Sunday, September 17, 2017

Moral luck and practical ethics

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

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

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

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

The murder is considered the worse offense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where practical considerations come into play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Hedonist Paradox

There is this thing called the "Hedonist Paradox."

Assume that the only thing you desire is pleasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this person still a hedonist?

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

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

This person is not a hedonist.

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

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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Desire-Based Value

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

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

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

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

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

Now, rank the following options from best to worst.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we do not live in that world.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Rule Utilitarianism: The Rule Worship Objection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Henry Sidgwick: Considerations in Defense of Desire-Based Ethics

There is an argument that I have often used in defense of a desire-based ethics that I found in my most recent read-through of Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics.

The idea that the purpose of praise or condemnation is to mold desires is supported by the fact that if a desire tends to be stronger than we have reason to want it to be, then we have reason to condemn (or to punish) a person who acts from which, at its proper strength, would be a good desire.

In other words, to determine if praise or condemnation is appropriate, take a desire's actual strength and compare it to the strength the desire would have for that desire to exist in harmony with others. If the natural strength is too high, then we should condemn or punish some acts that the desire motivates to bring the strength of the desire down to where it is at a more useful strength, even though it is a desire we have no reason to discourage entirely.

Sidgwick provides examples that fit this argument - thus providing support in this area that moral evaluations have a lot to do with the evaluations of motives and that praise and condemnation primarily function to mold desires (broadly understood).

although, in the view of a Utilitarian, only the useful is praiseworthy, he is not bound to maintain that it is necessarily worthy of praise in proportion as it is useful. From a Utilitarian point of view, as has been before said, we must mean by calling a quality ‘deserving of praise,’ that it is expedient to praise it, with a view to its future production: accordingly, in distributing our praise of human qualities, on utilitarian principles, we have to consider primarily not the usefulness of the quality, but the usefulness of the praise: and it is obviously not expedient to encourage by praise qualities which are likely to be found in excess rather than in defect. Hence (e.g.) however necessary self-love or resentment may be to society, it is quite in harmony with Utilitarianism that they should not be recognised as virtues by Common Sense, in so far as it is reasonably thought that they will always be found operating with at least sufficient intensity. We find, however, that when self-love comes into conflict with impulses seen to be on the whole pernicious, it is praised as Prudence: and that when a man seems clearly deficient in resentment, he is censured for tameness: though as malevolent impulses are much more obviously productive of pain than pleasure, it is not unnatural that their occasional utility should be somewhat overlooked. The case of Humility and Diffidence may be treated in a somewhat similar way.

Desirism holds that praise and condemnation are used to mold desires - to promote virtues and hinder vices. Thus, we judge the usefulness of praise or condemnation - not in its general sense, but in its specific effects on desires.

This is not the sense in which utilitarianism is generally criticized for judgment the usefulness of praise or condemnation.

For example, one of the common criticisms of utilitarianism is that it would call for the punishment of an innocent person if it would be useful to do so. For example, if you could prevent a murderous mob from destroying a whole town by handing over an innocent person that they want to lynch, then utilitarianism would argue for lynching him, even though he is innocent. This seems to be a counter-intuitive result.

The usefulness we are talking about here, in contrast, says that praise and condemnation - reward and punishment - are to be judged according to their ability to promote good desires and aversions and inhibit bad desires and aversions. We condemn promise-breaking in order to promote an aversion to breaking promises. We praise service to one's community in order to promote a desire in people to serve their community. We are not looking at the consequences of any particular act of praise and condemnation, but looking at the effects of praise and condemnation when practiced generally within a community on the psychological states of its members.

Since Sidgwick is a utilitarian, we have reason to wonder if he is not being inconsistent in his view on the consequences of praise and condemnation. We can ask of Sidgwick, "Why are you not judging individual instances of praise or condemnation on their consequences?" It would seem consistent with utilitarianism that he must do so.

Desirism, on the other hands, evaluates actions according to whether a person with good desires and aversions (and lacking bad desires and aversions) would perform them. I tend to abbreviate this as "a person with good desires" for simplicity. Anyway, desirism evaluates actions - such as praise or blame - according to whether a person with good desires would perform them. A person with good desires gives praise under conditions where the praise would promote good desires, and gives condemnation under circumstances where condemnation will promote good aversions. The murderous mob that might go on a rampage is irrelevant. The disposition to promote a love of justice and an aversion to punishing the innocent is what is relevant. Neither of these are consistent with turning the innocent person over to the murderous mob.

