Monday, October 08, 2018

Identity Politics

Identity politics

This came from a discussion elsewhere on the topic of what desirism has to say about identity politics.

This is an area where the question of whether desirism is true or false is one thing, and how to apply it to certain issues is another. It is possible for desirism to be true, but yet misapplied. What follows is a suggested, but possibly mistaken, application.

We do have to say that bigotry exists, and there are many and strong reasons against having an aversion to having a female boss or President, black neighbor, or gay school teacher. There is reason to condemn such attitudes. And it is reasonable for those adversely impacted by these attitudes to unite to make a more powerful force for combatting these attitudes.

Also, there is nothing wrong with tribes per se. The family is a tribe - its members selected not entirely by genetics but by adoption, marriage, and even the inclusion of close friends who become “a part of the family.” Church congregations and similar tribes give people access to resources in times of trouble - people they can draw on for help.

Problems occur when tribe is mixed with power - the ability to do harm to non-members and to obtain by the abuse of this power an unfair advantage. In this context, any tribe with power is a threat. Race, gender, religion, political party, nation. Tribe + power = trouble.

Which implies, if (when) power relationships change, do not expect the new tribe in power to be intrinsically just while the old tribe was unjust. The idea that the tribe in power is intrinsically unjust and immoral and that power should be given to a different, more virtuous tribe is a mistake.

Indeed, we should not forget that these tribes are made up of humans and the facts of human psychology apply. We can expect to observe such groups forming increasingly extreme views in which “the other” is portrayed as a monolithic malevolence where everything “they” do or say is interpreted in an increasingly negative light.

Equality does not solve this problem. Two tribes of equal power = war until one tribe wins.

Where tribes tend to be useful and stable is where there are 100 tribes and 99 will gang up on 1 that abuses its power (family, small congregation, town, small business). Which provides an argument for decentralized power - state and community government over federal and global regulation unless dealing with issues that transcend borders.

Now, imagine an island community where a gang - through intimidation, corruption, and violence - gains control of 80% of the island’s wealth. They then declare, “From this point on, forced transfers of wealth are prohibited. Only voluntary exchange is allowed.” It’s a bit self-serving at that point. To be a member of the dominant group, enjoying the benefits of that history, while insisting on new rules that "treat everybody equally" and ignore that history, can legitimately be criticized.

Indeed, criticism of “identity politics” by the dominant tribe looks suspiciously like a tactic of “divide and conquer.” Keep “them” (subject groups) disunited and weak. Culturally, socially, and politically obstruct their ability to organize and oppose “us”. The effect is to keep the dominant group in power. That effect is likely not lost on those who advocate these values.

One can find elements of these remarks in my comments concerning the atheist “tribe”. The “new atheism” was an attempt to form a tribe - complete with its own banners and cultural icons. It is true that atheism makes one prone to costs and abuses at the hands of the more powerful religious tribes. In some territories, atheists are banned (executed, punished).

Other religious tribes have found a use for atheists, so long as they know their place. The atheist is permitted in the scientific labs where they may produce useful discoveries, “but don’t you dare peek your head out of the laboratory and make comments about society at large. You are morally bankrupt and are not to be trusted. You have value only where you continue to make discoveries we find useful.”

But, you can see in this atheist tribe, all of the problems of tribalism. It is not the case that, “We atheists are perfectly wise and virtuous and if our tribe ran the world it would be run with perfect wisdom and virtue.” The French Reign of Terror shows that an atheist tribe in power can produce atrocities as severe as those of any religious tribe.

Indeed, the atheist tribe even has its fictions - beliefs, contrary to evidence and reason, that members must not criticize. Those who do are ostracized - removed, virtually if not literally, from the community. Among these fictions, “Atheism is not a belief,” “Nobody has ever committed an act of terror in the name of ‘no God’”, and “Religion is a source of evil.” This last point can be true only if religion is a source. But it is not a source. It comes from the people who created it. It's source is in human nature, and the atheist tribe is made up of people having that same nature.

I would argue for a continuation of identity politics. However, I would like to see each identity adopt a position, “We are human, and prone to certain types of errors. Let us include in our movement something that aims to identify and prevent these errors.”

Which, by the way, also applies - far more importantly - to any tribe with power.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Nationalism 010: Ypi's Permissive Theory

[T]he citizens of each state are entitled to the particular territory they collectively occupy, if and only if they are also politically committed to the establishment of a global political authority realizing just reciprocal relations.

