Friday, January 05, 2007

Answering M on Subjectivism

This is theory weekend again, and I opt to spend this weekend addressing comments that M made in an earlier post.

I have limited space, and much of what I wish to write about can be found in one sentence that M wrote.

There is nothing incorrect about the idea that we can invent ethics to suit ourselves, so long as we truly believe them, and our ethics is logically sound.

First: "There is nothing wrong with believing X so long as you truly believe it."

There is an immediate problem with believing X if there is no objective reason to believe it. What this phrase talks about is pretty much the same as believing something on the basis of faith. There is this proposition X that one wants to believe is true. One has no objective reason to believe that it is true. In fact, in the case of moral subjectivism, the person not only asserts that there is no objective evidence for X but that X really isn’t true in fact, it is just believed to be true, even though it really isn’t true.

To believe any proposition X is to believe that 'X' is true. This is the definition of a belief. A belief is a propositional attitude – an attitude towards a proposition. That proposition could be, “God exists” or “1 + 1 = 2” or “roses are red” or “abortion is wrong.” Whatever that proposition is, to believe that proposition X is to have the attitude that ‘X’ is true.

Beliefs are one of two families of propositional attitudes. The other family is ‘desires’. Where beliefs are attitudes that a proposition ‘X’ is true, desires are attitudes that a proposition ‘X’ is to be made or kept true. Combined, beliefs and desires explain any intentional action. Why did Bush order the invasion of Iraq? The answer can be found in the beliefs and desires that Bush had at the time.

If somebody truly believes X, and 'X' is not true, there is a problem.

If a person truly believes X, and that person truly believes 'X' is NOT true (in the sense that there is no problem with believing that X is false), he has a bigger problem.

Finally, if a person truly believes X, and truly believes that 'X' is not true, and believes that his beliefs must be logically sound, then he has a set of beliefs that rival any theology for incoherence.

Second: there is nothing incorrect about the ides that we can invent ethics to suit ourselves.

This phrase is a little ambiguous.

Desire utilitarianism is very much a "we can invent ethics to suit ourselves" ethical theory. It identifies a good desire as one that tends to fulfill other desires, and bad desires as those that tend to thwart other desires. This says nothing other than that morality is an institution that is directed to the fulfillment of desires generally speaking. In other words, it is something that we invent to ‘suit ourselves’.

However, the phrase quoted above is ambiguous. There is a difference between us inventing something to suit ourselves, and me inventing something to suit myself.

To illustrate the difference, imagine a group of people gathered to watch a football game. They decide to order a pizza. One pizza for everybody. We start with each person identifying the toppings that they would put on a pizza that they would get from themselves. However, from here, they inter into a negotiation of sorts, trying to find the one pizza that will fulfill the more and the stronger of all of their desires for pizza toppings. The pizza that they come up with – the one they finally order – need not be consistent with any individual’s list.

With morality, we are not choosing pizza toppings. We are choosing malleable desires. We are choosing malleable desires in the sense that we can only choose desires that are on the menu. If a desire is not on the menu, then there is no use choosing it. Furthermore, we are not just choosing for ourselves or a set of game viewers, but everybody. Moral questions are questions about what desires everybody should have.

Just as with pizza toppings, there is an answer to the question of which malleable desires best suit ourselves. We can objectively know that pepperoni with extra cheese will better suit ourselves than ground glass with extra motor oil. Similarly, we can know that we are better off in a society of people who desire charity and honesty than in a society of individuals urged to value rape and deception.

Third: Our ethics is logically sound.

To illustrate this point, M wrote:

For example, I might believe that it is ok to murder a human. You might ask me if it is ok for someone to murder me. If I respond "no", then you need only show that any distinction between me and another human is rationally unsound; my argument falls apart, and it turns out that I did not truly believe.

What is logically unsound about "nobody but me may kill another person for the pure joy of killing?"

It is true that if I hold:

  • All A's are X's
  • A(n) is an A.
  • A(n) is not an X

That this is incoherent.

However, if I hold:

  • All A's except A(n) are X's
  • A(n) is an A
  • A(n) is not an X

This is perfectly coherent.

