Another weekend, another two posts on moral theory.
This weekend I would like to write about:
(1) The Foundations of Ethics.
(2) Description vs. Prescription.
This is, after all, near the start of a new blogging year. It is also near the start of my new practice of devoting the weekends to theory. I feel that one good choice to make towards the beginning of such a project is a description of the basic elements of the desire utilitarian theory that I use in this blog.
I would like to present six elements – six propositions – that I hold to be objectively true propositions about morality.
Proposition (1): The real world contains a large number of 'reasons for intentional action.'
This is a recap, so some would have read this story before. However, I think it clearly proves that there are, in fact, objective "reasons for action."
When I was thirteen, as my family prepared for a camping trip, I put my hand on a hot plate. It was not red hot. It did not look hot at all. However, it was hot enough to leave second-degree burns on the palm of my hand.
That hurt! My hand immediately sent a message to my brain that could be roughly translated as, “You idiot! Don’t you ever let anything like that happen again!”
This aversion to pain is a "reason for action" – a reason for me to act in ways that will decrease the chance that I will suffer a similar affect in the future. This "reason for action" is a part of the real world, where it can be used to explain and predict real-world events. If I wonder why I shy away from putting my hand on plates that might be hot, this is one of the reasons.
This "reason for action" is more than a "reason for action" that makes it less likely that I will be putting my hand on a hot plate. It is a "reason for action" to avoid being burned in a number of ways. It is a "reason for action" for buying a smoke detector, installing it in my house, and making sure that it works. It is a "reason for action" for making sure that the house is well wired, that I keep flammable materials away from open flames like candles, and that I buy a fire extinguisher and that I know how to use it.
For purposes of this blog, it is also important to note that these "reasons for action" do not depend on believing that there is a God. It is completely absurd to suggest that only those who believe in God actually have a "reason for action" not to put their hand in a hot fire. Anybody who suggests that an atheist can simply shrug off as unimportant the fact that some flame is burning away his flesh is somebody who is so caught up in a bigoted prejudice that he has lost all contact with reality. Even animals have "reasons for action" for avoiding pain, and no animal requires belief in God.
If they want, people can debate whether God created these "reasons for action" that exist, or whether they came about through evolution. This is true in exactly the same sense that they can debate whether God created the trees, or whether they are a product of evolution. Whatever one believes on the origin of trees, atheists and theists can agree that trees exist. They can agree on how tall they are, how they produce energy from sunlight, the way that tree stuff, when burned, generates heat and smoke.
Similarly, when it comes to these "reasons for action" that exist, some of us can say that they came from evolution while others may say that God created them. Yet, these reasons for action do exist. They are a part of the real world. The idea that atheists cannot have "reasons for action" is as absurd as saying that atheists can't see trees.
Proposition (2): We each have a number of different "reasons for action."
Not only do I have "reasons for action" to avoid being burned. I also have "reasons for action" to avoid being drowned, shot, stabbed, lied to, robbed, cheated, enslaved, arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned, tortured, or otherwise abused.
I have "reasons for action" to fulfill appetites such as eating, drinking, and having sex.
Another "reason for action" that I have is concern for my wife. Here, again, people can dispute whether this concern for the welfare of a mate has some origin in our evolution – a way of ensuring our genetic replication. Some may say that this affection for a mate is written into the brain by God, not evolution. For purposes of this debate it does not matter. This affection for a mate exists (at least in most people) and it is yet another "reason for action." In this case, it is a "reason for action" that includes actions that will make it less likely that my wife will be raped or otherwise attacked, fall victim to some illness, or suffer some injury whether it be brought about by humans or nature.
I do not have any children. However, many people I know who have children assert that they find in themselves a "reason for action" to promote the well-being of their children. In fact, their "reason for action" for protecting their children from harm is often stronger than their "reasons for action" for protecting themselves from harm. When this happens, the stronger "reasons for action" for protecting the children will motivate the parent act in ways that shield the child from harm while putting the parent in harm's way.
Some people have "reasons for action" for doing harm to others. We cannot deny this. Nor can we deny that they are just as real as the reasons for action that I have been discussing so far. However, there are other things that are true of these types of "reasons for action" that I will talk about later.
For now, what I have established is that the real world contains a great many different "reasons for action" – real-world entities that recommend for or against bringing about any of the possible states of affairs.
Proposition (3): The actions that these "reasons for action" give us reason to perform includes actions that will bring about certain behaviors on the part of others in our communities.
My aversion to the pain of being burned not only gives me a "reason for action" for installing a smoke detector and making sure my house is well wired. It also gives me a "reason for action" for affecting what others think and do. For example, if there is some action I can perform that will make others less likely to do those things that would get burned, or more likely to do things that would save me from getting burned, then I have a "reason for action" to perform those actions.
For example, the same "reasons for action" for installing a smoke detector are "reasons for action" for creating a fire department. It is a "reason for action" for going to my neighbors and pointing out to them, what happens to be true, that they also have "reasons for action" for establishing a fire department. Together we pool our resources to create a fire department.
But not just any fire department.
We want a 'good' fire department. A good smoke detector is a smoke detector that best fulfills our "reasons for action" for buying a smoke detector. A 'good' fire department is a fire department that has a better chance of bringing about those things that we have "reason for action" for establishing a fire department. We create fire departments primarily because we have "reasons for action" for not getting killed or injured in a fire and not having our property destroyed. These "reasons for action" tell us to create fire departments that will save a higher percentage of lives, reduce the severity of injuries, and save more property.
It would be laughable for a "fire department relativist" to show up and say that there is no 'objective value' when it comes to fire departments and that the fire department that saves few lives and seldom responds to a fire in a timely manner is just as good as a fire department that saves more lives and often responds to alarms within minutes.
