Thursday, July 27, 2006

Moral Persuasion

How do you convince somebody that something is wrong?

In comments to a previous posting on "The Problem with Faith?" Boelf included a remark about moral persuasion. He wrote,

To convince someone else of a moral value I need to show him how the value benefits him and how it's good for society. Like anyone I'd like a rock solid logical imperative like 'two plus two equals four therefore you shouldn't kill people.' But that just isn't happening.

Convincing

Most of the time when we talk about convincing somebody of something, we are talking about causing them to believe that a proposition is true. If I convince you that 2 + 2 = 4, then I have caused you to believe that the proposition '2 + 2 = 4' is true.

When we talk about moral persuasion, we tend to use a second, significantly different definition of “convincing.” To "convince" somebody of a moral value is not to convince them to believe something. It is to convince them to do something. Using this definition, a person who is convinced that he has an obligation to give to charity will not only believe that the proposition, "I have an obligation to give to charity" is true. He will give money to charity.

But what does it take to convince somebody to do something?

Each person always does that act that fulfills the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. Consequently, the only way to convince somebody to do something is to convince him that the ‘something’ in question is the act that best fulfills the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs.

If you come across a person that has only one desire (e.g., a desire to end all life on Earth), then the only thing you will ever be able to convince that person to do is that act that (given his beliefs) is the act most likely to bring about a state in which there is no life on Earth. He will always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. So, he will always do that act that stands the best chance of bringing about the end of all life on earth, given his beliefs.

In order to convince this person of the moral value of NOT ending all life on earth, you will get nowhere showing him how he benefits. Since he only cares about ending all life on Earth, he can only benefit by obtaining help in fulfilling his desire to end all life on Earth. When you explain to him how ending all life on Earth is bad for society, since he does not care about what is good or bad for society, he is going to simply shrug his shoulders and ask, "So what?"

If you actually want this person to decide NOT to end all life on earth, you need to change his desires. Moral persuasion (in the sense of persuading somebody to do something) will sometimes require not only a change in the agent’s beliefs, but also a change in his desires.

However, desires are immune to reason. You can list every single fact there is to know about chocolate and vanilla ice cream without having the least affect on an agent’s preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream. Actually, while you are busy listing every single fact there is to know about chocolate and vanilla ice cream, you might as well add the fact that the agent has a preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream, because this is just as much a fact as its chemical composition, temperature, and location.

However, the fact that desires are immune to reason does not mean that we are unable to change a person’s desires. You can reason all you want with your flat tire on your car without it changing places with the spare in the trunk, but this does not imply that you are powerless to get the flat tire changed.

To affect peoples’ desires, we use social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. By using these tools in society, we have the ability to promote in people desires for what is good for society, and inhibit those desires for the destruction of all life on earth. Once we have changed the agent’s desires so that he no longer desires to end all life on Earth, but desires the benefit of society instead, then we can talk him into not doing those things that will result in the destruction of all life on earth.

So, when you are in a discussion with others, and you want to convince them of a moral value, remember that you need to do more than simply report the facts of the matter. You need to change his or her desires so that he cares about those facts. You do this by adding praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to your interaction with that audience.

Proving Moral Claims

So, doesn’t this seem to support Boelf’s original claim that we can't have an argument like, "2 + 2 = 4; therefore, it is wrong to kill somebody." I assume that Boelf is looking for an argument whereby it is possible to prove in a way that no reasonable person can doubt that a moral conclusion is true or false. After all, if my argument above is sound, then we cannot support any conclusion by reason alone. We must include a dose of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment in order to alter the recipient's desires. Unless he has the right desires to start with, this is the only way that we can convince him to do the right thing.

Right?

Well, yes and no.

If we are forced to use the special definition of ‘to convince’ that I used above – the definition that means ‘to cause somebody to do a particular thing – then we often cannot do this through reason alone. That is to say, we cannot create an argument like, “2 + 2 = 4; therefore, killing is wrong.” Reason alone cannot convince our agent not to destroy all life on Earth.

However, if we can use the other definition of ‘to convince’ – the definition that people in every other field of study uses – the desire that says that ‘to convince’ means ‘to cause a person to believe a certain proposition,’ then I deny that we cannot have an argument like, “2 + 2 = 4; therefore, killing is wrong.” We can prove that killing is wrong. Our agent might look at the argument, see that the wrongness of killing has been proved, and say, ‘so what, I do not care.’ However, the fact that the agent does not care that killing is wrong does not imply that I have not proved it – any more than the fact that an agent does not care that the earth is 4.5 billion years old does not imply that I have not proved its age.