This is the thesis that Lea Ypi defends in "A Permissive Theory of Territorial Rights," European Journal of Philosophy, 2011.

She builds this thesis from a Kantian foundation.

A cornerstone of this foundation is the "principle of right" - a principle that states that each person should be given freedom to pursue his or her happiness comparable to the equal freedom of others. This principle creates a problem for the acquisition of property (and, for similar reasons, for the acquisition of territorial rights) in that, whenever a person acquires property, one reduces the freedom of others. I say that this 160 acres of land is mine. I put a cabin on it and plow and plant the fields. In declaring that it is mine, I declare that all others must stay off. I maintain a liberty to use this land as I wish, but I deny the equal liberty to others.

This might not be the case if others had as much and as good a land to declare their own. However, there are two problems with this. The first is that this has not been the case for a long time - and perhaps never if you look at the effects that our current territorial claims have on future generations. The second problem is related to the declaration given above. It means that my ownership of this property is contingent on my support for some sort of regime that is responsible for maintaining and defend the rights of people generally to own and control property. I may exclude you from my property only insofar as I am willing to support institutions that would also keep me off of your property.

For ease of illustration, I have picked the identical rights to exclusive use of one's own property by agreeing to equally respect the rights of others to their property. However, Ypi does not make such a specific claim. She argues that this requires agreement to an institution - a "rule of all" - governing the range of rights and responsibilities concerning property.

In this way, the unilateralism of initial acquisition and the arbitrary use of exclusionary force is mitigated by the commitment to make our will consistent with others’ will through collective rules of property arbitration and enforcement.

This Kantian requirement to enter into a political organization that determines the equal property rights of all individuals means ALL individuals - not just those within a certain territorial boundary. This means that one's right to property is conditional not only to agreeing to enter into a political union with others in one's state, but to enter into a like political union that respects the equal political rights of those within other countries - a global, cosmopolitan political union.

Another route that goes in the direction of a similar conclusion is that, in the same way that individuals have a right to property only insofar as they agree to enter into a political union that establishes the equal property rights of all others in one's country, countries have a right to territorial sovereignty only insofar as they are willing to participate in a super-national political union that aims to respect the equal political sovereignty of all countries.

Ypi is not clear which of these she would favor. In the realm of theory, she talks about the relationships among individuals - that an individual has an obligation to join a community that resolves disputes of rights among all others. In the realm of practice she talks about an association of states - not of persons.

Consider that the territory of the United States requires entering into some type of agreement with other nations that respects the territorial sovereignty of countries generally, which respects not only the territorial sovereignty of the United States but that of every other country. If we are not willing to enter into such an institution, then the lack of recognition of sovereign rights applies equally to all countries - including the United States. Either there is an institution for recognizing the sovereignty of nations generally that applies to all countries including the United States, in which case its sovereignty is institutionally recognized - or there is not.

Ypi does not provide an account of what this global political association would look like. However, she provides a list of what they might do. This includes (1) negotiating boundary disputes, (2) refugees and migrations, (3) natural resource management, and (4) resolving the effects of climate change and similar cross-border effects of human actions.

One thing she does rule out - or, at least, which she claims that Kant would rule out - is the use of violence against states as a way of enforcement. The article seems to imply that such things as economic sanctions and other uses of soft power would be legitimate. However, the use of violence to impose solutions on states would involve the type of unilateral decision making incompatible with the equal freedom of others. Resorting to violence for any reason other than self-defense seems to be - if not ruled out - at least highly restricted.

Nationalism 009: Securing Basic Rights

In my previous post I discussed David Miller's defense of national sovereignty, which covered the nation's rights of jurisdictional control and control of resources within, as well as a right to control the movement of people across, national boundaries.

Miller defended these rights as a matter of people controlling the economic and cultural values that tie them to the land in a particular region.

Using the Confederacy as an example, I argued that there are limits to the controls that one can justifiably place on others in order to preserve a given "way of life". It can't justify slavery, and it is questionable whether it can justify the right to impose criminal penalties and control the movement of people. These cultural values may count as one reason among many for certain principles and institutions, but it it must be weighed against - and does not automatically trump - rights to liberty.

Chris Armstrong, in contrast, accepts Miller's claims that these attachments to the land generate certain rights - but not necessarily a right to state sovereignty. (Armstrong, Chris (2014). "Against 'Permanent Sovereignty" Over Natural Resources", Politics, Philosophy, and Economics pp 1-23.

