Saturday, December 30, 2006

Practical vs Moral Reasons

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.


Atheist Observer said...

You asked for emperical verification that the best choice for an individual is usually the best choice for others. You say you have no evidence one way or the other.
I would assert that the fact we live in an orderly society where we have thousands of interactions with others regularly, and encounter harm or crime only rarely is a powerful argument that most people find acting in a non-harmful way to others is the best choice for them. The combination of internal feelings, general societal norms, and the legal system form a generally effective way to enforce desires that are helpful to most people, and discourage those that are harmful.
Yes, people lie, cheat, steal, rape, and murder, but with the exception of psychopaths and sociopaths, just about everyone recognizes going around hurting people constantly quickly becomes a losing proposition.
There is some emperical evidence that our brains are wired to pick up on subtle signs of deception, and that concepts of stealing and unfairness are recognized even by some animals.
I would contend that millions of years of evolution as a social species, and thousands of years of development of civilization have brought powerful forces to bear to align the good of the individual with the good of the society.
Obviously we have the horrible exceptions of slavery, totalitarianism, and war, but on a day-to-day basis the typical person finds truth, honesty, loyalty, kindness, and love personally rewarding, admired by others, and very seldom lead to jail.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

Your 'proof', I am afraid, begs the question to a large extent.

If I am right, then we are engaged in a continual process of social engineering to mold the desires of others - to give them those desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others, and inhibit those desires that thwart the desires of others.

To the degree that this moral project is successful, to that degree we will see the regularities you describe.

The very concept of promoting desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others is one that brings practical reasons and moral reasons into alignment. As I said, for the good person, there is no difference between the actions recommended by practical reasons alone and those recommended by moral reasons, because he has been made to desire that which fulfills the desires of others.

Yet, even here I would argue that intellectual recklessness that is harmful to others - particularly in the form of religious conflict and religion-based legislation, deception (e.g., the campaign to confuse whole populations on issues such as the dangers of smoking and greenhouse gasses for the sake of profit and the lies that dominate political campaigns and punditry), the lack of charity among those who can most afford to be charitable, widespread theft of intellectual property (particularly in China), tyrannical leadership in many countries, and the like suggest that we have a long ways to go to bring individual desires into harmony with what is good for others.

Atheist Observer said...

In Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s book Freakonomics they talk about a business where a man leaves bagels and a deposit box at various locations. The bagels cost a dollar and collection is on the honor system. The man reports 85 to 90 % of the bagels are paid for. I would say that might roughly approximate the proportion of time people perceive that their interests and those of others coincide.
The people who pay feel the value to themselves and others of paying outweighs the value of the dollar they could keep. I admit I have no logical proof that this is anything like a universal truth, but my personal experience is that most of the time I encounter others they are behaving ethically.
Your example of intellectual property theft in China presents an interesting case. There is poverty, malnutrition, and preventable illness rampant in parts of China. How morally reprehensible is it to sell pirated copies of Microsoft Office, if the primary result is bringing food, sanitary conditions, and decent living conditions to a few hundred poor Chinese villagers, rather than a few thousand more dollars going to the richest man in the world? Granted, we don’t know if he would use it to build the biggest house on Puget Sound or give it to his foundation, but the moral question remains.
The question gets even more vexing if the people who buy the pirated copies could not afford to buy the genuine article, so Microsoft is actually not losing any sales, and if the pirated copies improve the productivity of the buyers and let them contribute more to the economy than they would have been able to without them.
I don’t argue that stealing intellectual property isn’t wrong, just that real actions in the real world often have multiple consequences with various moral implications.

Atheist Observer said...