It just makes sense that we have to use the first definition though, doesn’t it? After all, the idea of a person believing, “X is wrong,” and, at the same time, saying, “But I don’t care,” is just weird.

I don’t think that it is nearly as weird as the alternative.

Argument Against the ‘To Do’ Concept of ‘To Convince’

Imagine that we are to adopt this type of definition for another use. Let us say that convincing a person that he should lose 100 pounds requires that he actually lose 100 pounds. If he has not done so, then the statement, “You should lose 100 pounds,” is false. So, now you go up to a chubby person and you say, "You should lose 100 pounds." He answers, "That's not true. If that were true, I would weigh 100 pounds less than I do now. Obviously, I do not weigh 100 pounds less than I do now. Therefore, it is not true that I should lose 100 pounds."

This is, in fact, extremely weird.

We get the same type of result when we use the first definition of “to convince” in ethics. Using this definition, we go up to the person who wants to destroy all life on Earth and say, “It is wrong to destroy all life on Earth.” If we are using the first definition, he not only can but must answer, “That is false. If it were true, then I would have an aversion to ending all live on earth. I have no such aversion. In fact, I only have the desire to end all life on earth. Since this is what I desire, I must reject your claim that it would be wrong for me to end all life on earth."

In fact, the first definition of “to convince” gives us a “morality” where each and every individual is morally permitted – perhaps even obligated – to always do what will fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs, regardless of what those desires are. If they include a desire to rape, then he is morally permitted and perhaps obligated to rape. If it includes a desire to rid the world of all non-whites, then he is morally permitted or perhaps obligated to rid the world of all non-whites.

Interpreting Moral Claims

To correct this problem, I am going to assert that the second definition is the only legitimate definition of “to convince.” On this definition, we can defend claims like, “It is wrong to end all life on earth” as true and to have arguments that match the model of, “2 + 2 = 4; therefore, it is wrong to kill.” Only, agents will only follow moral truth to the degree that it fulfills the more and the stronger of their desires to do so.

When I say to the agent who desires to end all life on earth that it is wrong, I am not making any reference at all to what the agent will or will not do with full information. I can admit that he will, in fact, seek to destroy all life on earth and that I will not be able to “convince him” to do anything else (without changing his desires). Yet, I will still tell him that destroying all life on earth is wrong.

What I am saying when I make the claim that destroying all life on earth is wrong is that you, me, our neighbors down the street, if we look at all of the reasons for action that exist, we see that they balance out to a lot of strong reasons for action for creating an aversion to destroying all life on earth. I am saying that we -- people generally – have reason to use the tools of condemnation and punishment (or worse, if necessary) against those who would seek to destroy all life on earth.

Now, the agent might agree that we generally have reason to try to stop him, and he might not care. Yet, this does not change the fact that we have reason to try to stop him. It does not change the fact that we have reason to use the tools of condemnation, punishment, and the other social tools at our disposal, to help make it the case that there are no people like him who seeks to destroy all life on earth, or to see to it that they cannot act on those desires. Therefore, it does not change the fact that his actions are wrong. It just happens to be the case in this example that he does not care that his actions are wrong.

We can see this alternative in a plain, every-day use of moral language – when the accused person claims, "You have no right to do this to me! I did not do anything wrong!"

Under the “convince him to do” alternative, his claim that he did nothing wrong means that he could not have been talked out of doing what he did. However, it does not follow from the premise, “I could not have been talked out of doing what I did,” that “You have no right to do this to me.”

On the alternative I am defending, “I did nothing wrong” does not mean “I could not have been talked out of (convinced) to do something else.” It means, “You do not have good reason to use the tools of condemnation and punishment against people like me.” It is this second use that we find in the every-day use of moral language.

So, morality has nothing to do with what we can convince others to do by means of reason (facts) alone. Morality has to do with what we have reason to change the desires of others into – what we have reason to use social tools such as condemnation and punishment (and praise and reward) to accomplish.

“Killing is wrong (except in self-defense)” means “People generally have many and strong reasons to bring the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to bear to promote an overall, universal aversion to killing except in self defense.” These types of statements can be proved true, in much the same way that we can prove that 2 + 2 = 4.

3 comments:

Thayne said...

I am not convinced that desires are as impervious to reason and information as you suggest. Even seemingly straight forward things like whether one likes a particular food can be changed by changing one's perceptions.