He argues that, in some cases, the rights of people cross national borders. As an example, he points to the Saami people in northern Europe. Their cultural traditions involve the managing of reindeer herds as they migrate across the far north. Their cultural traditions carry them across four nations - Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Preserving their way of life does not allow any of these countries, individually, to claim exclusive resource sovereignty over the reindeer herds. Rather, it would seem to require that they release sovereignty to the Saami people, giving them the right to cross national borders with impunity.

Another example of how cultural values can cross national borders involves, "a Canadian Hindu wishing to perform puja at the Ganges." Preserving this interest would prohibit, rather than permit, India from controlling who can cross its borders. We may say the same of Saudi Arabia attempting to ban Muslims from performing the Hajj - a pilgrimage to the holy sights within its national borders.

At the same time, many of these cultural values involve a few people in a community and does not require control over all of its natural resources. Within any nation-state, there may well be supplies of natural resources that have no cultural or social significance whatsoever - other than to provide a source of income. If this is all that it is being used for, then it may make more sense to use that income to secure the cultural rights of people living in a different country.

The Lockean Proviso states that a right to own property is limited by the proviso of leaving "as good and as much for others". A standard case used to illustrate this proviso is that of a person who claims property in the only source of water for a community. His control over the water would allow him to virtually enslave everybody else in the community. Since his claim does not leave as good and as much for others, others are left with a claim to some of that water. The agent does not have exclusive rights over its distribution.

We may apply this principle to nations. Assume a particular nation is the sole source of a particular resource. Indeed, we may assume that the question of national ownership of a resource would not even come up if there was as much and as good left for others. The very fact that people are asking questions comes from the fact that there are those who do not have as much and as good. In order for the people in one country to pursue their cultural values, they may have a need for this resource that is within another nation's boundaries. Cultural values, then, would provide a poor justification for the other country having exclusive ownership and control over those resources.

More specifically, a people cannot pursue their cultural values in any sense if they do not have nourishing food, clean water, sanitation, and basic medical care. Even if the resources within another country does not serve their cultural values directly, it could provide them with the income to acquire these basic goods that are necessary for enjoying any cultural values - with perhaps a few exceptions. Considering these basic needs and the ability to satisfy them with income produced by the sale of nearly any natural resource, the "ability to pursue one's cultural values" argument would imply giving them the revenue from the sale of surplus resources in another country.

In short, even if we grant that cultural values are a reason for action, they are not necessarily a reason for preserving the doctrine of natural sovereignty over resources. In many cases, they provide a reason for abandoning the doctrine of national sovereignty, allowing the people in one nation to obtain the benefits of natural resources in another country precisely so that they can better secure and engage in the practices that are common to their culture.

Nationalism 008: The Rights of Peoples

What may you legitimately do to other people in order to protect your culture, practices, institutions, and way of life?

This question concerns the following article: Miller, David (2011), "Territorial Rights: Concept and Justifiation", Political Studies, Volume 60, Issue 2, pp. 252-269,, accessed Sept. 28, 2018.

What justifies a nation's control over its territory?

According To David Miller, these rights are justified by the fact that a group of people have improved the value of the land, economically and culturally, and have come to attach cultural significance to the land through their continued occupation and shared history.

In order to secure these values, the people who hold those values need to have jurisdictional control over the territory in order to determine what happens to the lands and entities that hold those values. A part of the problem is that the "value" of territory cannot be expressed purely in economic terms. There are cultural factors to consider. For example, a group of people may have built a culture around herding animals along the rocky slopes of a mountain range where they graze their herds first in one district or another. They would not be able to protect this practice without jurisdictional control

They also need to be able to control the use of its natural resources because the ways in which they are used will have an impact on those values, since the manner in which those resources are secured and marketed will have impacts on the culture and its people. How those resources are extracted and marketed will have an influence on who has economic and political power within the community. Also, the question of how to harvest and market these resources must be done in a way that preserves peace. There are also resources - such as sacred forests or national parks established for conservation that have value without being harvested.

Finally, the society needs to be able to control who may cross its borders - and, in particular, needs to be able to take up residence, in order to preserve its culture and its values. New people will create economic demands that may threaten cultural values - such as pressure to turn historic battlefields into residential areas or shopping centers. They also bring new ideas that risk swamping and, ultimately, extinguishing the culture of the people who were originally there.

All of this is built on an intrinsic right of a group of people to protect and preserve "their way of life".

