Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Reasons and Action

Before starting on today's topic, I have a couple of follow-up items to post.

First, I want to make a quick comment about the Administration's claim that they do not torture. The next time somebody from the Administration says this, I want somebody to have the mental acuity to ask, "What do you mean by torture?" If that official says something like, "That which is illegal under international or American law," I want them to press the issue and say, "Your legal staff has a habit of twisting these laws to allow for a great deal that sensible people still call torture. Are you truly against inhumane treatment of prisoners? Or are you simply lowering the bar down to the ground so that you can do whatever you please to a prisoner -- only, you're not going to call it 'torture'?" I want to know the answer to these questions.

Second, with the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams in California, I wish to remind the readers that I have previously posted my thoughts on Capital Punishment: The Cost of Celebrating Killing.

Today's Topic

Don Jr. has asked some questions that I would like to bring to the surface, because they concern the foundation of ethics.

Much of this concerns a syllogism that I provided in a discussion on an earlier posting. Namely:

(1) It is nonsense to say that a person ought to do something that there is no reason to do.

(2) Desires provide the only reasons to do (or refrain) from action.

(3) Therefore, it is nonsense to say that a person ought to do something that is not ultimately traced to some desire.

Desires and Selfishness

First, Don Jr. challenged my statement that (2) Desires provide the only reasons to do (or refrain) from action. by saying, But maybe every mother (every single one) who does—and feel that she ought to—turn her child in when she knows her child has committed a serious crime actually desire to turn her child in. And maybe all pedestrians (every single one) who put their lives in danger to save another actually desire to put their lives in danger for a stranger.

A person who believes that something is right, and who also has a desire to do that which is right, will do an action "because it is right". However, if she has no interest in doing what is right, then she will not do so. Where there is no desire, there is no action.

Similarly, a parent who cares about (desires to preserve) the life of his child more than he cares about (desire to preserve) his own life will give up his life to save his child. In all cases, peoples’ actions are a reflection of their values – their desires.

This is not the same as saying that everybody is selfish. A selfish person does what he desires but, at the same time, does not care about the well-being of others (except insofar as he can use them, as one would use a tool, to make his own life better). An altruistic person does what he desires, but desires to see others healthy and happy. He sincerely wants to make other people’s lives better. He might even care more about (more strongly desire or value) the well-being of others than he cares about the quality of his own welfare.

Prudential vs. Moral Ought

Second, Don Jr. said, The actual conclusion, call it (C*), that logically follows from your premises is this: "Therefore, it is nonsense to say that a person ought to do something that he or she has no desire to do."

This confuses practical ‘ought’ with moral ‘ought’.

When somebody says to me, "You should not put your hand on that stove" (sorry Shmanky), he is not telling me that I have a moral obligation to not to put my hand on the stove. He is giving me advice. As advice, it considers only my own desires -- my own reasons for action. Granted, he is still probably speaking within a moral framework. The person who gives advice in the form, “You should take the job in Phoenix” or “You have to go see that movie,” is usually best interpreted as saying, "Of all of the morally permissible actions available to you, you should . . . .” Still, the advice itself is not a claim about what morality requires.

Moral statements are different from these types of statements. How are they different?

The person who says, "You should not drive while under the influence of alcohol," or “You shouldn’t take that,” in the moral sense, is not talking only about what would fulfill the desires of the person he is talking to. This illustrates the fact that the key difference between a statement of advice and a statement of moral obligation is that the latter is concerned what will happen to others.

When I say that driving under the influence is irresponsible, immoral behavior, I cannot be convinced that my statement is wrong merely by being shown that the person really likes to drive under the influence. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that he is creating a risk for others. That risk makes it rational for others to condemn and to punish those who would drive under the influence. That risk gives others reason to identify the act as wrong and drunk drivers as wrongdoers.

I can, at times, give both personal advice and moral condemnation. I can say that drunk driving is both wrong and stupid. Yet, these remain two separate claims, and only one of them is a moral claim.

If one wants to inquire as to how morality gets linked to harming others, I answer that you can no more take the concept of harm to others out of morality than you can take roundness out of a circle.

