Saturday, September 16, 2006

"Choosing" A Moral Theory

Today’s discussion of moral theory is inspired by a posting in a thread called “Sam Harris On Morality” at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board.

In response to a quote attributed to Jeremy Bentham that stated, "The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morality and legislature," a poster using the name Janus wrote:

Sure, a saying like the one above can be a great foundation to build a coherent system of morality. But what's objective about choosing that one? Why not "Might makes right.", or "God's Will be done.", or something else? Anything else? The possibilities are practically endless. If the choosing of a moral foundation is subjective, the moral system built on it must be subjective as well, as much as we'd like to pretend otherwise.

I have encountered this argument quite often. Typically, it takes the form, “Why should I choose to be a desire-utilitarian? Why can’t I choose to be something else?”

My answer is that seeing moral theory as a “choice” in this sense requires a set of questionable or question-begging assumptions.

This question invites us to view ‘choosing’ a moral theory to be like ‘choosing’ what movie to go to. Naturally, people choose their movies based on individual tastes. One person may choose a romantic comedy, while another may choose an action adventure. The same person may choose one type of movie one week and a different type of movie a different week, to fit his changing mood. The important point about making such choices is that they depend on the mood of the chooser. There is no ‘objectively right’ choice except that choice that fits the mood of the user.

I would like to compare this to a different model for choice – the choice one uses to pick a theory. Consider, for example, that there are two theories as to the origin of mankind. One theory suggests billions of years of evolution. The other theory suggests the actions of a God something less than 10,000 years ago. How do we choose?

We choose according to which theory best fits the evidence. Really? This may be a great foundation for a coherent system of scientific investigation, but what is objective about choosing that one? Why not “the theory that best conforms to what is written into my Holy Book?” What about “the theory that postulates the most exotic entities?” The possibilities are endless. Have I now proved that science is subjective?

In arguing about whether morality is objective or not, my real purpose has always been to argue that it is as objective as science. Questions about the objectivity of science then become irrelevant. So, I do not need to answer these questions about science. I only need to show that these questions do not generate any special problem for moral theories. We can find them everywhere.

I can give an objective reason to throw out any divine command option – because no God exist and all claims that a particular action is favored by God is (objectively) false. I can also give an objective reason to throw out any intrinsic value option – because intrinsic values do not exist and all claims that a particular action has intrinsic merit is false. I can even give an objective reason for throwing out common subjectivist morality – because it requires an inference from one person’s sentiments to what others ought or ought not to do that is invalid.

As for the greatest happiness principle, I can give objective reason to reject that as well.

The greatest happiness principle either says that happiness is the only reason for action that exists; or it says that other reasons for action exist, but happiness is the only one worthy of consideration.

The second option is incoherent – saying, in effect, ‘other reasons for action exist that are not reasons for action.”

The first option is simply false, as I have argued in the recent posts, “Happiness vs. Desire Fulfillment” and “More on Happiness and Desire Fulfillment.”


(1) There is no more reason to assert that we have one value from which all other values are derived than there is to assert that we have one belief from which all other beliefs are derived.

(2) Happiness theory cannot explain options in which people report that they would sacrifice happiness.

(3) Happiness theory cannot explain how two people with identical beliefs can still perform different intentional actions without adding a third and so-far unexplained variable.

(4) Happiness theory cannot account for peoples’ refusal to enter an experience machine.

(5) Happiness theory cannot account for the incommensurability of value – the sense of loss associated with “the road not taken.”

As the referenced posts argue, desire fulfillment theory can handle all five of these issues. Desire fulfillment theory says that a desire for happiness is one of the reasons for action that exists – and one of the things that one can point to in order to recommend for or against doing some action.

The greatest happiness principle requires the assumption that happiness is the only reason for action that exists, and this turns out to be objectively false.

Might makes right turns out to have a similar problem. ‘Might’ can give a person the power to ignore certain reasons for intentional action that exist (particularly those that exist on the part of the victims). However, ‘might’ does not change the fact that those reasons for action do exist. Regardless of how powerful the slave owner becomes, reasons for intentional action exists for overturning the institution of slavery – and will continue to exist, so long as there are slaves. “Might makes right” tells us to live in an imaginary world in which we pretend that a set of real-world reasons for action do not exist.

Why choose desire utilitarianism?

This was the original question.

Desire utilitarianism does not ask that anybody chooses anything. It is a theory about how choices are to be made – that they depend on reasons for action that exist and that reasons for action that do not exist are not reasons for action that are relevant to any choice.

Desire utilitarianism states that choices must consider the more and the stronger of the reasons for intentional action that exist, that desires are the only reasons for intentional action that exist, that desires are propositional attitudes – mental states that identify a proposition as something that is to be made or kept true, and that desires provide reasons for action for bringing about particular states of affairs in which a proposition is true to a degree proportional to the strength of the desire.

