Friday, January 20, 2017

Moral Judgments vs. Attitudes of Cooperation

219 days until classes start.

The reading assignment for PHIL 5110: Contemporary Moral Theory was Richard Joyce, "The evolutionary debunking of morality", appearing in J. Feinberg & R. Shafer-Landau (eds.), Reason and Responsibility (15th edition, Cengage, 2013).

As I see it, the morality that evolutionary theory is supposed to be debunking isn't really morality, so its debunking does not actually turn out to be a debunking of morality.

I have a problem with that which Richard Joyce calls "moral nativism" - the idea that we evolved dispositions to make certain moral judgments.

If I understand it correctly, the idea is that evolution disposed us to make certain moral judgments such as "adultery is wrong". (NOTE: Joyce points out that 'a capacity to make moral judgments' is not to be confused with a disposition to make any specific moral judgment. This is merely an example.)

The claim is that such a feature enabled those ancestors who had it to "make more babies" compared to those who did not. Thus, it was inherited and refined over time.

For example, a maternal disposition to care for one's children. This may well be an inheritable trait. Those ancestors who had it took care of their children, more of their children grew to maturity and, in turn, had more children.

One problem that I have had with the readings so far is that the "morality" that these evolutionary theories are supposed to be debunking is not morality at all. People are going hunting for elk and bringing back a dairy cow instead and are merely calling it an elk.

More specifically, the authors seem to be concerned with an evolved disposition to make certain moral judgments. However, in order to adequately judge whether this is the case, we need an account of what a "moral judgment" is. We cannot, after all, discuss the moral evolution of the spleen until we know what the spleen is.

In the writings so far, the authors have not made any effort to distinguish between a moral judgment and a desire.

Nature shows us a great many examples in which nature motivates living things to cooperate with others. But evolved dispositions to cooperate do not require "moral judgments." When ants or bees take care of the eggs in their colonies or hives, we have no reason to suspect that they are doing so based on a judgment that taking care of the eggs is good. In fact, bees and flowers have a cooperative arrangement even though one of them does not even have mental states, let alone the capacity to make moral judgments.

Of course, evolution allows for the possibility of things that are not necessary.

However, when we have two phenomenon that are quite similar in appearance, it gives us reason to wonder which one we are observing in a particular instance. We may think that we are observing an elk when, in fact, we are observing a dairy cow.

What we may be observing, when evolutionary psychologists and philosophers are claiming that we are looking at "moral judgments" may well be nothing more than an appetite for cooperation. Caring for young family members might well be quite similar to eating, quenching one's thirst, having sex, and avoiding pain. These are simply things that creatures have evolved a disposition to do without a thought to duty or obligation. They simply count among a creature's likes and dislikes.

Having sex is a particularly apt comparison since it involves more than one participant and can be seen as a cooperative venture to create offspring. However, it is is hardly driven by any type of judgment that it is good. We may judge it to be good, but the judgment is not the source of the motivation to engage in sex, and one can have the motivation even while judging it to be bad.

This certainly seems to be a better account of what we observe in nature. The seahorse father who takes care of its young is not making a judgment about the merits of this activity, he is simply doing what he wants to do - just as when he eats or runs away from a potential predator.

The rules of evolution suggest that what humans inherited from animals with regard to this type of behavior is the same amoral "appetite for cooperation". It is a mere like or dislike for certain types of activities, no more involving a moral judgment than the similar behavior of the sea horse.

This raises the question of whether evolutionary psychologists are discovering evidence for an evolutionary account of moral judgment, or just an evolutionary account of an appetite for cooperation.

Take, for example, Joyce's claims concerning the evolutionary advantages that an evolved moral judgment could provide. He says that a declaration that one finds cheating to be morally bad may signal others to engage with that person in cooperative behavior.

Nothing he mentions requires a moral judgment. One can gain the same advantages by signalling that one hates cheating. In fact, a statement of personal dislike would, in some important ways, be preferable. A belief can vanish in an instant when one gets (what one takes to be) evidence that it is false. However, affections or appetites do not change so quickly or easily. The aversion to pain or desire for chocolate cake, by comparison, cannot be so easily turned off.

Furthermore, appetites, though they have a significant roll to play in evolutionary success, are not truth tracking. They are not supposed to be.