A lot depends on what that "way of life" happens to be.

The Confederate States of America saw themselves as having a particular culture, a particular way of life, a particular culture, and a particular set of values that they sought to protect. It was a white supremacist culture that expressed its values through, among other things, the institution of slavery. They could use Miller's argument quite effectively.

They needed jurisdiction over the Confederate states in order to protect their institutions and practices. They needed to control the methods by which their resources were harvested - particularly concerning the ways in which their agricultural lands produced cotton that could then be marketed. Finally, they needed to be able to control who might enter or leave their land in order to preserve and protect those institutions. Particularly, they needed to keep out northern abolitionists and free blacks, and they needed to prevent slaves from escaping.

The existence of the Confederacy suggests that there may be certain values that transcend Miller's rights to national sovereignty. It raises the question of what, exactly, may a group do to other people in order to preserve their cultural values? Enslave them? If enslaving them crosses a moral boundary, then there is at least an argument to be made that jurisdictional control - passing laws that limit their freedom for the sake of protecting cultural values - may also be going too far. Excluding them from the potential benefits of natural resources and restricted their freedom of movement are also, at least, morally questionable.

The mere fact that people place a certain type of value in certain institutions, practices, and lands may certainly be a value worth considering - when those values fall within a certain range of legitimate concerns. However, it comes with limits. We may well have reason to respect and try to preserve the traditions of a people who traditionally herd animals across the rocky slopes of a mountain range. Yet, if we accept certain animal rights claims, this constitutes a practice as bad or worse than slavery.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Korsgaard 03: Judging Reasons

We are not animals.

Well, yes, of course we are animals, but we are different. We are the only animals with the capacity to judge the quality of our reasons for acting. We can say, "This is a good reason. That is a bad reason."

Christine Korsgaard, in The Normativity of Instrumental Reason seeks to investigate whether the instrumental principle, whereby A’s being a means to B gives an agent a reason to do A if B is one of A's ends. She objects that:

A practical reason must function both as a motive and as a guide, or a requirement. I will show that the empiricist account explains how instrumental reasons can motivate us, but at the price of making it impossible to see how they could function as requirements or guides.

She further asserts that:

Empiricists . . . suppose that the instrumental principle is either obviously normative or does not need to be normative because we are reliably motivated to take the means to our ends. Instrumental thoughts cause motives.

I will go with the "reliably motivated to take the means to our ends" option . . . or, what is actually the case, "reliably motivated to take what would have been the means to an end if the agent's relevant beliefs were true." Clearly, we sometimes fail to take the means to our ends when our beliefs are false, but that should not be taken as the focus of the debate.

Using the model of how desire work that I wrote up a little while ago, cognition and perception put actions at action gates and then desire opens the gate for its preferred option. The reward system is a black box, but we can have an idea of how it works from its effects, and "choosing the action that would fulfill the agent's desires if her beliefs were true" appears to be a reasonable hypothesis.

Korsgaard argues that, if this is the case, then the instrumental principle cannot be a guide for action. That is to say, our actions are not guided by a principle that states, "since action A will fulfill my desire that P, I ought to do A."

Well, that's fine. It is not a guide for action. We do not need it as a guide for action. It is a statement about how the black box of desire selects actions at the gate - a statement that allows us to explain and predict which actions the black box will open.

Then, how is irrationality possible? It would seem, in this case, that an agent always chooses the most rationally best action. Korsgaard brings up the case of Howard whose fear of needles prevents him from getting a treatment he would otherwise get. Korsgaard claims that, if we always chose the means to our ends, and one of those ends is to avoid needles, then Howard is acting rationally to avoid the needles.

[I]f we reject the claim that prudence is a rational requirement, we will say: fear determines what Howard's preferred end is, but there is no irrationality in the case, for reason has nothing to say about what ends we should prefer.

However, this does not follow. Korsgaard is confusing the reasons for action given the agent's desire, and the reasons to desire. Both claims can be true at the same time: Given Howard's fear, he has more reason to avoid the needle than given the treatment. Howard has many and strong reasons to rid himself of this fear.

Howard's fear does not give him a reason to fear. It gives him a reason to act. The desires that Howard would fulfill if he did not fear needles gives him reason to not fear - to do something that would get rid of his fear, so that it would quit motivating actions that thwart those desires. In other words, Howard has no reason to fear. He has reasons not to fear. So, he has more and stronger reasons not to fear than to fear. Avoiding needles is NOT an end he should prefer or even have.