One may say, "you have no objective reason for saying A(n) is not an X. You cannot arbitrarily exclude A(n) from the set of A’s that you assert are X’s.”

Why not?

I was told that morality is subjective. I do not NEED an objective reason to pick a moral principle. Why do I need an objective reason to exclude A(n) from my claim that all A’s are X’s?

"BECAUSE THAT'S HOW IT'S DONE!"

This assertion that the person who says, “I may murder you, but you may not murder me,” is violating some principle of logic is nonsense.

Now, somebody may answer that there is nothing particularly wrong with a person holding that he may kill others in ways that others may not kill him. However, these defenders assert, this is no objection against subjectivism. After all, none of the other people have any reason to accept the person’s claim that he may kill whom he pleases.

Here, I would answer, "Now you are starting to make sense. Morality is not really about what suits me. It is about what people generally have reasons to support or inhibit. More specifically, it is about what malleable desires people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. These are desires that tend to fulfill or thwart other desires (respectively).”

Fourth: “Should” is a subjective relationship; it involves a certain standard.

This is another sentence elsewhere in M’s posting that gets to the core of the matter.

In fact, ‘Should’ makes no essential reference to standards. It makes its essential reference to desires.

You can come up with whatever standards you wish. It makes no sense to say that a person should act in accordance with those standards unless he has a ‘reason to act’ in accordance with those standards. The only reasons for action that exist are desires.

We really have only three options regarding our use of the word ‘should’.

  1. We are making a ‘should’ claim that has absolutely nothing to say about reasons for action. This means it is being used in a way that simply does not recommend possibilities to people. This view of ‘should’ is entirely incoherent.
  2. We are making a ‘should’ claim that makes an assertion about reasons for action. However, we find no reason for action among the relevant set of desires. In this case, the speaker is making reference to reasons for action that do not exist. In other words, his ‘should’ claim is false – there are no reasons for action supporting the option he is recommending.
  3. We are making a ‘should’ claim that makes an assertion about reasons for action, and those reasons for action are desires. Under this model, if the ‘should’ claim is actually relating an option to a set of desires, then the ‘should’ claim has the potential to be objectively true. Are there reasons for action supporting that action, or are there not?

Even if we talk about the totally arbitrary rules of a game such as chess, and we say, “You should take his queen with your knight,” we have to include some assumptions about the desires of the speaker for the ‘should’ to make any sense. We have to assume that the player wants to win, for example. If, instead, the agent wishes to lose (e.g., he is playing his boss who gets annoyed at employees who do beat him at chess), then the claim, “you should take his queen with your knight” is false. In this case, it is objectively false that taking the queen would fulfill the desires of the player.

If there is no reference to desires, then there is no ‘reason for action’ for doing what should be done. Desires are real. And the relationship between the state of affairs and relevant desires must actually exist – must be part of the real world – before it makes sense to say that a person really should do that which is being recommended.

It takes a bit more work, but it is a straight-forward shot to say that moral ‘should’ is concerned with what desires people generally have reason to promote or inhibit (using praise or condemnation as appropriate) because of its tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires.

13 comments:

Atheist Observer said...

Alonzo,
While one can work out a logical objective relationship of ehtics based on the "encouraging desires that fulfill other desires" it would seem the desires that are being thwarted or fulfilled may be in some respects subjective.
Take cooperation and competition. I may desire to see competition be promoted in society because I think it brings out the greatest effort in people. You may think cooperation should be promoted because you desire society to accomplish great things and you feel the greatest accomplishments are achieved through cooperation.
We could both see our positions as best to fulfill others' desires, but have quite different views of what should be encouraged.
I'm in no way arguing from the "everything is subjective" perspective, but that in the desires we have, and how we see them fulfilling the desires of others we can't totally escape some degree of subjectivity.

M said...

You subtly insert some very important words into your #2: "relevant set of desires". On what basis do you judge the relevant set? People have murdered, and this was based on desire - but on what basis do you say that this certain type of desire is irrelevant?

