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.
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.
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.