This means that, if there is some course of action that would rid Howard of this fear . . . such as sensitivity training or cognitive therapy . . . then Howard has more reasons to go through this therapy than not to. This may not continue to be the case if we add in the opportunity cost of time and money, but in their absence we can still draw this conclusion from Korsgaard's example.

So, it is not the case that, if the empiricist account of instrumental rationality is true, we "have nothing to say about what ends that we should prefer." Ends are also, at the same time, means to the fulfillment (or thwarting) of other ends. In their role as means, we have reason to judge them as we judge any other means.

It is important here to note that the grounds for our judgment is based on desires. If the fear of needles did not thwart other desires - if it, instead, tended to fulfill other desires - then it would not be true that Howard has reasons to rid himself of this fear. He might - depending on the consequences of having this fear on the fulfillment of other desires - be something he has reason to cultivate. Once again, it is desire that determines the "ends we should prefer" - not any kind of appeal to pure reason.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Korsgaard 02: Prudence

As I read through The Normativity of Instrumental Reason by Christine M. Korsgaard, I found many things that I wanted to comment on, so I am going to devote a few posts to this subject.

I would like to start with this quote:

Moral requirements, [empiricists] think, must therefore be given a foundation in one of two ways. Either we must show that they are based on the supposedly uncontroversial hypothetical imperatives—say, by showing that moral conduct is in our interest and so is required by the principle of prudence—or we must give them some sort of ontological foundation, by positing the existence of certain normative facts or entities to which moral requirements somehow refer.

I do not know if I qualify as am empiricist. This seems to apply to me, but I reject both options. I do ground moral requirements on hypothetical imperatives - but on the hypothetical imperatives that others have to praise and condemn, not on the agent’s own hypothetical imperatives. Thus, not on “showing that moral conduct is in our interest and so is required by the principle of prudence”. Indeed, I hold that moral conduct is not always prudent - but that it “should be” prudent in that people generally have reasons to promote those interests that will make it prudent.

But, even on the subject of prudence itself, there is an important ambiguity.

Korsgaard follows the above quote with the following accusation:

Part of the problem is that empiricist philosophers and their social scientific followers have obscured the difference between the instrumental principle and the principle of prudence by making the handy but unwarranted assumption that a person's overall good is what he “really” wants.

I would like to assure the reader that I have not done this. I do not recognize a difference between what an agent wants and what an agent “really wants”. I hold to the Humean claim that an agent has a reason to do X only if the agent has a desire that would be served by doing X . . . full stop.

I do recognize a difference between what an agent believes that she wants and what she wants. That is to say, the belief, “I want X” can be false. This can happen because we have no direct access to our own desires and, consequently, must theorize about the. Even though we have a great deal of evidence about our own desires and an incentive to get the facts straight, we sometimes make mistakes. Another reason for mistaken beliefs is that we use the term "want" to refer to things we desire in terms of a relationship of means to ends, and our beliefs about the relationships between means and ends can be mistaken.

Still, the only sensible interpretation of “I really want X” is “‘I want X’ is true.”

This is not to deny that we have a concept of "overall good". In the same way that you can give the location of an object by describing its relationship to any other object, you can describe some action in terms of its relationship to many other desires. Consequently, we can describe the relationship between an action and an agent's current desires, an agent's current and future desires, the desires that the agent prudentially has reasons to cultivate, the desires that people generally have reasons to cultivate universally, and the like. I fear that our term "prudential" is ambiguous among these various relationships - and the agent must determine any given use by looking at the given context.

I would still limit "has a reason to do X" to "has a desire that would be served by doing X".

And I would argue that "moral requirements" have little to do with what an agent "has a reason to do". They have to do with what an agent "should have a reason to do" - which, in the moral sense, have to do with the reasons that people generally have reasons (in the above sense) to promote universally. As for "overall good," I think I am inclined to agree with Chris Heathwood's statement that it has to do with having a life where one's desires have been fulfilled at the time that one had them.

Korsgaard is going to have problems with this thesis. She is going to present cases where a person "has a desire that would be served by doing X" where she is going to want to deny that the agent "has a reason to do X". I will need to look at those in detail. Though . . . spoiler alert . . . my answer to those cases will be to employ the distinction between the reasons an agent has (practical 'ought') and the reasons an agent should have (moral 'ought') - and I will make no attempt to reduce one to the other, either directly or through an intermediary concept of "really want" or "overall good". In fact, the two are often in conflict.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Korsgaard 01: On Instrumental Rationality

Assume that you had, as an end or goal, to learn a new language. You judge that a satisfactory way to learn a language is to enroll in an online course. Why should you enroll in the online course? Just because something is a means to an end, why should that be a reason to do it?