To answer the question of whether the they are studying appetites or moral judgments, evolutionary psychologists must provide an account of what distinguishes an appetite for cooperation from a moral judgment. Furthermore, these distinguishing characteristics must be things that they can identify in experiments.

I suspect that, if they were to do this, they will discover that moral judgments are not what they think they are. They claim to be studying moral judgments (and acquiring evidence for an evolutionary debunking of moral judgments). What they are looking at are, instead, appetites of cooperation. And what they are discovering is that appetites of cooperation are not moral judgments.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Realism About Desires

220 days until the first class.

I have just posted my second longish paper over at the desirism group on Facebook.

This one, entitled "A Foundation for Revolution" looks at what is wrong with politics and society today and offers a plan for improvement. After spending some time on philosophical foundations and principles, it suggests ignoring party distinctions and simply going to whatever group has the actual power to decide who will be the next representative, and working to influence who is actually selected.

My next project is "Morality from the Ground Up". I expect to have a first draft of this done by the end of March. This should not be too hard, since I am copying and pasting the desirism series I posted on this blog - and simply putting an ending on it.

I have made it through my first class - at the University of Colorado - even though I was just sitting in. I even got up the nerve to send the professor an email after the class presenting one of the points I generally defend in my own writings.

Thank you for letting me attend class and for access to the reading materials. After having seen the syllabus and the readings, my regret for deferring until the fall has doubled.. I will try to attend a few more classes, but at least I have the readings.

I do have a question to ask. Though I cannot attend class, and I am not a paying student, would it be acceptable for me to email comments on the reading? I recognize an obligation on my part to make the comments worth your time. I assume that you have reasons for teaching this material and that they may also provide reasons to be interested in comments, if they are of a suitable quality.

Though my first comment concerns the distinctions between realism and anti-realism that you presented at the start of the course. They seem to leave a gap, and I have long wondered how to categorize a certain type of claim. I tend to count it as realist, but I do not think that Sharon Street (for example) would see it that way.

Take, for example, the proposition, "Jim likes chocolate cake."

This, to me, is a genuine truth-bearing proposition. It is not only capable of being true, it is true. I know Jim, and he really does like chocolate cake. Furthermore, its truth is independent of our attitudes towards it. We cannot change its truth value by changing any of my evaluative judgments. We are not even evaluating the truth according to the attitude I would have under any type of "perfect information and sound reason." Such a statement is true in exactly the same way that "Jim's temperature is 37 degrees C" is true. When we make this statement, we are describing a fact about Jim. In one case, it is a fact about the average kinetic energy of the molecules in his body. In the other, a fact about the structure of his brain.

This statement does not change its truth value based on who says it. If Jim were to say, "I like chocolate cake" (or even "I prefer that chocolate cake") it would be a proposition and it would not only be capable of being true, it would be true. This is not an emotive utterance (e.g., "Chocolate cake! Yeah!") In fact, it calls into question the idea that emotive utterances are NOT propositions. It, at least, suggests that emotive utterances can be restated as propositions.

This, of course, is not a moral statement. However, Street was not writing exclusively about moral statements. She said that the Darwinian Dilemma created a problem for realism about value. I do not see it creating a problem for realism about, "Jim likes chocolate cake" or even "I like chocolate cake" spoken by Jim, or even "I really like that chocolate cake" or "I prefer the chocolate cake over the cherry pie."

I suspect that Street would want to deny that this is realism. She would say that this would be a form of anti-realism about value.

But . . . Why?

"Jim has a temperature of 37 degrees" (or "I have a temperature of 37 degrees" spoken by Jim) does not suggest an anti-realist account of body temperature. I can see no relevant difference between, "I have a temperature of 37 degrees" and "I have a desire to eat chocolate cake" or even, "I really like the taste of that chocolate cake." If one claim does not throw us into anti-realism, why should the other?

I am, of course, quite nervous about such communications since I do not want to annoy anybody. Yet, for my own part, I am not annoyed when others send me these types of questions. In fact, I find it to be a useful way to test and develop some of my own ideas. Oh well, I will try not to be a bother and to ensure that my questions and comments are interesting.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sharon Street, "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value"

I have finished the first reading assignment for Phil 5110: Contemporary Moral Theory: Sharon Street, "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value", Philosophical Studies (2006) 127:109- 166.