Proposition (4): Just as we have a "reasons for action" for creating good fire departments, we have "reasons for action" for creating good fire fighters, and we have the tools to do this.
The same argument that says that we have "reasons for action" for creating a good fire department says that we have "reasons for action" for creating good firefighters. Just as a good fire department is a fire department that best fulfills our "reasons for action" for creating a fire department, a good firefighter is a firefighter that can best fulfill our "reasons for actions" for hiring firefighters.
We have several tools available for influencing how firefighters act when an alarm sounds. These tools are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.
We have "reasons for action" for recognizing firefighters who are particularly efficient at responding promptly to alarms, saving lives, and preventing property damage due to fire. We have "reasons for action" for promoting firefighters of this type – giving them actual promotions (because these are the types of people we want running the department), honors, and praise.
We get more of an effect through public recognition. A special reward ceremony in which a firefighter that best fulfills our "reasons for action" for having firefighters not only inspires that firefighter to do better, but also inspires others.
We have "reasons for action" for recognizing firefighters who do things that diminish their effectiveness at bringing about those states we have "reasons for action" for having firefighters do. A firefighter who drinks on the job, shows cowardice, and skips training exercise is a firefighter who is less able to fulfill our "reasons for action" for having firefighters. We have "reasons for action" for subjecting such fighters to reprimand, demotion, and even termination. By making these reprimands public, we not only give the firefighters we reprimand "reason for action" to avoid becoming such a firefighter, we communicate with other firefighters not to become this type of firefighter.
Proposition (5): The same points made with respect to having "reasons for action" for creating a good fire department and good firefighters, apply to creating good communities.
Above, I argued how the aversion to pain (of being burned) counts for a "reason for action" for setting up good fire departments and having good firefighters in those departments – where "good" means "more likely to fulfill the "reasons for action" for which we create fire departments and firefighters.
Our various "reasons for action" are also reasons for creating good communities and for populating those communities with good citizens.
We have "reasons for action" to avoid not only getting burned by others, but also getting shot, stabbed, enslaved, arbitrarily arrested, indefinitely imprisoned without trials, raped, robbed, or lied to by others. That is to say, we have "reasons for action" for creating a community of citizens who are less likely to shoot, stab, enslave, rape, rob, or lie to us.
Proposition (6): We have two ways of making others less likely to do those things that we have "reason for action" not to have them do, like shoot, stab, rape, rob, and lie to us; sanctions, and moral education.
Sanctions involve taking another person's desires as they are and saying, "we will thwart some of those desires if you should perform this action." The potential thwarting of desires gives the person a "reason for action" not to perform the action. It creates deterrence.
Unfortunately, sanctions have two major problems with using sanctions.
First, sanctions require power, and they are not available to the powerless.
Second, sanctions only work against those who are caught. I can threaten to impose sanctions on anybody who takes my property. However, this does not give others a "reason for action" to leave my property alone when they can take it without being caught.
How do we prevent a person from doing things we "have a reason" not to have them do when they have power, and when they cannot be caught.
Well, going back to the first proposition, I can say with near certainty that even a person with power will look for the first opportunity to put his hand in a bed of hot coals. I can also say with near certainty that a person will put his hand in a bed of hot coals the instant he is certain he can do it without getting caught. He will not do this because he has been given a "reason for action" not to do this.
If we can give people a "reason for action" not to shoot, stab, enslave, rape, rob, or lie to people that is like their "reason for action" not to put their hand in a bed of hot coals. A person who hates the idea of taking another person's property without their consent will not take the property of others without their consent even when they have the power to get away with it. Such a person will not take the property of another even when there is no chance that he would get caught. Such a person is just as likely to take the property of another as he is in putting his hand in a bed of hot coals.
I have already mentioned how we go about giving people these aversions. We reprimand and condemn those whose actions suggest that they do not have the aversions to these types of actions. It is best to condemn them in public, to hold them up as examples of what others should want not to do. If there are no 'others' to hold up as examples, we can still describe our reactions hypothetically – showing our contempt for a hypothetical person who does not show the proper aversion to these types of actions.
Earlier, I mentioned how people may have "reasons for action" for committing atrocities against their fellow humans. I also spoke about how a good community is one that fulfills our "reasons for action" for creating a community, and a good citizen is one who fulfills our "reasons for action" for associating with fellow citizens. For example, people with a desire to rape have a "reason for action" to commit rape and a "reason for action" to avoid punishment.
Now, let us shift our focus from rape to the desire to rape. Who among us has a "reason for action" for promoting a desire to rape? There are very many among us who have a "reason for action" for promoting an aversion to rape. This is because, to the degree that everybody has an aversion to rape – to the degree that people hate the idea of committing rape – to that degree people are less likely to be raped. A person with an aversion to rape will not commit rape even when he is in a position of power, and even when he can get away with it – in the same way that a person with an aversion to being burned will not put his hand in a bed of hot coals even when he is powerful enough to get away with it or can do so without being caught.
Moral education has to do with the "reasons for action" that exist for promoting an aversion to rape.
I know that this is a long post. However, I think an explanation as to the foundations of morality requires this type of detail.
I needed to show that reasons for intentional action are real, that we have the capacity to control the reasons for intentional action that other people have, and that this leaves us with a question of what reasons for intentional action we should be promoting or inhibiting. Ultimately, I would argue, that this is the question that morality is most concerned with - the question of what reasons for action it makes sense to promote or demote.
Nobody is obligated to call this question 'morality.' They can call it what they wish. Yet, the question remains, and it remains an important question, regardless of the name we give it.