A participant in a discussion elsewhere has directed me to The Normativity of Instrumental Reason by Christine M. Korsgaard. This is the reason why I posted How Desires Work in my previous posting. Korsgaard argued extensively against the Humean theory of reasons. Hume’s theory is nearly 300 years old and I sought to present a more modern alternative.

Here, I want to address Korsgaard more directly.

Korsgaard answers this question of why one ought to perform the means to an end by saying that, first, one needs to endorse the end as a legitimate end. If the end is merely something desired or, worse, the result of fear or depression, then it does not provide a reason to pursue the means. One must assign an “ought” to the end. Then the “ought” can be transferred to the means to that end.

This goes against the Humean way of understanding things. On the Humean model, desires identify ends. The desire to learn a foreign language itself is an end and is sufficient to provide a reason to enroll in the course. Note that I said, “a reason”. There may also be reasons not to. Money. Time. One may lack the ability and experience only frustration in the attempt. But the desire provides “a reason”.

According to Korsgaard, this move violates Hume’s own “law” that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. One must first “ought” (normalize - convert into a norm or make into a personal law) the end before one can “ought” (normalize) the means to that end. That is where the endorsement of the end comes from.

In response, it seems to me that this significantly over-intellectualizes action. An animal with an aversion to pain has a reason to avoid the fire without having to “normalize” the aversion to pain. It is simply in virtue of having the aversion that one has a reason to avoid pain. It is merely in virtue of being hungry that one has a reason to eat; in wanting sex that one has a reason to seek sex. Again, I said “a reason” - he may also have reasons not to.

Another way in which this over-intellectualizes action can be demonstrated by looking at more common actions. I am thirsty and decide to get a soda from the refrigerator. First, do I need to normalize thirst? Can it not be the case that my reason to go to the refrigerator is quite like the deer’s reason to walk to the stream?

It is also the case that my going to the refrigerator, getting a soda, and drinking it requires a number of actions. I must walk to the refrigerator, putting one foot in front of another, stepping around the backpack I had set on the floor, open the refrigerator door by applying just enough force on the door to open it without flinging it open, direct my hand and fingers to grasp the can, open it, pour its contents into my mouth, and swallow. Each of these actions can be further broken down.

Two things to note about these actions is that they serve ends other than quenching my thirst. There are interests served by not opening the refrigerator door too quickly, going to the refrigerator for a soda rather than the cupboard (where I keep a spare six-pack) or to the convenience store across the street. There are additional ends involved in getting a soda rather than water or orange juice, walking rather than running or bunny-hopping into the kitchen, and the like. I have a great many ends to normalize to get my drink. And I do all of this while my mind is busy outlining the next few paragraphs of this post.

Specifically, I was able to get myself something to drink while I considered trying to make an argument that each of these actions needed to be normalized – and then figuring out that Korsgaard could respond by saying that the normalization of the end of quenching my thirst would carry through to all of the various means, however small. Then, I thought of the issue whereby I serve a great many ends while I get a drink. A desire-based theory can handle these – there are a number of desires guiding my action as I go for a drink. Korsgaard’s thesis of normalization of ends seems to require an additional unnecessary component to each of those desires.

When the deer I mentioned gets to the stream and discovers that the water level is too low for her to drink from it, she paws the ground in order to dig a small hole. Again, this is a means to an end, but the deer does not seem to need to normalize her thirst to perform this action.

Now, what about the fact that we have ends that, we think, do not give us reason to perform an action. For example, a person who is shy and timid wants to avoid conversation, but sees her shyness as something to be overcome. Here, we have to ask, what reason does she have to overcome her shyness? The only viable answer is that she has some other interest which the shyness comes into conflict with. Without the shyness, she could accomplish these other ends. With it, those other ends are frustrated. In order for her to have a reason to preserve her shyness, it must fulfill some other end – an end that then gives her a reason. If it only thwarts other desires and fulfills none, she has reason to get rid of it and none to keep it.

As for the is/ought problem, I have dealt with this on a number of occasions. Most recently, in a response to Sam Harris' most recent attempt to derive "ought" from "is".