Since I claim to be a realist about value, one would think that I would have a problem with this argument. However, the way Street defines realism, that is not the case. The position that she is arguing against - that she thinks that evolutionary theory creates a problem for - is the thesis that "there are at least some evaluative facts or truths that hold independently of all our evaluative attitudes."

Desirism holds, of course, that all evaluative facts are facts about relationships between objects of evaluation and desires. Facts about relationships between objects of evaluation and desires are not independent of our evaluative attitudes. Consequently, desirism is not a realist theory, and is not subject to the Darwinian Dilemma.

I am going to have to object to the way that Street distinguishes between realism and realism. After all, evaluative attitudes are real, the states of affairs that are being evaluated are real, and so are the relationships between them. Still, it avoids the Darwinian Dilemma that Street describes.

Her Darwinian Dilemma that she uses against "value realism" actually has much in common with an argument that I use against the thesis that evolutionary psychologists have discovered an evolutionary foundation for morality. One objection that I raise is a type of "Euthyphro dilemma".

It is derived from the dilemma that Socrates presented to Euthyphro about the nature of goodness. When Euthyphro said that goodness is whatever is loved by the gods, Socrates as, "Is it good because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is good?"

If it is good because it is loved by the gods - then anything loved by the gods would be good. If the gods loved slavery and the torturing of young children for pleasure, then these would be good.

If, on the other hand, it is loved by the gods because it is good, then we still do not have an account of what makes them good.

As I use this argument against those who think that evolution can explain morality, I ask whether something is moral because we evolved a disposition to approve of it, or if its goodness is independent of our disposition of approve of it but we have evolved a disposition to approve of it nonetheless.

If it is good because we evolved a disposition to approve of, then anything we evolve a disposition to approve of would be good. If we evolved a disposition to enslave others, then slavery would be good. If we evolved a disposition to rape, then rape would be good. If we evolved a disposition to favor those who "look like us" (on the grounds that they likely have more of our genes), then racism would be good.

If, on the other hand, goodness consists in something other than our being evolved to approve of it, then we are still lacking an account of what goodness is. Furthermore, it would be a huge coincidence if that which we evolved a disposition to approve of - given that those dispositions are subject to evolutionary influences - would be precisely the same set of things that happen to be good.

Street uses a similar argument against value realism. She takes it to be a basic fact of evolutionary theory that evolution has disposed us to like things that promote our evolutionary success and dislike things that hinder our evolutionary success. Thus, we tend to like taking care of our own children, tend to prefer the well-being of family members to strangers, and are disposed to praise and reward those who benefit us.

The problem with value realism is that, if values are "out there" in the world, then we would have to postulate a huge coincidence between that which promote human evolutionary success and that which is really good. The value realist has to reject the option that something is good because we evolved a disposition to like it and, instead, assert that goodness exists in things independent of our disposition to like it. However, our disposition to like and dislike is still going to be molded by their evolutionary pressures. What are the odds that these evolutionary pressures are going to direct our perceptions of what is good and bad so that it hits this target?

Steel compares this to a situation where a person wishes to go to Bermuda - arriving at Bermuda is the goal - but is sailing in a craft left up to the winds and currents. Certainly there is a chance that the boat will end up at Bermuda, but could just as easily - and, in fact, far more likely - end up someplace else entirely.

She ends up defending what she calls anti-realism. When life first came into existence, there was no value. Value came into existence because life acquired a disposition to value. This disposition to value promoted evolutionary fitness, because it became a disposition to value that which promoted evolutionary fitness and to dislike things that hindered evolutionary fitness. Value does not exist as something independent of these evaluative attitudes.

Still, Street seems to be the victim of a false dichotomy that takes value either to be real properties completely independent of our evaluative attitudes and the evaluative attitudes that the assessor would have under certain circumstances. In other words, "X is good" either means "X has an intrinsic property of goodness" or "I like X - or I would like X if I looked at X under certain circumstances of perfect knowledge and sound reason." A third option that she does not consider is that "good" refers to relationships between objects of evaluation and desires that actually exist - that are real - and that do not in any way depend on the agent's own beliefs or desires ABOUT THEM. They are not at all independent of 'evaluative attitudes'. However, they are quite independent of the attitudes of the person who is talking about them. They are as real as anything that can be found in nature. It is because I take value to be about something as real as anything that can be found in nature that I consider myself to be a realist about value - though not in any sense that Street is arguing against.