This is still consistent with the claim that desires provide the only reasons to do (or refrain) from action that exist. Only, in this case, we are talking about society's reasons to deliver condemnation and punishment to those who engage in drunk driving. We are talking about society's justification in calling drunk driving immoral. It is a justification that exists as a matter of objective fact. Either the 'reasons for action' for condemning drunk driving exist, or they do not.

Euthyphro

Third, Don Jr. asked me to answer a Euthyphro-type question that, "Do you say things are good because they are good, or are they good because you say they are?"

Nothing is good because I say it is.

Value-laden terms are tied to reasons for action. There is no sense in calling something good that there is no reason to bring about, or to call something bad that there is no reason to avoid. The concept of "good" and "bad" are tied to reasons for action the way the concept of "circle" is tied to roundness and "bachelor" is tied to being unmarried.

So, if you were to ask me, "Is this good because it is tied to reasons for action, or is it tied to reasons for action because it is good?" I would answer this question the same way I would answer, "Do you call this a circle because it is round, or do you say it is round because it is a circle?" I answer that I do both at the same time because this is what the words mean.

However, if you point to some specific and concrete thing, such as kindness and charity, and ask, ""Do you say these things are good because they are good, or are they good because you say they are?" I answer that it makes no sense to say that they are good unless they truly are good. Furthermore, to say that they are good means that there are reasons for action that recommend bringing about these things. Therefore, it makes no sense to say that something is good unless there really are reasons for action that recommend bringing them about.

Note: I said nothing about what a society thinks it should praise or condemn. I said nothing about what a society does praise or condemn. There is a fact of the matter as to what it makes sense for society. Societies can be just as wrong about what they praise and condemn as I can be about where I put my hand.

Nothing about me personally much affects what it is rational and prudent for society in general to praise, condemn, reward, or punish. Before I was born, it was prudent for society to condemn and punish and to promote society-wide aversions to willful killing, rape, theft, deception, tyranny, bigotry, and the whole host of moral wrongs. It remained prudent while I was alive, and will remain prudent after I die. Morality did not come into existence when I was born, it is immune to my personal beliefs, and will not cease to exist when I die.

5 comments:

Don Jr. said...

I do not "desire" (nor do I have the time) to address all the errors in Alonzo's blog entry since I have already addressed them elsewhere. I am amazed that he continues to make the same errors again and again. Nonetheless, I will say two things about a few of his statements. My first comment concerns Alonzo's claim that "it makes no sense to say that something is good unless there really are reasons for action that recommend bringing them about." What Alonzo surprisingly fails to see is that the goody-two-shoes in Mrs. Smith's class will have reasons for recommending being kind to others but, also, that the child rapist will have reasons for recommending raping children. Are both of their actions good simply because they have reasons for recommending them? Alonzo, unfortunately, continually fails to realize this dilemma that arises from his claim that having reasons for doing something makes that something good. He also fails to realize that his statement—"Desires provide the only reasons to do (or refrain) from action"—is simply false.

Secondly, I would just like to briefly show how Alonzo contradicts himself in two back-to-back sentences. (It's pretty hard to convince someone that their view is wrong when they are willing not only to hold to contradictory notions, but also to produce those contradictory notions in back-to-back statements as if they made sense together.) See the following excerpt taken from his blog entry: "I answer that it makes no sense to say that they are good unless they truly are good. Furthermore, to say that they are good means that there are reasons for action that recommend bringing about these things." In the first sentence Alonzo suggests that what is good is "truly good." We would assume that this means what is good is good independent of what anyone thinks or feels or desires. (No one can make something good by desiring it to be good or, even less, by simply desiring it. Nor can anyone make something good simply by thinking that it is good.) If this is not what Alonzo meant when he said they are "truly good" then he should have clarified his statement. In the very next sentence Alonzo says that having reasons that recommend doing certain things make those things good. Huh? (I'll refer to these reasons that recommend doing certain things as "excellent reasons," as opposed to "sloppy reasons." For example, an excellent reason for believing that Jim is a man is because he looks like one. A sloppy reason for being that Jim is a man is because you like M&Ms.) So Alonzo says what is good is truly good, but having a reason—better yet, an excellent reason—to do something makes that something good as well? It seems then that either what is good is not truly good or having a reason—even an excellent reason—for doing something cannot make that something good. "Which is it?" we wonder. (Also, I'm sure many child rapists would say they have excellent reasons for raping children: because they desire to do so. Surely Alonzo, of all people, wouldn't disagree with the child rapist's reasoning here.)