Your moral system is only "right" if I accept that it is right. It's true that most people are predisposed to accepting certain moral statments, and that nearly all are predisposed to accepting rational statments (assuming something hasn't crippled this), but this doesn't make morality objective in any sense. Something like "you should not desire to thwart the desires of others" under your definitions expands to "[...] under a standard of desire utilitarianism - which, incidentally, you accept for no rational reason".

The main point of subjectivism is that there is no inherent "right", no absolute standard that 'should' be accepted by all people. There are simply things that are accepted, and those that aren't. If I choose not to accept rationality or other (moral) things that most humans seem to accept, what would your response be? You say, for example, that "you should not desire to thwart the desires of others". The subjectivist version of this is "if you accept that you should not desire to thwart the desires of others, then you should not".

When some global assumtion of acceptance is sound, then morality becomes objective. But we can't make a truly global assumtion, and the disparity of moral systems and reasons for taking action really is evidence of that.

There is no sound reason to assume that an 'average' of human desires is the 'correct' moral code to live by. Correct in what sense?

Perhaps you disagree with this, but if you don't, it's misleading to argue against subjective morality.


Perhaps you have misread what I said. In "I might believe that it is ok to murder a human", the position seems clear: the person thinks that harming humans is ok. Now, we assume that this person is rational. They state that it is not ok to murder them. On what basis? Granted, if they say "by merit of me having a certain special configuration of molecules that noone else has", we'd be stumped. But this is an unlikely answer. More likely, this person will answer with "just 'cus" (they actually reject rationality), or under a mistaken belief that they are better in some characteristic (they are in error). If, however, the person refuses to accept rationality, then we're really unable to say "not accepting rationality is wrong (in the moral sense)".

Let's pretend that a white male presents that initial claim. He has certain reasons for believing it. If we ask "why", we'll almost certainly get a better answer. "Because I'm white" (the claim has changed, or become more clear), "because non-whites are inferior", "inferior in the sense of civility", "civility in the sense of obeying the laws", "yes, they are genetically predisposed to disobey laws", "of course I'm a rational person", "yes there is evidence to support my claim that they are genetically predisposed" - and here we can very easily show that this person's position is actually rationally unsound.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

M said...

You subtly insert some very important words into your #2: "relevant set of desires".

Actually, not that important. As long as one limits what one says about the value relative to any set of desires to what is objectively true of that relationship, then it really does not matter what set of desires one picks.

I have pointed this out in the past by using the astronomer’s definition of ‘planet’. Why is it that astronomers can dispute the meaning of ‘planet’, and settle it with a vote, without losing the objectivity of astronomy? It is because whether you call Pluto a planet or not, as long as you limit your claims to what is true of Pluto regardless of what it is called, Astronomy remains just as objective as it always was.

And, in value theory, it does not matter what you call the relationship between any state of affairs and any set of desires – as long as you limit yourself to saying what is objectively true of any relationship that exists – then it does not matter what you call any relationship, your value theory remains objective.

What you would need to do to raise an objection is to demonstrate that what I said of any given relationship is not objectively true of that relationship. Even if you did that, you would not be able to show that there are things in ethics that are subjectively true. You would, instead, show that there are things that I said that are objectively false.


On what basis do you judge the relevant set?

If I said, “The keys are on the table,” or “She is at the party,” then on what basis do you determine which table is ‘the table’ or which person is ‘she’? You look at the context in which the statement is made. And, if the statement is ambiguous, then you ask for clarification. That is how you determine which table, or which person, is the relevant table or person. You use similar techniques to determine which desires are relevant.


Your moral system is only "right" if I accept that it is right.

Please identify anything that I write in my moral system that is not objectively true?

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. We need desires to explain intentional actions. We have no need for any other reasons for action. If you want to postulate the existence of any other reasons for action, be my guess, but they do not spring into existence merely by your assertion. They have to do real work. They have to have a role to play in explaining and predicting real-world events. On this measure, I hold that there are no other reasons for action. Regardless of whether you accept it or not, desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

Beliefs and desires are propositional attitudes. A belief is an attitude that a proposition is true; whereas, a desire is an attitude that a proposition is to be made or kept true. Beliefs and desires form intentions, which cause intentional actions. If you have a better theory of intentional actions, I would like to hear it.