PHIL 5110: Contemporary Moral Theory

222 days until the start of classes.

Or . . . 0 days, depending on how you look at it.

In looking at the University of Colorado course listings, I found a class in this spring semester that sounded very interesting. Professor Iskra Fileva that appeared to be interesting.

PHIL 5110: Contemporary Moral Theory

SEC 001, TR 3:30-4:45, HLMS 237

Prof. Fileva

We will begin this course with a central problem in metaethics, that of the role of reason versus emotion in moral judgment: Do emotions cause moral judgments? Are emotions themselves moral judgments? Is moral understanding possible without moral emotions?

In the second part of the course, we will focus on contemporary work by deontologists and consequentialists. As we will see, the debate over the role of reason and emotion in moral judgment has implications for the deontology-consequentialism debate. For instance, it has been argued that deontology is based on emotion while consequentialism is based on at least partly emotion-independent reasoning.
 
In part three, we will discuss virtue and moral goodness and the relationship between these two, on the one hand, and and moral rightness, on the other. We will begin this part by asking what makes certain character traits virtues and whether virtue ethics is an alternative to deontology and consequentialism as has been traditionally held. Here, we will draw on work on virtue not only by contemporary virtue ethicists but by Kantians and consequentialists as well. After getting a handle on virtue's relationship to deontology and consequentialism, we will ask whether being a virtuous person is the same as being a good person as ordinarily understood, and if not, how the two are different.  
 
In the fourth and last part of the course, we will take a careful look at the so-called  unvirtuous emotions: envy, jealousy, anger, and so on. We will inquire into their nature and causes, their fittingness from the viewpoint of practical rationality, and the  moral assessment appropriate to them and the agents who feel them.

I wrote and asked for a copy of the syllabus and for a list of reading assignments.

The syllabus indicates that this is almost a perfect class for me to take. The class is divided into five subjects, each lasting three weeks.

Part I The Evolutionary Debunking of Moral Beliefs. Questions: Do moral beliefs have an evolutionary explanation? If so, does it follow from here that they are false?

Part II Morality and Its Neural Correlates. Questions: What are the neural correlates of moral judgments? Does neuroscience have implications for moral theory?

Part III Sentimentalism versus Rationalism. Questions: Do emotions cause moral judgments? Are emotions themselves moral judgments? Is moral understanding possible without moral emotions?

Part IV Deontology and Consequentialism. Questions: What are the strengths and shortcomings of deontology and consequentialism, respectively? Can deontological theories – with their emphasis on strict prohibitions – yield a correct verdict in cases of moral uncertainty? Can deontological principles be justified on consequentialist grounds?

Part V Moral Virtue. Questions: What is moral virtue and how does moral virtue relate to rightness? Can a consequentialist account of virtue succeeds? Is Aristotle’s theory of character excellence a theory of moral excellence? What role does virtue play in Kant’s moral theory?

She has provided a long list of readings. I will be going through those readings at the rate required for the course and making comments on them here.

Oh and by the way . . .

I have been reading Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. This is in relation to the paper that I am struggling to get done during this break. In a part of the paper, I discuss two foundations for libertarianism. One is the natural law foundation - attributed primarily to John Locke. The other is the utilitarian foundation - the principles of capitalism - attributed to Adam Smith.

I discovered that the university system is based on the apprentice system. In Smith's time, an apprentice who wanted to learn a trade needed to spend 7 years as an apprentice. During that time he earned no pay and, in fact, often paid the person he was studying under to learn the craft. The teacher got free labor and, perhaps, a little extra income out of the bargain. The student became certified to practice a craft. At the end of seven years, the student created his "masterpiece" (e.g., master's thesis) and was certified as a master of his craft (master's degree). It all sounded spookily familiar. Indeed, graduate students are treated very much like the apprentices of old. The teacher is paid for teaching us, and graduate students are actually expected - in their class papers and other efforts - to serve, in an important way, as unpaid research assistants for the benefit of the professors. I do not object to the system at all, by the way. I intend to do well at it.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Darius I: King of Persia

227 days until the start of class.