If an “ought” is going to cause physical substances to change its properties – to move in different ways – then there must be something of an “is” to each “ought”. I can draw support for this from Donald Davidson's thesis that reasons are causes - and causes must exist in the realm of "is". (See: Davidson, Donald (1963). Actions, reasons, and causes. _Journal of Philosophy_ 60 (23):685-700.)

I argue that “Agent ought to do X” means “There is a reason for Agent to do X”. This latter is an “is” statement and can be derived from other “is” statements. Please note that this is referring to a pro-tanto “ought” not a moral or practical “ought” – though they can be derived from pro-tanto “oughts”. Anyway, “Agent has a reason to do X” means, “Agent has a desire that would be served by Agent doing X.” Here, I made a shift from “There is a reason for Agent to do X” and “Agent has a reason to do X”. These should follow a distinction between “There is a desire that would be served by Agent doing X” and “Agent has a desire that would be served by doing X.” Of course, reasons for A to do X can exist without Agent having a reason, in the same way that there can be red cars even though Agent does not have a red car.

Effectively, the deer's thirst gives it a reason to walk to the stream, dig a hole, and take a drink, just as my thirst gives me a reason to go to the refrigerator and get a soda. Desires themselves produce reasons for action. There are some desires we have reason to get rid of if we can but, until we do, they provide reasons for action. After all, the only reasons to rid of it are its conflict with other desires.

Monday, September 24, 2018

How Desires Work

A theory of desirism requires some understanding of how desires work. This is a very brief (metaphorically toned) description of an account of intentional action, In Praise of Desire by Noma Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder - slightly modified.

A very brief (metaphorically toned) description of his account of intentional action is:

Perception and cognition (belief) creates a menu of optional actions. These sit at action gates waiting to be released.

The reward system (desire) then selects an action and opens the gate.releases it. No deliberation is involved at this point.

If desire has difficulty selecting among options, then it throws the dispute into arbitration. This is where deliberation occurs. Deliberation looks for a solution that appeals to the most and strongest desires. If it finds one, it sends that option to one of the gates to be selected. If not, the stronger desire-combination wins.

Some people have a brain disorder whereby a certain action slips past its gate without the reward system selecting it. This is Tourette’s Syndrome.

Some people have a disorder whereby the dopamine-producing cells in the reward system die off. The reward system becomes less efficient at opening the gates and, in extreme cases, stops entirely, resulting in paralysis. This is Parkinson’s Disease.

There is no pathway from belief/perception to intentional, deliberative action without the influence of desire. If there was, then the direct cognition or perception should be able to produce intentional action in an agent with Parkinson’s Disease. This is not observed.

Deliberation, on this model, is not a cause of action, it is an action. It is something that an agent does because a combination of desires come into significant conflict and "send the dispute to arbitration" sits as an action gate.

The reward system, by the way, is a black box. There is no direct neural links from the reward system to memory or perception (even internal perception). Consequently, we are not conscious of its operation. We simply observe its effects.

Korsgaard seems to be focusing on deliberation (arbitration). But, in doing so, she is looking in the wrong spot. We act on desire at a pre-conscious level.

In arbitration, we (unlike animals) can consider what things would be like if certain desires are different, present, or absent. But the consequences of these deliberations do not lead directly to action. They result in a plan that goes to an action gate to be selected by existing desires.

This is why you can resolve to get up early to go exercise, but fail to do so. When the morning comes, the action is sitting at an action gate, but desire selects something else. Similarly, one can resolve to stop eating donuts. However, when the perception of a box of donuts in the kitchen puts the act of eating a donut at an action gate, desire selects it, and the resolution goes out the window.

Future desires, by the way, cannot influence present action. Present actions are caused by the present wiring of the brain. We can be aware of the fact that a present action will thwart future desires and be unmoved (or insufficiently moved) by that fact. We can also be aware that the thwarting of present desires could have been prevented if we had acted differently in the past, and resolve to do more to consider future desires. But that resolution can easily fall prey to the problem identified above.

When we do choose to alter our desires, we do so because we have other desires that motivate the change. These other desires are what select the plan for change when it sits at an action gate.

The best plan for altering our desires is a plan of self-reward and self-punishment. If we merely try to “will” a change, we will likely fail. We can not directly choose a desire (the option to have or not have a desire itself will not appear at an action gate to be selected).

These facts are quite relevant to treating addiction, phobias, and similar problems. The patient must want to change. An addict, for example, is taught to avoid perceptions (people, places) associated with the behavior as a way of preventing the addictive behavior from appearing at the action gate to be selected.

