain. Let us also imagine that these creatures can also adopt new concerns if they are praised for actions consistent with that concern and condemned for actions inconsistent with that concern. Consequently, if these people are praised for actions that tend to avoid causing pain to others, and condemned for actions that tend to cause pain to others, this will cause them to create an aversion to causing pain to others. This aversion becomes an end in itself. That is to say, people come to avoid causing pain to others "because I do not want to" and not because it serves some other end.

In this society we can see that people generally have a reason to use praise and condemnation to promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others. The motivation behind this project rests with each individual's aversion to personal pain, giving them a reason to cause in others an aversion to causing pain. This, given the facts of the case, give them reason to praise and condemn behavior accordingly.

By means of this method, we can argue that we have reason to promote such things as aversions to lying, breaking promises, failing to repay debts, assaults, taking property without consent, rape, and murder. The case needs to be made whether these authors can defend their own projects using the same type of argument. They do not seem to make many steps in that direction.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Determining Value - Willingness to Pay


In our readings this week for my Environmental Philosophy course, we finally have an author who seems to accept the idea that value requires a valuer. When T. J. Kasperbauer talks about the value of a species continuing to exist or, more importantly, the value of bringing a species back from extinction, he talks about existence value – the interest that a person may have in its existence regardless of its usefulness to him or the pleasure of experiencing it.

The philosophical literature on the value of species tends to focus on intrinsic value, which is typically understood to mean ‘non-instrumental value’, or the value that a species has apart from how it is used or experienced by human beings (McShane, 2007; O’Neill, Holland, & Light, 2008). That species have intrinsic value is typically taken to be a metaphysical thesis: a claim about the nature of the world. However, I will focus on what I take to be the psychological equivalent of attributing intrinsic value to species. This is called existence value.

Existence value is the value people attribute to a species merely for its existence. When studied by psychologists and economists, this is usually understood as the value attributed to a species regardless of how the species might be used (what is called ‘nonuse value’) and regardless of whether people ever have or ever will encounter the species

The existence value of something, then, is the value that something has because somebody, somewhere, wants it to exist. Kasperbauer recognizes that we can want something not only because it is useful, or because it is pleasing to experience. We can want something to exist for its own sake – simply as one of the things we want. Yet, it has this value in virtue of the fact that somebody wants it. If nobody wanted something to exist, then its existence loses (at least this type) of value.

Unfortunately, Kasperbauer goes from here to discuss ways of determining the existence value of things by methods that are dubious. One of these methods are “willingness to pay” surveys. These ask people to report what they are willing to pay for something to continue to exist, and determines the value of its existence from these surveys.

We can raise questions about whether people give an honest answer. Since one will not actually pay for the good, an agent may exaggerate his interests in order to urge those who are doing to the survey to get somebody else (e.g., taxpayers) to pay more.

Setting aside these questions of honesty, there is reason to doubt that even an honest answer is a clear indicator of value. A person's answer may be far from accurate, even if honest, because of how much the person can afford to pay, false beliefs about what is true of the thing being evaluated, and false believes about the consequences of what is evaluating. In addition, there is the questionable relationship between what a person is willing to pay for and what others are obligated to provide.

The Marginal Value of Money

Consider the following case:

After a hurricane, a survivor who had stored some bottled water in case of just such an emergency is approached by two people who want some fresh, clean water. One of them is a wealthy aristocrat who would like to use fresh water to shampoo his dog – rather than the contaminated water in a nearby lake. The other is a poor woman with a sick child. The seller decides to sell the water to the highest bidder. The aristocrat offers $20 for the water. The woman with the sick child does not even have $20 to offer.

We are lead to draw from the fact that the aristocrat paid the higher price and got the bottled water that he valued shampooing his dog more than the mother valued providing clean water for her sick child. Yet, this is nonsense. We cannot infer the values of these two states of affairs to the two agents from their “willingness to pay” when those who are being asked have significantly different amounts of wealth. For some people, $20 is a drop in the bucket. They could drop $20 from their pocket without ever missing it or caring. To others, it is food, clean water, or basic medical care.

The person with the large bank account might be willing to pay $10,000 for the water to use to shampoo his dog. This does not imply that he values shampooing his dog more than the mother values helping her sick child.

The Problem of False Beliefs

Another problem with deriving value from this type of test is that it assumes that all of those who answer this question have perfect knowledge. They must not only know everything that is true about that on which they are being asked to name a price, but they must know all of its relevant relationships to other things.

Kasperbauer was looking at the value of bringing the American Passenger Pigeon back from extinction. In suggesting that this might have some “existence value”, he looked at surveys used to determine the value that people placed on preserving peregrine falcons. These surveys also asked people why they valued this policy as they did.

One of the answers that those who took they survey gave, according to Kasperbauer “all endangered species has a right to existence.” This may well be what the person giving this answer believes. However, whether or not actual real-world value is being realized depends on whether this is true. The metaphysical existence of “rights to existence” is questionable at best, and Kasperbauer at least assumes there is no right. However, if there is no right, then there is no value. Paying for this is like paying for a Picasso forgery while claiming that one’s reason for doing so was so that one could own a genuine Picasso painting.

There is a difference between the value something has given an agent's actual interests, and the value that he thinks it has based on inaccurate or incomplete beliefs.

Who Pays?

I am willing to pay $200 for a new Surface Pro computer. Does this mean that the government has a moral permission to tax other people to provide me with a surface pro? I might have an interest in the survival of the Siberian tiger, or the American bison, or the clown fish. Does this imply that the government has a right to tax other people to secure the continued survival of my favorite species?

There are things that it is reasonable to expect the government to provide for people. While there are disputes, there is a reputable view that holds that this includes security from foreign and domestic threats (national defense and crime prevention) and public goods that might not otherwise be provided such as education or clean air for breathing and water for drinking. There are things that people should pay for themselves out of their own pocket such as tickets to the next Star Wars movie or a new car. And there are things that people should buy for themselves with some help from the government because it also produces a social good, such as collision insurance or renewable energy.

Knowing how much people are willing to pay for something – knowing how much they value it relative to their other values – does not answer the question of whether the state should be the agency responsible for collecting the money and buying that particular good or service.

Moral Weight

Not everything a person may be willing to pay for us something he has a right to. A “willingness to pay” to kill one’s spouse and be free of a marriage while keeping all the property does not make the activity morally legitimate. Nor is a willingness to pay to hunt human prey.

The issues being raised here do not seem to be the types of issues that raise these types of concerns, but they could approach such issues. If one is being asked about a willingness to pay for something that requires native people to give up cultural practices, the values involved might well step outside of the boundaries properly covered by willingness to pay.

In short, willingness to pay is morally limited to that which is morally permissible, and does not apply to what is morally obligatory or prohibited.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The "Intrinsic Value" of Genetic Integrity

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

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

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

There is no such thing as intrinsic value.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Moore's most famous example: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 09, 2017

Actual Valuation Theory

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

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

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

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


The shorter version:

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

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

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

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

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

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


The longer version:

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

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

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

McShane defines “actual valuation” theories as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Desires vs. "Ought to Desire"

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

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

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

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


Conclusion

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

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

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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

A Carbon Footprint Problem

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

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

What happens?

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

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

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

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

It would seem that we can't win.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Moral luck and practical ethics

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

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

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

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

The murder is considered the worse offense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where practical considerations come into play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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