Back to my main point, it is consistent with this view to hold that, if praise and condemnation are used to mold desires, then if a particular desire is inherently much stronger than it should be, then this would suggest using praise and condemnation to inhibit or counter that desire with some relevant aversions. This is exactly what Sidgwick is arguing for. Self-love seems to be a natural desire that comes on more strongly than is useful - but not something we have any need to eliminate entirely. As a consequence, we have reason to use our powers of praise and condemnation to mold it in particular shapes - shapes that are generally useful to others.

Lust is another such desire. We have poor reason to condemn sexual desire entirely. However, we have reason to put up barriers against some of the actions that it may motivate - such as sex without consent or sexual harassment - aversions that people generally have reasons to promote universally.

Sidgwick is making these same points, but he does not seem to notice that this has implications for what counts as a right action. These are all consistent with the thesis that the right action is the action that a person with the good motives would perform. When an action conforms to this standard and people generally have many and strong reasons to move more people to do the same thing, this is where praise comes in. Condemnation, on the other hand, follows from actions that deviate from this measure - giving people to promote those aversions that would prevent people from performing actions of that type. Motives (desires) are the first target of moral evaluation, and actions are evaluated according to their consistency with good and the absence of bad motives (desires).

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Benjamin Hale: Anti-Vaxxers and Causing vs. Allowing Harms

In Chapter 6 of The Wild and the Wicked: On Nature and Human Nature, Benjamin Hale described an argument available to those who oppose vaccinating their children that makes some sense within the structure of desirism.

Mind you, I think everybody should get their child vaccinated, with the standard caveats applying. But a moral argument from the perspective of those who oppose vaccination is, at least, understandable.

It has to do with the distinction between killing and letting die. Or, more to the point, it has to do with killing your child or having it be the case that some disease killed your child.

A parent says, "Go ahead, vaccinate my child." And 3 days later the child is dead.

The parent has to deal not only with the fact that her child is dead, but also with the fact that "I killed her. I made the decision that caused her death. I told the doctor to give her a shot, and she died."

That would be an awful thing to have to live with. That would be brutal.

It is different from the case in which something happens to the child and the child dies.

It's still horrible. The news that one's child has died is still one of a parent's worst nightmares. However, it is different - importantly different - from a situation in which one's child has died "and I killed her."

If the child dies from a preventable disease, there is still the argument that can be made to the parent that, "You refused to save her." Since the odds of getting a serious disease are significantly greater than the odds of suffering from a reaction to an immunization shot, it follows that among those who refuse vaccinations, incidents of "I failed to save my child" will be far more common than "I killed my child" would have been.

Still, this is an important moral distinction.

Let me ask you, the reader, to imagine taking a gun and shooting a child - killing a child. What is the chance of that happening? I am going to guess that for the vast majority of my readers the answer will be, "No chance at all."

And, yet, what effort have you taken to prevent those children from dying?

My guess is that the answer is, "Not as much as I could have."

You are willing to accept a situation where a preventable child catches and dies from a preventable disease (such as malaria) under conditions where you will not accept actually killing a child. The anti-vaxer can make the same argument. She is horrified at the idea of performing an action that kills a child, but finds it a lot easier to accept the possibility that some other force - some preventable disease - might kill a child.

How can you, the reader, be so insistent on parents getting their children vaccinated to prevent them from getting a disease, and yet be so indifferent to other children that are at risk of preventable diseases that you make no effort to prevent?

These different attitudes between killing a child and letting some other force of nature kill a child are not so rare.

There is a reason, within the theory of desirism, to form a far stronger aversion to killing than to letting die.

Imagine if your reaction to every instance of a child dying a preventable death was met with the same emotional involvement as killing a child. You and I would both be emotional wrecks. We could not handle it. Well, I know that I would be - if I think about it too much. It is, literally, just too much to bear. Not killing children is easy - I could do it in my sleep. Attaching the same level of concern to preventing children from falling victim to preventable harms - I would find even eating and sleeping difficult.

So, we have more and stronger reasons to promote an aversion to killing than we have for promoting an aversion to allowing a child to suffer from a preventable disease. You do it. I do it. The anti-vax parent does it.

I have to say, as a moral philosopher, I am not always able to defend everything I do (or fail to do). I do not always come across as the best possible person. Others, who do not devote so much time and effort to thinking about such things, can likely come up with a convenient rationalization and go on with their lives. This option is not so readily available to the person who opts to forego convenient rationalizations.

Now, we cannot deny that an obligation of a parent to their own child should be more than, "I didn't kill her". There is a duty to protect the child - a duty to protection that non-parents do not have. This duty of protection does not apply to strangers - at least not so much. It is from this that one can argue that the non-vaxing parent may be condemned. Certainly, they are living up to the duty not to kill their child, but they are neglecting the duty to protect the child from harm. And this is a duty - a sentiment that people generally have reason to promote and encourage universally.