For example, my brother and I subsisted largely on cheese sandwiches while traveling in Europe. One day, I was about half way through a sandwich that I was enjoying, when my brother remarked: "This cheese smells like diarrhea." Now, the cheese was strong, and I had already smelled it. After my brother's remark, I smelled it again and for the first time noticed its smell was somewhat like diarrhea. Even so, I told myself that the first half of my sandwich had been quite palatable, and there was no reason not to continue eating it. Lo and behold, on my next bite, I found the sandwich disgusting.

I once had a similar experience with a particular tea, except in this instance I initially disliked it until I associated it with another beverage I'd had, and then I immediately liked it.

I have similarly disliked music, but, after learning something more of the band, immediately found it pleasing.

I believe that perceptions do influence our likes and dislikes of even basic things like these, and of almost all others likes and dislikes.

In a previous comment you stated that moral decisions should not be based on gut feelings. Then you said something along the lines of "I don't trust my gut!" I agree, but by advocating what appears to be operant conditioning, aren't you ultimately hoping to change behaviors by changing peoples gut responses?

I would never want to merely condition my children to behave the way I believe is correct. I think it's absolutely critical to teach the reasons that morally good things are good and bad things are bad so that they can apply reasoning to novel situations they encounter. I also think it's important to instill some empathy for those who suffer the effects of immoral deeds by pointing out the harm inflicted on them. By pointing out such harms and their effects, I'm supplying information that I hope (and expect) will instill in them an aversion to harm-causing behavior.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Thayne

Please note that the two examples you gave of a changing desire were stories about cause and effect. Clearly, I have no problem with the idea that it is possible to effect a change in desires.

My claim is that no set of facts entails logically a change in desires. For all X, it is logically possible for two people to have identical beliefs, and yet one of them likes X and the other dislikes X.

You need to disprove this in order to disprove my thesis.

Yes, desire utilitarianism is about changing peoples' behavior by changing their desires. You protect your property by causing others to have an aversion to what is right and wrong. A "gut feeling" does not entail a moral truth. Yet, it is still the case that each one of us always acts to fulfill the more and the stronger of our desires, given our beliefs.

As for "merely condition[ing your] children to behave the way [you] believe is correct," you do this all the time.

As I said above, no amount of information entails a desire. You can give your children all of the data you want about the effects of their actions on others.

However, what they do with this information depends on what they desire. It is important to instill some empathy for effects on others. However, informing them of the harm inflicted on others does not entail empathy. A sadistic child, informed of the effects of certain types of action on others, will take this information as a reason to performthose actions, not a reason to avoid doing them.

To affect their empathy you have to condition their desires. You do this through praise and criticism.

Praise and criticism are not instances of giving information. These are instances of conditioning desires. If you praise and/or criticize your children (as I am sure you do), then you are in fact conditioning your children to behave the way you believe they should behave.

Thayne said...

I concur that to change behaviors, one must change desires. I just don't agree that operant conditioning is the only way to change desires, or that it is sufficient to, for example, raise "morally competent" children.

Surely you will agree with me that many desires that people possess spring from beliefs. It hardly seems necessary to provide examples. Of course it is the case that new information can change beliefs. If these things are true, then surely it is true that information that alters beliefs can also alter desires.

A sadistic child, informed of the effects of certain types of action on others, will take this information as a reason to performthose actions, not a reason to avoid doing them.

True enough. But, I think it a very rare person who is purely sadistic -- who fundamentally wants to see others suffer. If such people exist, then conditioning certainly seems approptriate.

However, I think the great majority of people are not so purely sadistic. Even a Klu Klux Klan member who desires to lynch blacks is likely moved to do so based on false beliefs about black people, white people, etc. Sure, they probably have been conditioned by others to hate blacks, but it would be quite surprising to find no beliefs that also play a part in their hatred and their desire to kill blacks.

You can give your children all of the data you want about the effects of their actions on others.
However, what they do with this information depends on what they desire.


Yes, but I contend that information plays in integral role in the formation of many desires. And, since I also contend that it is a rare child that will take delight in the suffering of others, I think that demonstrating how others are harmed by immoral behavior combined with discussion, modeling of empathy, and yes, conditioning, are all important elements in teaching a child (or anyone else) to be moral.

Again, I don't dispute that conditioning changes behavior, I just don't believe it's the only way, or even that it should be used to the exclusion of other methods.