In the realm of philosophical progress, I posted an updated version of a response to Hume's Is/Ought argument in the Desirism facebook discussion group. I have a five-day weekend coming up, at the end of which I intend to post a first draft of a new medium-length document on improving society called "A Template for Revolution".

Though, for the most part, I have taken a slight digression from working on philosophy to listen to some episodes of the Hardcore History podcast - specifically, the most recent three episodes on The King of Kings. This is a series on the ancient Persian empire - the empire that battled the ancient Greeks. These three episodes are, combined, about 13 hours of material. I am on the last hour.

I think that moral philosophers need to pay more attention to history. Morality is supposed to be used by real people in the real world. Yet, few moral philosophers give a practical thought to the theories that they invent.

In this series, one interesting example concerns Darius I. The Persian empire was founded by Cyrus the Great. He left the kingdom to his two sons. Though, as in all things in history, we do not know what happened entirely. However, there is reason to believe that Darius murdered both sons of Cyrus the Great and took the throne of Persia.

A moral outrage . . . right?

Well, Darius reigned for 36 years and proved to be a competent administrator. He was known as "the shopkeeper" because of his meticulous management of the empire. Its method of conquering neighboring countries was more like a "merger and acquisition". He would tend to prefer purchasing a neighboring kingdom - that is, offering them a deal - to conquering them militarily and forcing their submission. Once "conquered", he would leave them to live their lives as they had before - he would not impose religious or political reforms on them. All he required was loyalty to Persia and the payment of tribute. In this, he created a large, tolerant, and prosperous empire.

By the way, Darius also lied. Or, at least, there is reason to believe that he lied. When he killed the younger son of Cyrus the Great, he claimed that it wasn't really the younger son of Cyrus the Great but it was some sorcerer making himself look like the younger son of Cyrus the Great - a magic-using usurper. Lying is immoral. And, it seems, the Persians strongly disapproved of lying - quite different from our own society.

One nice thing about studying history from a philosophical point of view is that we do not actually need to decide what really happened. The stories are enough to provide a context for asking important moral questions. Let us assume that Darius I murdered both sons of Cyrus the Great, that the sorcerer-usurper story was a lie, and became king of Persia - and then ruled the empire competently for the next 36 years, more-or-less peacefully conquering nearby kingdoms and bringing them into the empire.

Now, what does your favorite moral theory say about this?

Many people condemn utilitarian moral theories because they lead to counter-intuitive consequences. A utilitarian theory says that the act is right when it brings about the best consequences. A common form of objection to utilitarianism is to create a situation in which an obviously wrong act (killing an innocent person) leads to good consequences (harvest his organs to save the lives of five other people, or throw him on the train tracks to prevent a trolley from hitting and killing five other people, or 'you kill that innocent person or I will kill these 5 innocent people'). Many take this as proof against utilitarianism.

So, now, instead of these fanciful theories, let us assume that you have the option of murdering two innocent young men and that the consequences of this will be to put a competent and - at least as measured by the standards of the time - relatively benevolent king on the throne of a huge empire for the next 36 years. We might still say that murder and lying are immoral - but the anti-utilitarian argument loses a lot of its certainty. Perhaps it can be permissible to sacrifice an innocent person or two in order to bring the greatest good to the greatest number.

Desirism, it seems to me, cannot handle these types of situations. Desirism concerns the value of promoting aversions to certain types of actions (through condemnation and punishment) because those actions generally tend to thwart desires. It argues for promoting aversions (through condemnation of punishment) to lying, breaking promises, theft, vandalism, assault, rape, and murder, for example, because people are better off surrounded by others who have such aversions. It explicitly describes morality as a tool invented by people to handle every-day events, and that it is not meant to provide answers to unusual and exotic situations that are outside the norm.

Well, what happens at the top of a political dynasty are rare and exotic situations outside the norm. Desirism says that it is a good idea to promote an overall social aversion to murder and lying - and that this gives us reason to condemn anybody who murders and lies. This would include condemning Darius for his murders and lies. But what should you do when you have the opportunity to put a competent and (relatively - and I do put an emphasis on 'relatively') benevolent person on the throne of a great kingdom? Can the aversion to murder and lying be outweighed?