People act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires, given their beliefs; while they seek to act to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires. Insofar as ‘should’ or ‘ought’ is action-guiding (they are used to tell people what to do), it only makes sense that they refer to reasons for action. The idea of an action-guiding principle that makes no reference to reasons for action is incoherent.

Since desires are the only reasons for action that exist, ‘should’ or ‘ought’ have to either refer to desires, or to reasons for action that do not exist (thus do not recommend any action in fact) or to things that are not reasons for action (which makes them irrelevant in answering questions about what we should do).

Your acceptance or rejection of these claims does not change their truth value. If they are true, they are objectively true. If false, then they are objectively false.

Some desires are malleable – proved by the fact that some of the desires people acquire depend on their life experiences and the culture in which they are raised.

Also, some desires tend to bring about states of affairs that tend to fulfill other desires, and some desires tend to bring about states of affairs that tend to thwart other desires.

Malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires are desires that others have ‘reason for action’ to promote. At the same time, malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires are desires that others have ‘reason for action’ to inhibit. This is axiomatic, given that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, and desires motivate an agent to bring about states that fulfill those desires, and avoid states that thwart those desires.

The tools that we have available for promoting and inhibiting malleable desires include praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. So, this formula pretty much tells us when and where it makes sense for people generally to use these tools.

Let me know where, in this, I said something that is only true for people who accept it.


Something like "you should not desire to thwart the desires of others" under your definitions expands to "[...] under a standard of desire utilitarianism - which, incidentally, you accept for no rational reason".

No, actually, I do not defend the proposition, “You should not desire to thwart the desires of others.” Ultimately, I think that it is not very defensible.

Instead, I say that “People generally have reason to use the tools of condemnation and punishment to bring it about that you do not have desires that tend to thwart the desires of others.”

That’s pretty much all I need.

People often like to assert that I need something more – something else – something outside the realm of what is objectively true or false, so that they can assert that I need something ‘subjective’. But, that assertion is incorrect. I can get everything I need from this.


The main point of subjectivism is that there is no inherent "right", no absolute standard that 'should' be accepted by all people.

Well, as far as intrinsic values goes, I agree. There are no intrinsic values. There are no values without desires.

As for what ‘should’ be accepted (at least in the action-guiding sense), the only ‘absolute’ I argue for is that action-guiding statements refer to reasons for action that actually exist. It makes no sense to guide actions by reference to things that are not reasons for action, or imaginary reasons for action. Only real reasons for action are relevant. And the only real reasons for action are desires.

What would you like to argue for that is inconsistent with this? Do you want to argue that things that are not reasons for action are relevant to what we should do? Or that we should examine imaginary reasons for action? Those are your only two options as far as I can see.


If I choose not to accept rationality or other (moral) things that most humans seem to accept, what would your response be?

I would say that, if your behavior is harmful to others, then they have ‘reasons for action’ to take steps to prevent you from doing that. Do you disagree?


You say, for example, that "you should not desire to thwart the desires of others".

As I said above, this is not true.

See my post, The Hateful Craig Problem.. There, I distinguish between (1) a desire to fulfill the desires of others, (2) a desire that the desires of others be fulfilled, and (3) desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others – and state explicitly that desire utilitarianism is concerned with (3) – and its equivalent in terms of thwarting desires. Not (1).

I would agree – if your interpretation of what I am saying was correct, I could not defend it. However, that is precisely why I gave up that interpretation many years ago, and no longer defend it.


The subjectivist version of this is "if you accept that you should not desire to thwart the desires of others, then you should not".

The desire utilitarian version is, “People out there in the real world have ‘reasons for action’ to make it the case that you do not have wants that tend to thwart the desires of others, and do have wants that tend to fulfill the desires of others. It is also the case that you have ‘reasons for action’ to make it the case that they do not have wants that tend to thwart your desires, and do have wants that tend to fulfill your desires.”


When some global assumption of acceptance is sound, then morality becomes objective.

People out there have these reasons for action whether you accept it or not. You have these reasons for action whether you accept it or not.


There is no sound reason to assume that an 'average' of human desires is the 'correct' moral code to live by. Correct in what sense?