Saturday, September 22, 2018



I was asked about what desirism has to say about aggression, and decided I should give a response.

First, a point of clarification. I will be talking about the libertarian concept of aggression. Libertarians have a technical definition of aggression that is more precise than the vague term used in common speech. It means the first use of violence in a negotiation. A voluntary exchange of goods and services is perfectly fine. It remains morally legitimate until somebody brings violence in the negotiation. That is, somebody says, "Do as I say or I will make you suffer."

Note that fraud, lying, and other forms of deception count as aggression in the libertarian sense. A voluntary exchange of goods and services means a voluntary exchange of goods and services.

Many people equate libertarianism with an selfishness. This is because one of its most popular advocates, Ayn Rand, also promoted selfishness as a virtue. However, this is not a necessary part of libertarianism. Libertarianism, in its most basic form, is a philosophy of non-violence. It is one step short of pacifism in that, where pacifism prohibits all violence, libertarianism prohibits the first use of violence. The second use - violence in self-defense - is perfectly legitimate.

One should also note that, on the libertarian concept of aggression, pollution and other negative externalities are prohibited. They are acts of violence. If I were to start a fire on my property that got out of hand and burned down your house, that would be an act of aggression, and I would be responsible for the costs. If I were to put greenhouse gasses into the air that put your property at risk of being lost to a hurricane or sea level rise, then I owe you compensation for the loss of the value of your property. Libertarianism, then, is also a strongly anti-pollution philosophy.

On this definition, it seems quite reasonable to believe that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, universally, an aversion to aggression. People should not be eager to bring violence into interactions. It has a bad habit of getting out of hand, causing a great deal of death and suffering that people generally have reason to avoid. Even where violence does not get out of hand, it is often because one group is so much powerful than another that it may freely (and violently) abuse and exploit the other without fear of effective retaliation.

In the United States, where we have at least restrained the use of violence to violence by the state, the power of the state to redistribute wealth through violence means that agents have a strong motivating reason to use the state to use its threats of violence to redistribute wealth in their direction. Resources that would be invested in productive activities - producing the goods and services that would improve lives - instead gets invested in gaining control of some of that state violence, so that the special interest group can use it to force some money into its bank accounts.

On the off chance there may be somebody virtuous in the society who is opposed to these transactions backed by violence, they must still invest in preventing the power of the state being used against them. So, everybody - even the virtuous - ends up investing a great deal of lavor and capital in using state violence to manipulate wealth transfers.

However, desirism does not allow for any absolute good. There may well be many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to aggression, but this is only one of the sentiments that a person would have. An absolute prohibition means that an agent can have no other desire or aversion other than the aversion to aggression. If they had any other interest at all, then there would be a situation (at least a hypothetical situation) where the aggression is so small, and the force of this second interest is sufficiently great, to motivate an aggressive act.

So, the right to freedom of aggression is like a right to freedom of speech. It is something that each person should be granted. However, when other values are at stake. The right of freedom of speech is a right against violence for what one may say. However, agents do not have an unrestricted right to broadcast military or other government secrets. Nor do they have a right to commit fraud; a person who makes false statements about a product may be punished. Perjury is speech, and it is punishable. False advertising is prohibited and punishable.

These exceptions occur when the aversion to the use of violence in response to things said or written or otherwise expressed clashes with other goods or interests that people can also reasonably be expected to have. Every once in a while, those other interests outweigh the aversion to violence for things said.

In the case of aggression, the most problematic case is one of uneven power. Let us say that one person gains ownership of all of the water. This is a particularly sadistic individual and, at the start of each month, he identifies one person and claims that he will sell water to people of those people promise to refuse to trade with that person or anybody who trades with that person. For extra enjoyment, he usually chooses a child. He enjoys watching that child suffer and die.

On the libertarian account, others are duty-bound to refrain from giving water to this person. We are assuming that there is no other source of water, that contracts are binding, and the contract for receiving water says that none is to go to the agent's intended victim of the month.

Sometimes, aggression is legitimate.

This does not eliminate or erase all of the arguments above. Like the right to freedom of speech, there is reason for a strong presumption in favor of a freedom from aggression. Those who would use aggression are under a burden of proof to show that it serves and important good and no peaceful option for promoting that good exists. It is not up to those who would be victims of the agent's aggression to show that the aggression would be legitimate - it is always up to the person who would advocate for aggression to show that it is important and necessary.