I am treating these events as relatively rare and exotic and, thus, outside of the scope of desirism. Yet, an argument can be made that they are not, in fact. If we go through the history of the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the ancient Greeks, China, Egypt, we see that the killing and replacing leaders was a common practice - and the people who did so were not often (often not) competent and relatively benevolent leaders. An argument could be made that the people generally had many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to violently replacing incompetent and malevolent dictators given that the violence that occurred regularly at the top of the social pyramid created far more harm than good, even if we are giving up the chance that - once in a while - a competent and relatively benevolent person became king.

There are a lot of moral theories that are nice and neat and pretty as long as you are only looking at them in the laboratory of the mind. They become a lot dirtier when you take them out and set them loose in the real world.

Back in the realm of philosophy, spring classes start on Tuesday and, though I cannot take classes, I have acquired permission from one of the professors to follow along with a course she has been teaching on the relative importance of reason versus emotion in moral knowledge. That should be interesting, and I hope to get a paper or two out of that.

Friday, January 06, 2017

G.E. Moore on The Limits of Moral Knowledge Regarding Duty

Classes start in 233 days.

I have just posted a new article over at the desirism group in Facebook. This concerns Hume's Is/Ought distinction.

After posting a response to the claim that desirism commits the 'naturalistic fallacy', I thought that one of the things that people may want is a response to the claim that desirism violates the is/ought distinction. It does not - because the is/ought distinction is not applicable to hypothetical imperatives.

A hypothetical imperative contains one or more desires in its premises, and an 'ought' conclusion that can be translated into an 'is' statement - "is such as to fulfill the desires in question". The "desires in question", of course, are the desires written into the premises. There is no fallacy here because the conclusion is actually an "is" statement, and deriving "is" from "is" creates no difficulty.

The paper, of course, goes into much more detail.

Note that this is a first draft that I will likely be rewriting it in the near future. However, I thought I would still post the draft to get feedback that I can incorporate any comments into the rewrite.

In writing that draft, I found myself admitting to a fact that I have been ignoring. The one thing that a defender of desirism needs more than anything else - the one thing I have not adequately provided - is that "opening move". If we are going to continue to imagine the discussion to be like a card came, and the game being played is "desirism", then the person defending desirism needs a first move.

I have actually started that document - which I have named "morality from the ground up". But I need to create a priority to finishing it.

Consequently, I am going to truncate my document on "A Template for a Rebellion" - give it another round of quick edits, and get it posted for comments. Then, I will turn my attention to "Morality from the Ground Up" and get a draft of that posted on the discussion group.

On the subject of what I am reading, I have moved on to W.D. Ross The Right and the Good. I will not be able to do as much as I would like with this book because, try as I might, I have not been able to find an electronic copy. It seems only to exist in book form. I would rather have something that I can search electronically.

Meanwhile, I still have things I want to say about G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica, particularly its Chapter 5 on the ethics of conduct. Moore has a long argument where he points out that we can know very little about the consequences of an action. Those consequences go on into the indefinite future. Not only do we need to know what the consequences of an action are, but we need to know the value of those consequences. And we need to know this not only with respect to the act being evaluated, but with respect to all of the alternative actions since we need to make a judgment as to which action would produce the best overall consequences.

The most we can know, according to Moore, is that a particular type of action generally produces good consequences (or bad consequences) in the short term.

When we identify these "types of actions that produce the best consequences in the short term", Moore thinks that we identify our duties. We can know that telling the truth, keeping promises, and helping those in dire need generally produce good consequences over that period of time where we can know and attribute those consequences. The claim that there is a duty to tell the truth, keep promises, and help those in dire need generally recognize that, so long as people abide by these rules, we can expect to produce more good than if we abandon these rules.

Desirism would use this fact to argue that, if a type of act generally produces good consequences, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a desire to perform acts of that type. And if an act type tends to cause harm than people generally have many and strong reasons to create in people generally aversions to performing acts of that type.

Moore does not talk about creating motives. However, he does talk about adopting rules to perform good types of actions and not performing bad types of actions - rules that we should not break even if, in a given case, we judge that breaking the rule would produce more good. The reasons include the fact that we do not want to get into a habit of breaking the rules when we think it will produce the most good because we are disposed to think that breaking a rule will produce the most good for everybody when it, in fact, only produces the most good for ourselves.