Perhaps if you are still snowed in you will bear with me for a second post. Here I would like to discuss your view that the most effective tools we have for changing desires and behaviors are praise, condemnation, reward and punishment. I agree there are times when each of these is appropriate and effective, but I think there are other tools as well that are even more effective in many situations.
My comprehensive list of moralist’s tools in increasing order of effectiveness would include:
Reason/Persuasion – This can be effective when the individual is reasonable or is susceptible to persuasion. In some cases we can merely talk the person into changing desires or behavior. I see this as probably the weakest of tools, but it can be surprisingly effective if done by a skilled communicator.
Information/Education – This differs from the previous method in that we are not trying to directly persuade, but to provide facts and information about relationships and consequences that cause the individual to change desires or behaviors in light of the new information. The limitation of this technique as you said is that it requires facts which refute the wisdom of committing an undesirable action.
Praise/Condemnation – These tools are basically milder forms of reward and punishment. They are effective only if the praise is seen as a significant reward or the condemnation is seen as undesirable. They have the obvious limitation of being ineffective when the one giving the praise or condemnation is considered unimportant. They can even be counterproductive. Some would take it to be a badge of honor to be condemned by fundamentalist religious zealots.
Example/Demonstration – “When in Rome do as the Romans do” is a trite expression, but as a guide to human behavior there’s a reason it’s been around a long time. When I experience others consciously working to help me fulfill my desires, my natural response is to reciprocate. Receiving kindness from others is often a more powerful tool than being praised for one’s own kindness. We learn more from what we see and experience than we do from what we are told.
Reward/Punishment – The power of effective reward and punishment cannot be denied, but again they have limitations. The rewards offered must outweigh the rewards of the undesirable act. It would not be practical to try to create a reward for not stealing a billion dollars. And while our punishment choices include the ultimate denial of life itself, punishment can have unintended consequences. Kidnap victims are sometimes killed because the criminals believe they have already committed a capitol crime and have nothing to lose. Behaviors may change to avoid the punishment, but not necessarily in ways that ultimately produce more desirable behavior.
Prevention/Opportunity – Finally I would say by far our most effective tools to modify desires, and more significantly behavior, are the tools of prevention and opportunity. Sometimes prevention is the only effective way to stop bad behavior. We can only prevent terrorists from blowing up a city by preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon. Praise, condemnation, reward, or punishment mean nothing to a suicide bomber, but if it is impossible for him to fulfill his desire, he cannot harm others. Prevention is also what thwarts most crime. If crime were much easier to commit, criminals would commit far more crime. Thus prevention is not only our only tool in some cases, it is the most commonly used one.
Conversely, my good desires only help others when I act on them, and action requires not only desire but opportunity. The internet provides you with an opportunity to make the world better by sharing your views and insights with others from your home. Without that opportunity I would never have heard of you. We can reward good behavior, but most people find helping others already rewarding. What makes the most difference is giving them easy, convenient opportunities to do so.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

Did I say that praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are the "best way" to mold desires? I could have - sometimes I write too quickly. In fact, for some desires, we do have other ways of modifying them - such as through drugs and through brain surgery.

Castration, for example, is known to have an effect on the desire for sex. It may be inflicted on a person as punishment, but it has an effect that is independent of its role as punishment.


Reason/Persuasion & Information/Education

These cannot change what people desire as an end, at least in any lawlike way. There are no set of fact-based premises that entail or imply a change of desires. Reason is only applicable to means (persuading a person that there might be a more efficient way to fulfill more and stronger desires).

Now, our language uses the term 'desire' both for what people desire as an end or desire for its own sake (e.g., absence of pain), and for what they desire as a means (e.g., "I want to stop by the store on the way home and pick up some butter"). However, the desires that are ultimately important are what people desire as an end. (A desire as a means being simply a set of things a person desires as an end and a recognition of how to fulfill those desires).

There might be some accidental relationship between a change in beliefs and a change in what a person "desires as an end". Both states are stored in the same brain, such that the change in brain structure associated with a change of belief might have an affect on the agent's desires as well. However, this is not a relationship of entailment or implication. This, instead, is like changing a person's mind by means of a sharp blow to the head.


It is true that 'prevention' changes behavior. However, the question of when to use 'prevention' to prevent bad behavior has nothing to do with fault. There are cases where we need to prevent bad behavior where we readily admit that the person is not at fault for this behavior. We lock them in mental hospitals. However, we recognize that this has nothing to do with moral fault. These people are not 'evil'. They are 'sick'.

Of course, we sometimes have reason to confine people (to prevent bad behavior) of those who are 'evil' as well. Yet, what is the difference between 'evil' and 'sick'? When does a person deserve prison, and when is a mental hospital more appropriate?

I would hold that the distinction depends on whether we are dealing with desires that we think can be molded through praise, blame, condemnation, and punishment (evil) and those that happen to a person in spite of these social forces (sick).

These measures, and measures like putting a lock on a door or requiring people to pass through metal detectors at the airport, are ultimately questions of prudence, rather than morality. They are actions we take in virtue of the real-world fact that not all people are moral.