I do not need such an assumption. The more and the stronger the desires are that are thwarted by a particular malleable desire, the more and the stronger people’s ‘reasons for action’ are for making it the case that people do not have that desire.

In "I might believe that it is ok to murder a human", the position seems clear: the person thinks that harming humans is ok. Now, we assume that this person is rational. They state that it is not ok to murder them. On what basis?

What does ‘ok’ mean? Does this person think that others do not have ‘reasons for action’ for making it the case that he does not harm them? If this is what he means by ‘ok’, then he is mistaken. As a matter of objective, real-world fact, people do have ‘reason for action’ for making it the case that others do not wish to do them harm.

If he means ‘ok’ in the sense that he wants to do them harm, then it may well be objectively true that he wishes to do them harm. However, this does not change the fact that others generally have ‘reasons for action’ for making it the case that he does not wish to do them harm. This is true in the same sense that I can call a sieve a ‘bowl’ if I want to. However, that will not cause it to hold water.

If he means ‘ok’ in the sense that it pleases God, then his belief is objectively false – there is no God to please.

If he means ‘ok’ in the sense that the action is condoned by some desire-independent reasons for action, then he is objectively wrong. Desire-independent reasons for action do not exist.

Whatever he means by ‘ok’, it remains an objective real-world fact that people generally have reasons for action to make it the case that others do not have desires to harm them. That will not change regardless of whether or not he ‘accepts’ this fact or not. It does not matter how he defines ‘ok’. It does not matter what he may say in his own defense. None of this changes the fact that others have ‘reason for action’ for causing him not to want things that will thwart their desires, and to want things that will fulfill their desires.

M said...

What exact part of subjectivism are you against? You attack weak arguments for it, and so you seem to be against it, but when pressed, you appear to agree with it. How do you define subjectivism, and in what way are you against it, if you are? You don't appear to disagree with subjectivism itself, just certain parts of my arguments for it.

It makes no sense to guide actions by reference to things that are not reasons for action, or imaginary reasons for action.

You're in an unfortunate minority in giving reason full control of your moral views. Others will desire to act upon unreasonable beliefs, and they won't care (or see/agree) that they make no sense. You can't call them morally wrong because of this.

"People generally have reason to use the tools of condemnation and punishment to bring it about that you do not have desires that tend to thwart the desires of others."

Well, this seems barely a moral claim. You might as well say "ok, you've got me - I can't say that you're right or wrong - but I can ridicule and beat you, and that'll stop you from acting upon what you think is right, now won't it?" The problem here is that the person will still think it's right, and you've done nothing to change this. You reduce morality to a calculation of how many desires of mine will be fulfilled vs. thwarted if I undertake an action. This is objectively true, but I have trouble accepting "this is objective: it is immoral to do harm to a person where that person or others may retaliate against you." Morality is not about what you do under pressure of external forces, but what you believe and accept as, by your own standard, "right".

Your argument seems to be that morality in an objective sense really doesn't exist, but because it's objectively true that we might get punished for something, we can objectively decide what we should and shouldn't do (because we intend to avoid harm).

How would you defend against "you should not publish an image of Muhammad - surely you recognize our ability to punish you and thus our greater moral 'right'". What if 99% of the world held this view?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

M

I gotta get some sleep, but I wished to provide a couple of quick comments.

(1) I think that the language that subjectivists use in defense of subjectivism is ambiguous and invites equivocation and error. I have stated that there are certainly definitions of subjectivism where I am clearly a subjectivist - but not the type of subjectivist that says, "If X believes that raping small children is right, then it is right for X to rape small children."

It would not be wrong to say that I am not so much against subjectivism as I want to clean it up and throw out the equivocation and other errors. However, once we clean up subjectivism, it will no longer allow inferences like the one mentioned above.

One of those errors is the idea that 'objective' and 'subjective' are mutually exclusive catagories. In fact, many propositions can be labeled both objective and subjective - objective in the sense that they have a truth value and accurately describe the real world, and subjective in the sense that those descriptions include descriptions of mental states.

Value claims exist in this realm of overlap - where things are both objective and subjective.