Desirism would argue for creating an aversion to that which Moore would say that we should have a rule against. The aversion will keep people from performing an act of that type even if it would otherwise benefit oneself, the same way that a person with a fear of flying will avoid flying even when it would be useful, or a person may avoid going to the dentist even when going to the dentist would produce more good than harm. Similarly, a person with a desire to help others would do so even when it fails to produce an overall benefit to oneself in the same way that a person with a desire to eat chocolate cake will eat chocolate cake even when it produces no overall benefit for oneself.

None of these considerations end up in Moore's discussion. However, he does provide a strong argument to the effect that the most we can know is whether a type of action generally produces good or bad consequences. Fortunately for desirism, that is all we need to know.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

G.E. Moore and the Definition of Definitions

235 days until classes start.

Today, I started W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good. It is another classic text that I have seen mentioned on several class syllabi for the University of Colorado, so I thought I should get it read. This and Rawls Theory of Justice are both on my "before I start graduate school reading list".

And it is not just reading it. It is studying it - as I am trying to do with Moore and Sidgwick. I will be writing some things on these papers as well.

However, I am still harvesting G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica Chapter 5 for useful insights.

I have uploaded a newest (20170104) version of a short paper discussing Moore's naturalistic fallacy on the Desirism facebook group.

In working on this draft, I had some thoughts that fall into the area of philosophy of language.

I am a pragmatist about language. Language is a tool that we invent to help us fulfill our desires. Moore was talking about the definition of the term 'good' almost as if it is something that exists in nature for us to discover, and not as something that we invent to serve a purpose.

Moore's claim that 'good' is an undefinable term particularly bothered me. If it is an 'undefinable term', then how do we get it to be the case that others know what we are talking about when we use it? How can we build a useful, practical language out of undefinable terms? There must be some way to get together with other people and reach an agreement to the effect, "Let's agree, when we use the term 'good', to be talking about the following . . ."

And once we reach this agreement, there must be a way to pass this fact on to new users of the language - whether they are born into it or migrate in from other languages.

I added a section to the paper that said,

Language is a tool used largely for communication – to cause ideas to appear in the thoughts of the person who receives the communication. A ‘definition’ is anything that one can do to cause the desired idea to appear in the thoughts of the recipient. One way to define a term is by listing its parts and the relationships between them. However, that cannot be the only way to define a term.

In fact, when it comes to defining the term ‘good’, the question is: What can we do to get the same idea to show up in the minds of different people when they receive the term ‘good’ in a communication?

One of the ways which we can define a term – one that refers to a part of a whole – is by listing its relationships to the other parts. Using the concept of a horse – which is a complex concept made up of multiple parts – we can define those parts by describing their relationships to other parts. We can define a molar by describing its positon in the mouth, and each of the other bones by describing their location relative to the other bones.

In fact, some of our terms are strictly relational – they are terms we use to describe the relationships between one thing and another. Consider, for example, the term “sister”. You can know everything there is to know about the parts of a horse – its liver, its eyes, its tail, its blood – and none of this will help you to understand the idea that this horse is the sister of some other horse.

One might say that we can define ‘sister’ in that a sister is a part of a family. However, Moore does not consider the possibility that we can define parts according to what they are a part of. Complex things are defined in terms of their parts, but parts are not to be defined by their relationship to the whole. If terms could be defined according to what they are a part of, then every term would have a definition and there would be no “undefinable terms.”

One particular type of relational definition that is particularly useful is a functional definition – where we define something according to the role that it plays in a larger system. One can hand you all of the parts of a mousetrap. However, an understanding of all these parts and even an understanding of how the parts are put together does not allow a person to understand that this contraption has a function – to trap mice. In fact, any number of devices, having different structures and different parts, can all be properly called a ‘mousetrap,” having nothing in common but the fact that they are used to catch mice.

There are certainly cases in which it is impossible to define a term. I cannot think of anything I can do to cause my dog (assuming I had a dog) to have an idea of a disjunctive syllogism when I use the term ‘disjunctive syllogism’ – or even to have an idea of good when I use the term good. I think I can get him to have a concept of the term ‘toy’. At least, I can use the term to create behavior that I can predict towards the object I have in mind when I use the phrase ‘get your toy’ when speaking to my dog.