Thayne said...

Don Jr. said: "In the first sentence Alonzo suggests that what is good is 'truly good.' ... "In the very next sentence Alonzo says that having reasons that recommend doing certain things make those things good. Huh?"

Huh? is right. You truly don't get what Alonzo is saying, here and elsewhere. It's as if you read every sentence others say as though they were completely isolated, as though they are unconnected to everything else said elsewhere within the same paragraph, post, or in other posts.

Don Jr. said...

Quotes from Alonzo:

(1) "I answer that it makes no sense to say that they are good unless they truly are good."
(2) "[T]o say that they are good means that there are reasons for action that recommend bringing about these things."

If Alonzo wants to clarify what he was meaning when typing these sentences (back-to-back mind you) then he can easily do that. This is his blog after all.

You say that I don't read what Alonzo says in context with everything else he has previously said. First of all, "having said stuff previously" is no excuse for making two inconsistent statements. If I say, "What is good is good because God wills it so" and "What is good is good independent of God," it does no good to complain, "My statements aren't really inconsistent but it's just that you haven't read everything I've ever said." Secondly, Alonzo's other statements are even worse. If I went and dug up everything Alonzo has said regarding morality I could provide a whole list of inconsistent statements (because his view is inconsistent, whether you or he realizes it). If you ask me to, I'd be more than happy to do this for you.

Thayne said...

Don Jr. --

Let's stay on this alleged inconsistency, and what I meant about taking things in isolation.

In the first place, your quote of sentence (1) above is incomplete. Here's the whole sentence:

"However, if you point to some specific and concrete thing, such as kindness and charity, and ask, 'Do you say these things are good because they are good, or are they good because you say they are?' I answer that it makes no sense to say that they are good unless they truly are good."

Alonzo's answer to the hypothetical question he poses in the first part of the sentence is, as I think is clear if you read the rest of his post, that his opinion doesn't matter. A thing is good independent of his opinion -- a view Alonzo has made clear previously.

What then makes a thing good? The next two sentences answer that: "Furthermore, to say that they are good means that there are reasons for action that recommend bringing about these things. Therefore, it makes no sense to say that something is good unless there really are reasons for action that recommend bringing them about."

I think it is clear that there is no contradiction there.

You may think even if there really is no contradiction between these sentences, then there is between this "reason for action" and good being based upon desires. I don't think there is, but that's another topic.

Of course, this is all nothing more than my interpretation of Alonzo's point. Perhaps he would not agree with it.

Alonzo, what do you think?

Don Jr. said...

I don't know what you mean when you say "your [Don Jr.'s] quote of sentence (1) is incomplete." I quoted Alonzo exactly. It is clear what he meant by the quote I gave. You even came to the same conclusion of what Alonzo meant in that first statement as I did when you said, "A thing is good independent of his opinion -- a view Alonzo has made clear previously." Since its obvious that Alonzo's statement ("I answer that it makes no sense to say that they are good unless they truly are good") doesn't mean something different whether it is in complete context or not, I don't know what you mean when you say my quote was incomplete, as if I need to provide half of what Alonzo says every time I quote him.

That aside, you are right, given your interpretation of Alonzo's second statement, when you say, "I think it is clear that there is no contradiction there" (between the two quotes from Alonzo that I listed). It depends, as you suggest, on one's interpretation of Alonzo's second statement. I kept what Alonzo had previously said in mind (which is what you suggested we should do) when I interpreted his second statement (S2).

(S1) "I answer that it makes no sense to say that they are good unless they truly are good."
(S2) "Furthermore, to say that they are good means that there are reasons for action that recommend bringing about these things."

Of course there can be reasons for doing a good act and that act can still be good independent of what anyone thinks. That's not controversial, and that seems to be your interpretation of (S2). However, if you were to keep all of Alonzo's prior statements in mind (as you suggest we do) you would be more inclined to interpret (S2) not as meaning that there are reasons for doing good acts but, rather, as meaning having reasons that recommend a certain action makes that action good, which is not reconcilable with (S1).

I have many prior statements, made by Alonzo, that lend support to my interpretation of (S2), which is incompatible with (S1). I doubt you can say the same. Of course Alonzo can easily clear all this up.