Though too much protection is also a fault. A parent has to simply live with the fact that it would be wrong to protect a child from all possible risks.

With these considerations in mind, it is possible to see the anti-vax parent as one for whom the sentiment of not harming their child is particularly strong, and is being put up against a weaker sentiment of a duty to protect that is simply not as strong. In this light, it is not such an unreasonable position. I still hold that it is wrong, though these considerations are able to portray it as not such a foolish and contemptible error.

Benjamin Hale: Justificatory vs. Motivational Reasons

In Chapter 5 of The Wild and the Wicked: On Nature and Human Nature, Benjamin Hale attempted to draw some moral lessons from a distinction between two different types of reasons for action - motives and justificatory reasons.

I do not think that such a distinction exists - at least not to the degree that Hale believes it does.

Now, I do agree with Hale that some reasons are better than others. Or, more precisely, I hold that there are reasons that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally. However, I deny that these reasons have some sort of distinct ontological status, or that they work in any way like Hale seems to think that they work.

For example, Hale listed seven possible reasons that a person might give for buying peanut butter.

1. It's healthy.
2. It's more natural.
3. It's better for the earth.
4. It's tasty.
5. It's less risky.
6. It will win . . . the praise of one's neighbors.
7. It comes in an attractive package.

When I first took I described this as a list of reasons for buying peanut butter. But some of these are not even reasons. For example, the claims that organic peanut butter is healthy (or, at least, more healthy than another alternative), is tasty, is less risky, and is better for the earth are potentially subject to dispute. Where these things are false, we may say that the person thinks he has a reason for buying organic peanut butter that he does not, in fact, have.

Hale agrees that some of the alleged reasons may not be true. However, he does not go so far (as he should) to declare that if the claims are not true, then these are merely reasons that the person believes he has, not reasons that he actually does have.

Just because a person claims to have a particular reason, this does not mean that they have such a reason, in the same way that a person claiming that something is true does not mean that it is true. A person has a reason to do X if and only if the agent has a desire that P and P will be made or kept true by doing X. A person may believe that P will be made or kept true by doing X, and thus believe that he has a reason to do X, but unless this belief is true, the reason does not exist.

"Better for the earth" is a reason that I question. Desires provide the only end-reasons for intentional action - the only reason for preferring one thing over another. One state of the earth is better than another if and only if it makes or keeps true the propositions of more and stronger desires. Even then, since the Earth has no desires, the Earth can obtain no benefit. However, something can still be better for the earth in the sense that it can be better for those who have an interest in the earth, in the same way that a particular additive may be better for the car's engine in the sense that it makes or keeps propositions true that those with an interest in the car's engines have in the (use of) the engine.

Here, Hale begins to distinguish between reasons that motivate an action and reasons that justify an action.

The reasons on this list are unique because they aim at justifying the purchase of the peanut butter. Thus, they're justificatory reasons. They don't so much explain the behavior as offer a reason why we ought to engage in the behavior. They therefore stand in sharp contrast to the motivational reasons that investigators and detectives were seeking to extract in the Smith case.

"The Smith case" refers to a murder case where the police were trying to explain what motivated a man to commit murder - which is different from the motivations that explain the fact that Smith committed murder.

Here, Hale seems to want to distinguish motivational reasons from justificatory reasons in the form of "either/or" - as mutually exclusive categories - in the same way that something may be a circle or a triangle.

Whereas I hold that the difference between justificatory reasons and motivational reasons is like the distinction between squares and rectangles. All justificatory reasons are motivational reasons, but not all motivational reasons are justificatory reasons.

Hale states that "motivational reasons explain behavior, justificatory reasons can only justify behavior." But doesn't a good reason need to do both - explain AND justify? If I repay some money that I borrowed, isn't the fact that I am repaying a debt supposed to do both explain why I pulled $20 out of my pocket and give it to the person who loaned me $20 the week before, and justify that action?

How can it be possible that something can ONLY justify behavior?

The final comment I would like to make on this passage concerns Hale's statement:

Many people, some philosophers included, would like to attribute the reasons exclusively to motivations and intentions, but it takes only a little reflection to see that the two are not necessarily linked. Only once we endorse and adopt such reasons do they become motivating for us, do they move us to action. More important, it is the reasons that we endorse and adopt, not the external causes that push our bodies around, that we evaluate when we evaluate a moral situation.

I am one of those philosophers that Hale was talking about.

Hale states that a justificatory reason only becomes motivational when we endorse and adopt it.