(2) My phrase 'reason for action' uses a different sense of the word 'reason' than you use in saying that I am "giving reason full control of my moral views."

Okay, my moral views are entirely governed by reason. However, those views include the claim that all value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires, and that desires are immune to reason.

My use of the word 'reason' when I talk about 'reasons for action' mean something more like 'cause' or 'explanation'. Beliefs and desires explain intentional action. Desires determine the ends or goals, while beliefs determine the means. The reason a person performs any intentional action is to fulfill his desires, given his beliefs.

'Desires are the only reasons for action that exist,' means that the only entity that aims human action towards goals are his desires. Without desires, a person would have no reason to act. (He may be extremely good at picking out the means for any possible action - given the quality of his beliefs. However, without desires, he has no reason to actually do anything.)

More to come.

M said...

I'm happy that you're keeping track of these comments.

Two points. First, I understand what you mean by "reason for action". If my post is ambiguous, understand that I am not mistaking your meaning. My 'unfortunate minority' point was against 'imaginary reasons for action', that is, my point was that even irrational, imaginary reasons still cause actions.

Second, be careful to note that I'm not talking about hypocrites like my white male. I'm talking of someone who'd say "screw your morality" with a smirk on their face and not a trace of guilt or fear. A true-believer. If your hypothetical child-rapist is such a being, then I challenge you to show that they are "wrong".

truth machine said...

Moral questions are questions about what desires everybody should have.

So Jimmy Carter was immoral because he lusted in his heart? Morality applies to intent, not desire (perhaps you don't know the difference).

We can objectively know that pepperoni with extra cheese will better suit ourselves than ground glass with extra motor oil. Similarly, we can know that we are better off in a society of people who desire charity and honesty than in a society of individuals urged to value rape and deception.

Are you so unfamiliar with the subject that you are discussing that you don't even recognize that what "we" are "better off" with is a moral judgment, and that even if we all agreed on what social states are better than others, that wouldn't settle how we should behave, because there's no way to guarantee that our intended behavior will produce our desired outcomes? You might want to read Ursula LeGuin's "Lathe of Heaven", which explores that problem.

You call yourself an ethicist, but you don't seem to recognize the lack of ethics in professing on a subject without having familiarized yourself with the work of others who preceded you.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Truth Machine

You appear to be one of those people who are more interested in insult than intelligent debate. Your writing here suggests that I know far more about this subject than you do, and you are trying to cover up your ignorance with pomp and bluster.

In fact, "we" are "better off" is not a moral judgment. A gang of thieves can make the claim that "we" are "better off" without it being the case that there is any moral obligation on the part of others to catch the thiefl.

And the fact that we cannot guarantee that our intended behavior will produce a particular outcome only implies that we need to introduce principles of risk and uncertainty into the mix.

I cannot guarantee that all of my financial decisions will produce the desired outcome. However, this does not imply that all financial decisions are equally sound. Indeed, time will tell which financial decisions produce better outcome than others.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

M

Your statement that "irrational, imaginary reasons still cause actions" is true, in a sense, but I think it needs to be more precise.

As it turns out, this will be relevant to what I am writing tonight (January 9, 2007), so I refer you to that - once I get it posted.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

M

I am sorry that I did not get to your answer on the 9th. I started off the post where I wanted, but it did not go in the direction I expected. My will try again on January 10th.

As for this hypothetical child rapist:

I'm talking of someone who'd say "screw your morality" with a smirk on their face and not a trace of guilt or fear. A true-believer. If your hypothetical child-rapist is such a being, then I challenge you to show that they are "wrong".

What is it that I need to show?

I can show that people generally have a reason to use their tools of social conditioning against such people coming into existence, and to threaten them against acting on their desires where they do exist. That is all I need to show.

I cannot force them to apply the term 'wrong' to this set of facts. At the same time, a chemist cannot 'show' somebody that they must use the word 'oxygen' when talking about an 8-proton atom. All the chemist can show is that chemists have (quite subjectively) adopted a convention of doing so.

