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.”
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’.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.