But why . . . and how . . . do we endorse and adopt it? Does this just happen? Is it a random event in nature such as the decay of a specific uranium atom where an agent suddenly discovers as a surprise that he has adopted and endorsed a particular reason? Or does adoption and endorsement itself require its own reason? It appears that these are actions of some type - actions that must be explained. Actions that must, in some sense, be motivated.

Now, the adoption and endorsement of Reason 1 may come about because of Reason 2. And Reason 2 may be its own justificatory reason. But then the adoption and endorsement of Reason 2 would require a decision based on some Reason 3. We have three options. Justificatory reasons are, themselves, motivational reasons. We suffer an infinite regress of justificatory reasons. Or the chain of justificatory reasons continues until it reaches a motivational reason - for the sake of which all further justificatory reasons are merely means.

I go with option 3. An aversion to pain gives a person a reason to cause in others an aversion to causing pain to others. The aversion to pain is a motivational reason. The aversion to causing pain to others is what Hale might call a justificatory reason, but it is a reason that we create - that we "adopt and endorse" - because the universal adoption and endorsement makes it less likely that we will experience pain.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Desirism and Issues with Utilitarianism

I would like to say a few words about utilitarianism- the standard happiness-maximizing kind. My instructor for the first three weeks of the Ethics Proseminar is a classic utilitarian, which gives me a clear chance to see the points of agreement and disagreement.

This is a class, with scarcely enough time to give a nuanced view, so I do not want to present any of these points as a complete and accurate account of the professor's views. It us, instead, a presentation of some of the features of classic utilitarianism.

The first point of major disagreement is found in the idea that utility (pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, or, in some senses, well-being) has intrinsic value. There is a property of "ought-to-be-ness" built into it commanding all of us to build as much of it as we can.

This has implications regarding population. If you can add one person to the world whose life is worth living - assuming that the well-being of others is not diminished - then do so. It is better that 10 billion people live a life with 11 utilities worth of life experience each then that 1 billion people exist with 100 utilities worth of life experience. It is better that a universe exist with 1 person having a quality of life above 0 than that no person exists.

Desirism asks, "Better for who?"

Desirism says that one cannot claim a state of affairs is good unless there is a desire that "P". The speaker may say, "I have a preference that a person with a life quality greater than 0 exists." The desirism answers, "Fine. Then you have a motivating reason to create such a world. But there would be no reason to realize a state in which P is true in the absence of a desire that P

The type of utilitarianism that holds that if you can add another person to the world and create more happiness, you should do it. More is better.

And if there is a desire that not-P instead, then so be it.

Are there reasons to bring a person into the world?

Not if we start with a world in which no intentional agent's exist. Without intentional agent's, there I'd no reason to act, no reason to realize one world rather than other, no reason to create a new person.

This is an intrinsic value theory of happiness. If paper clips had intrinsic value, the intrinsic value theorists would demand more paperclips - for putting more value in the world in the form of more paperclips.

Of course, desirism denies the existence of intrinsic value. Value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. Some people might have a desire to maximize utility, in which case, for them, a state of affairs with higher overall happiness is one they have reason to bring about. However, this is one end among many, and sometimes to be sacrificed for the realization of other ends.

In short, there is no reason that exists for choosing option A over option B unless there is a being with a desire that "P", and "P" is true in either A or B. This, then, provides the reason for the entity with that desire to choose A or B.

There is no obligation to bring more people into the world, not unless the agent has a desire that "P" and "P" would be made or kept true only by adding more people to the world. The fact that it creates more happiness in the world is important only to the person with a desire that there be more happiness in the world.

One of the issues with utilitarianism is that it does not care about who gets certain pleasures or pains. One person's broken ankle is no different from another person's broken ankle in terms of utility.

I will call forth my standard story of burning my hand when I was a teenager. My hand is attached to my brain in a particular way. I cared about that pain in a way that I could never care about the same pain in a hand not my own. I have no hope of being indifferent to my own pain versus even a more severe burn experienced by someone else.

I have an aversion to my own pain that is quite distinct from my aversion to there being pain, which itself is quite distinct from my aversion to cause pain. I do not have an aversion to other people being burned that nearly matches my aversion to my own burns. We could imagine how horrible life would be if we had the same aversion to everybody else's pain as we had to our own. We would be in a constant state of torture.

It's ironic that I considered myself a desire utilitarian for so long before realizing that desirism is not a utilitarian theory at all. Utilitarian theories postulate that utility has intrinsic value - that it somehow commands that we create more and more of this stuff. Desirism denies that anything has intrinsic value, and the push to create more of something requires a desire that "P" where P is true in the world where more of that thing exists.