I might be wrong in any of these claims – but these are claims about the structure of the universe in which we live. These are claims about what exists and what does not exist, and about how they work. As such, they stand or fall in the same way that claims made in any scientific theory stands or falls.

Mostly, I would like to know where there is anything in this theory that leaves anything up to arbitrary choice. Furthermore, I would like to know how anybody can make a choice except by citing “reasons for action that exist” for making that choice, or what evidence exists for “reasons for action that exist” other than (or in addition to) desires.


Anonymous said...

from Maya


Finally someone turned morality into a science. Finally someone compared choosing moral theories with choosing scientific ones. And finally someone made a theory that actually explains why we behave how we do and why we should behave the way we should. A theory that even fills the holes in theories considered valid up to now.

Finally, there can be sound morality without divine intervention. Thank you!

P.S. As soon as someone comes up with a better explanation, your's will be ditched. Nothing personal.

Bill said...

Haha, I like your comment Maya. That's science at its best.

Another Athiest Ethicist said...

Morality, properly considered, is the infrastructure of society which allows us to interact in a cooperative and non-invasive way with others which promotes our own selfish-egoist tendencies to promote only our own interests and those of our approved group. Morality existed before religious belief or political belief, beginning with the first early hominids who tried to work together. Proto-morality is also found in animals (Google the books). Any time two or more people interact and must cooperate together for their mutual success, they are engaging in moral behaviour.

That being said, it is quite easy to arrive at "morality must be objective" because we know that the goal of morality is to create an environment where individuals can formulate and pursue their interests with minimal interference. All we need to do is ask ourselves what needs to be done (or not done) to achieve this. One answer becomes immediately clear: if you and I are to cooperate in our mutual endeavour, neither must kill the other. This is true regardless of when or where one exists or what cultural or religious beliefs one has--in other words, it is true a priori, it is objectively true. Naturally we may add many other rules to this, like Louis Pojman's famous list of 10 objective principles which include 'obey just laws', 'do not cause unnecessary pain/suffering', and 'keep your promises & contracts'--all of which promote the goals of social cooperation which allow individuals maximum freedom to formulate and pursue their interests--but all we need to establish that morality is objective is one rule about not killing.

Once one arrives here, s/he can see that the choice of a moral theory is about choosing the theory that best facilitates this social cooperation. Ethicists differ on this, although we can generally categorize moral theories as 'Deontological' (duty-based, not outcome-based), 'Consequentialist' including Desire, Rule, and Act Utilitarians (purely consequence-based), 'Virtue Ethics' (in which behaviours are cultivated rather than specific actions), and my personal choice for top moral theory, the Ethic of Care (the normative prescriptive version of the theory, not the descriptive theory of moral development offered by Carol Gilligan). Do you think it's right that we should torture suspected terrorists to obtain information that would have avoided 9-11? If so, you're likely a Consequentalist and definitely not a Deontologist. If you think we should never torture, there are some lines in the sand we should never cross, then you're likely a Deontologist of some form. Since every moral choice must have compelling logically sound reasoning and, ideally, objectively verifiable empirical evidence supporting it, one's choice of category of moral theory must be well-reasoned. The same is true for the choice of a particular moral theory within a category, ie., if I were going to be a Utilitarian, I much prefer a combination of Rule and Act Utility rather than get into the murky waters of Desire Utility. I can debate with our site host the value of the former against the latter based on the above criteria, giving reasons that are objectively true.

Having said all this, I'll come to the original point of this response. Our site host said:

"Desire utilitarianism does not ask that anybody chooses anything. It is a theory about how choices are to be made – that they depend on reasons for action that exist and that reasons for action that do not exist are not reasons for action that are relevant to any choice."

I'm not sure that the point here is as clear to uninformed readers as it could be. It should be recognized that Desire Utilitarianism is a *descriptive* statements about the way people *do* make choices, it is not a *prescriptive* theory telling people what they should (not) do and why. This is one reason why the statement is so close to scientific statements that describe the world (the other reason is morality's use of sound reasoning and empirical evidence, as science does). I think from the comments I've read here that readers want reasons to select a prescriptive moral theory.

We're in very deep waters here and it takes me almost an entire term to get my students to this point, so it can't be done in one or even a few blogs. However, once one understands the purpose of morality and that moral theories are different approaches to achieving, then the choice of one over another is not as controversial as some respondents think.

Anonymous said...

"I can even give an objective reason for throwing out common subjectivist morality – because it requires an inference from one person’s sentiments to what others ought or ought not to do that is invalid.

And your moral system is no different. Sentiment/Desire/Prefference, all morality is just what one emotionally prefers over other actions. Morality, as we have known it, is a fiction.