This is not a problem that is unique to morality. It is not a problem that threatens objectivity. It is not an important problem at all - simply a fact about language. We must be careful to distinguish facts about the word 'oxygen' from facts about 8-proton molecules. The two are not the same, and we get into all sorts of problems when we fail to make these distinctions.

Can I convince him not to smirk, to have a trace of guilt, or of fear? Well, not through reason. However, I cannot use reason to change his height either. No syllogism will result in a change in another person's hair color.

It is not the purpose of moral reasoning to actually cause these changes in another person, so it cannot be blamed for a failure to do so.

The purpose of moral reasoning is to demonstrate that there are many good reasons to use the tools that can cause these changes to bring about these changes (to whatever degree we are able). Reason cannot change a flat tire on a car, but it can reveal that we have reasons to get the tire change and identify the most efficient way of doing so. Reason cannot change the child-rapist's desires. However, it can point out that we have many strong reasons to do so and to identify the tools that will allow us to most efficiently get the job done.

That's all that I need to show. I don't need to show (and it is absurd to ask me to show) how reason alone actually changes the tire.

M said...

Perhaps I don't understand your complaint against subjectivism. If you believe that you are not bound by any external obligation, and only your own internal whims, then you are a subjectivist through and through.

You say that you only need to inform people of good reasons for thwarting this murderer. Well, ok, but isn't morality more about determining which reasons are good and which bad?

What is it about subjectivism that you disagree with? I think you once stated that a study of morality is a waste unless it can be studied objectively. That 'good' or 'bad' actions can be determined and then recommended as objective in some sense. Well, they aren't objective. It just so happens that humans are predisposed to non-objectively accepting certain moral statements.

So, is morality - the determination of which courses of action are 'right' or 'wrong' - subjective? How not?

Anonymous said...

Regarding the choice of desires which tend to fulfill the desires of others…
I think the point is that everybody tends to have different desires. If no real rational reason exists for defending the assertion that [desires which tend to fulfill the desires of others] are good being objectively true, then the argument does not bear much weight.

Let’s say my desire is for power. If another person’s desire is for the same power, then our desires are mutually exclusive and one or the other desire must be thwarted. The seeking of power can hardly be construed as “wrong” or an irrational reason for action, because power has always been something desirable. So we’ve come to a head with two mutually exclusive desires. Does either desire hold a superior value? What right would I have for claiming my own desire’s superiority? You would claim, I imagine, that neither has the superior claim – because both of us have a desire – but one claim MUST win over the other, or neither desire is achieved. I suppose you could claim that both of us relinquishing the desire for power is preferable to one of us thwarting the other’s desires…assuming that survival is paramount to achieving desires.

I’m having a hard time imagining taking an action that will tend to fulfill the other person’s desires. This is especially difficult if I assume that neither desire is superior to another.

It also seems that you’ve made the assumption that society would choose a state of desire utilitarianism, but that is quite the assumption. Maybe you assume that the majority of people would desire a state of desire utilitarianism – but since almost none of them are familiar with the idea itself, I would claim that most humans desire for their own desires to take precedence over others’. It seems to be objectively true that biologically speaking, the desire for self-preservation is the deepest of human desires. On this rationale alone could not one justify preserving one’s own life when given the dichotomy of his or someone else’s? I see this manifested in a battle between two mutually exclusive desires, such as the power struggle I mentioned above.

Well, let’s go back to the idea of murder. Assume that the actions (and therefore desires) of others are hurtful to me and make me angry, by preventing my desires and actions. This could be, for example, another person’s attempt to take power while I am trying to take the same power. Whatever the case, this person’s actions cause me to become angry, and since those actions are based on desires, I can assume that that person’s desires make me angry by conflicting with my own. If that person were not there, I would not be angered by their desires conflicting with mine. So, through my own subjective analysis, if I remove that person, their desires will no longer anger me, thereby justifying the murder.

I must confess that I haven’t read much of your writing, but this may interest you. I like the way you've dealt with these issues, and it makes a lot of sense...but I also like playing devil's advocate :)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

M

I answered a part of your most recent post in my essay on January 11: Obligations towards Children: Teaching Right from Wrong

Anonymous

You may find a useful discussion of your questions in an earlier post I wrote called, Harmony Without Empathy