If we cannot get different people to have the same thought when they receive the term ‘good’, then we cannot have communication. Somehow, there must be a way to accomplish this – which means that, somehow, there must be a way to define the term ‘good’.

One may object to the idea that the definition of a term looks to creating a common idea in the thoughts of those who use it by claiming we have terms that may well lack a common idea. How do we know, for example, that what you see when you see red is the same thing that I see when I see red?

Yet, what matters in the definition of ‘red’ is not this ‘qualia’ or the sensation of redness. It is found in the fact that, while we are working together defusing a bomb, and I say, “cut the red wire,” you correctly identify the wire that I want you to cut. The qualia of redness is entirely irrelevant to the meaning of the term.

Ironically, this is a place where Moore‘s naturalistic fallacy actually has an application. A person experiences a certain sensation with all things red and makes the mistaken inference that the term ‘red’ refers to that sensation. But it does not- because others can be using the same term without having the same sensation. And when one is corrected for having misused the term, it is not on the basis of using it to refer to the wrong sensation. It is because of a failure to identify the correct objects.

The attempt to define ‘good’ is an attempt to get a common, useful idea to show up in the thoughts of different people when they use the term in a certain set of contexts.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

G.E. Moore Against Moral Absolutism

G.E. Moore: The Ends Justify the Means

236 days until the first day of class.

Here is an argument from G.E. Moore against moral absolutism.

More specifically, Moore provides us with an argument to use against anybody who claims certain actions are wrong regardless of the consequences – or, more precisely, against those who argue that a certain type of action (e.g., murder) is never to be done.

Your answer, according to Moore, can go as follows:

(I am paraphrasing – these are not exact quotes.)

Okay, you say that it is an intrinsically bad thing that a murder takes place. I can accept that.

(Actually, Moore will argue that act types are not intrinsically good or bad – but is willing to accept the claim that an act type is intrinsically bad at least for the moment. There is no need to waste effort to argue against premises one does not, strictly speaking, need to disprove.)

I assume that you are not going to tell me that this particular murder is not the only thing that is intrinsically bad. If this single murder was the sole thing that was intrinsically bad than, either no other murder is intrinsically bad or there can be more than one thing that is the sole thing that is intrinsically bad. Neither of these implications make any sense, so this particular murder cannot be the only thing that is intrinsically bad.

For the same reason, this murder cannot be the worst thing in the world. Or, at least, it cannot be the case that each individual murder is the worst thing in the world, such that it outweighs all of the other bad things.

Consequently, it must be possible that there is a murder that, even though it is a bad thing, can be outweighed by the other bad things that might come about if the murder does not take place. That is to say, allowing the murder, or even performing the murder, may be the least bad option available – the lesser of two evils.

If murder can be the lesser of two evils, then there are times in which murder is the thing that should be done – because it can never be the case that we must do the greater evil over the lesser evil. The claim that we should perform the greater evil does not even make sense – since to be the greater evil is, by definition, to be the thing that ought not to be done.

The way that contemporary moral theorists present this same argument is to ask, “What if, by performing a murder, you could prevent 20 murders? If murder is a bad thing, then, it seems to follow that 20 murders would be worse than a single murder. Consequently, the thesis that murder is intrinsically bad argues that it is better to have only one murder than 20 murders. Consequently, there must be times in which it is morally permissible to commit murder.

Another way that the argument can be presented is to respond, “What if some powerful alien race came to Earth and demanded that we kill Person X. If we do not, then they will destroy the earth in such a way that all of humanity will suffer a very slow and painful death. Clearly, even though murder is wrong, it is better that this murder take place than that all of humanity suffer a slow and painful death.

This argument comes from my continued study of G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica of which, I have said, Chapter V is a treasure mine of good philosophical arguments mixed with a few bad philosophical arguments). I have read the chapter three times now. I need to move on with my reading - but there is still a lot to write here.

Speaking of writing, we are seeing another example of the fact that it is a poor idea for me to edit my own documents. Ian Downey was kind enough to make suggestions to my recent short paper on G.E. Moore's Naturalistic Fallacy. In incorporating his suggestions, I am afraid I made some substantial edits - as is my habit. I likely introduced just as many problems as I removed.