Today’s post is in response to comments that Atheist Observer made to “Faith Hospital.”
You may be effusive in your praise or vehement in your condemnation, but if I have no reason to care about your opinion, I may easily ignore you. On the other hand if you are able to show or convince me that what you object to is actually thwarting some of my own desires or goals, you may be much more effective.
I want to state at the start that Atheist Observer has recognized the central point of the comments that follow in a parenthetical remark.
In nearly all cases the most effective tool for change is the individual. When that individual can clearly see all the consequences of an action or desire, the best choice for that individual is usually (not always) the best choice for others as well. Those that achieve that become the kind of ethical people we all prefer to live with.
I will say that the phrase, ‘In nearly all cases,” and “usually . . . the best choice” are empirical claims that holler for empirical verification. I’m not convinced of their truth, and I know of no good evidence one way over the other. However, the most important phrase is the parenthetical remark, “(not always)”. This invites us to ask, “What do we do in those cases where it is not always the best choice for others as well?”
Here, I would like to use this comment to draw out some distinctions about the different ways we have available to convince somebody to do something.
Fulfilling of Personal Desires
It is true that if I can convince you that what you object to is thwarting some of your own goals, it “may be much more effective.” It is certainly the case that, if I can show that what you object to is thwarting some of your own desires, that I demonstrate that you have reasons not to object.
However, this is a matter of practical reason, and not of morality. My ability to show that what you object to thwarts some of your desires depends on what your desires happen to be. It may not be possible to make such a case.
Let us assume that you are somebody who has only one desire – only one goal – the desire to destroy the Earth and all life upon it.
In this case, in order to show you that what you object to is actually thwarting your desire, my only option is to show you that what you object to is actually preventing the destruction of the Earth and all life upon it.
In this case, my own ‘reasons for action’ may well motivate me to preserve whatever mistakes you might be making that cause you to preserve the Earth and all life upon it, and do nothing to correct your misconceptions.
There are those who hold that morality consists entirely upon showing a person what will best fulfill his desires. If this is the case, then prudence and obligation both demand that you, in this example, destroy the Earth and all life upon it. If this is the case, then prudence and morality both demand that the rapist discover the most efficient way to commit rape without getting caught. Prudence and morality both demand that tyrants efficiently destroy anybody who might threaten their power and, if they find themselves falling from power and being hanged, it is because they are guilty of not being a more efficient tyrant.
Digression: Definition of ‘Morality’
Here, I would like to make a quick aside in order to illustrate a point I made in my posting, “The Meaning of ‘Morality’ Is Subjective” There, I wrote that all meanings are subjective, and a person is free, if he wishes, to define ‘morality’ in terms of what will best fulfill the desires of an agent, regardless of what those desires may be.
However, such a person must still confine himself to the principle of substitution. He may not use ‘morality’ in any way where the truth value would change if he substituted the term with a cognate of the phrase, ‘best fulfills the desires of the agent’. If he does obey this rule, then we discover that one of the facts about ‘morality’, under this definition, is that people generally have a lot of very good reasons to promote immorality – because what best fulfills the desires of an agent (regardless of what those desires may be) will thwart the desires of others.
Return to Main Point: Changing Desires
Though it is definitely useful, if we have reason to convince somebody to desire something, to be able to show him that this would better fulfill is own (other) desires; it is sometimes simply not true. If an individual’s desire to rape or to kill is strong enough, then it is perhaps those other desires that should give way, to give unrestricted reign to the desire to rape or kill.
More importantly, the desires that we have reason to cause others to have has nothing to do with what will fulfill the (other) desires of that person. The desires that we have reason to cause others to have are those that will fulfill our desires, not his. There is nothing on Earth that demands that these two be identical.
We are left with countless cases in which the desires that people generally have reason to cause others to have are not desires that will best fulfill the (other) desires of that other person. In other words, we have countless cases where the claim, “This will better fulfill your other desires,” promotes desires that we have no reason to promote.
More importantly, the less moral the person we are talking to is (the more his desires tend to thwart other desires), the less useful will it be for us to help him realize how to more efficiently fulfill those other desires.
Do we have a way to affect the desires of others when it makes no sense for us to demonstrate or convince him that this will fulfill his other desires?
Of course, I answer that we do have these tools. In addition, this question provides the dividing line between ‘practical reason’ and ‘moral reason’.
Praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are tools to be used when the argument, “This will help fulfill your own desires,” is not a useful way to promote desires that people generally have reason to promote. These are tools to be put into place in those circumstances when the best choice for that individual is not the best choice for others as well. Reward and Punishment
In the sense described above, reward and punishment can be seen, in part, as rather blunt attempts to bring the best choice for the individual into alignment with what is the best choice for others as well. We reward those who do the right thing to give them an incentive to do the right thing; and punish people for moral wrongs as a way of discouraging people from committing those wrongs.
However, in these cases, we reward something because it is right (it is something we have reasons to reward) and punish something because it is wrong (it is something we have reason to make more scarce). It is NOT the case that it something is right because we tend to reward those who do it, and wrong if we tend to punish those who do it. It is perfectly sensible for a person to claim, “You should not be punishing people like this because their actions are not wrong.”
Justification for reward and punishment are implied by the proof of rightness or wrongness. It is not the case that the proof of rightness or wrongness hinges on the prior fact that we may have decided to reward or punish.
Practical vs Moral Reasons
The distinction that I have drawn here is the same distinction that exists between practical versus moral reasons. Convince a person that something will best fulfill the desires he actually has, and you have referenced practical reasons for the change. You have shown him that a particular option is practical. Depending on the desires the agent actually has, you may not have defended morality at all.
On the other hand, appeal to the desires of others - to the 'reasons for action' that others have to direct the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment in particular ways - and you are making use of moral reasons. Practical reasons are the desires the agent has; whereas moral reasons are the desires that people generally have reason to cause people generally to have.
For a good person, practical reasons and moral reasons lead to the same conclusion. For the evil person (and evilness comes in degrees), practical reason will tell him to do things that moral reasons would condemn. The agent is in need of some change to his desires to bring practical reason and moral reason back into alignment. The tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are then called upon to motivate this change.