Thursday, August 09, 2007

Beliefs and Values

In today’s post I want to address the third of three excellent questions from the studio audience that I received over the weekend. This one, from Tom Freeman, says:

Don't many desires presuppose certain beliefs, though? A desire to serve the will of god (whether through preaching, charity or the slaying of unbelievers) goes straight out the window once one loses the belief in god's existence.

Actually, a desire to serve the will of God does not go out the window when one loses the belief in God’s existence. The desire remains, causing many people a great deal of anguish because they have come to realize that something they want very badly is something that they can never have.

The whole psychology of grief is based on the fact that, sometimes, some very strong desires continue to exist even when the object of that desire ceases to exist. Imagine that an atheist parent, who believes that there is no life after death, loses her child in an automobile accident. All of the desires that the parent had for the future of that child, all of the things that parent wanted to see and do in helping that child grow up, now can no longer be fulfilled. The child has ceased to exist. However, the desires remain, causing excruciating pain in some instances.

The idea that the desire ceases to exist when belief that it can be fulfilled ceases to exist cannot handle these types of very common cases.

In fact, if you can tell somebody that something that he claims to have valued does not exist – that it was destroyed, or it never existed to start with, and he does not experience a period of grief over the discovery, you can reasonably assert that he never cared about that thing to start with. If a father learns of his child’s death, shrugs his shoulders, and casually makes adjustments to his calendar, then this is not a sign of a desire that depended on a belief. It is a sign of a desire (a concern for the child) that simply did not exist.

Desires, Ends, and Means

Now, this does not refute the claim that there are desires that presuppose certain beliefs. It only counters a particular example of such a desire.

As it turns out, the term ‘desire’ is actually an ambiguous term, and one of the meanings of desires includes beliefs. Another does not include beliefs.

The distinction that I am talking about here is the distinction between ‘desires-as-end’ versus ‘desires-as-means’.

We often use the term ‘desire’ to refer to something that we value, not for its own sake, but for its usefulness. If I were to say, “I want go to the dentist this afternoon,” one can rest assured that I have no desire that I be at the dentist. Instead, I have a desire that I not experience future pain, and a belief that being at the dentist will help me to avoid future pain. In other words, my visit to the dentist is a means of avoiding future pain, while pain itself is something that I seek to avoid for its own sake – simply because I dislike pain.

In other words, a ‘desire-as-means’ is a shortcut way of taking about a collection of desires-as-ends and beliefs and talking about them without using so many words. Every desire-as-means statement can be scratched out and replaced by desire-as-end statements and beliefs. Only, it would result in some very long-winded statements. It is much easier to say, “I want to stop by the store on the way home,” than it is to say, “I want steak for supper and I believe that the store has steak and I believe that the store will give me the steak if I allow them to take a certain amount of money out of my bank account and I believe that I have at least that much money in my bank account.”

When I speak about desires in desire utilitarianism I am concerning myself only with desire-as-ends and beliefs. I am not ignoring desire-as-means. I am not cutting out and calling them irrelevant. I am saying that everything that is true about desire-as-means is true of bundles of desire-as-ends and beliefs. By talking about the latter, we include the former.

When it comes to desires-as-means, changing beliefs can change what a person desires. If I say that I want to purchase 1,000 shares of Company X, somebody can instantly kill that desire by causing me to believe that Company X will soon be filing for bankruptcy. This is because my desire to purchase shares of Company X was not a desire-as-end. My desire-as-end was to make money. Purchasing shares of Company X was a desire-as-means. As soon as I cease to believe that it will serve as a desire-as-means, my desire-as-means ceases to exist. However, my desire-as-end of making money remains.

Participatory Good

Let is say that I have a desire to own famous pieces of art. I cherish a Van Gogh painting that I have in my study. In this case, I value the painting because it participates in a set of things that I value – a set of famous paintings.

However, let us assume that this is not a Van Gogh painting. It is a forgery – the tpe of forgery that can have no real value. The instant that my beliefs about this painting change – the minute I go from believing that it participates in the set of famous paintings to believing that it does not participate in that set – at that moment my ‘desire’ to hold onto this painting vanishes. I might even immediately destroy it.

Participatory value is another case in which the we use value to refer to a combination of desires-as-ends and beliefs. The desires-as-ends in this case is to own famous artwork. The beliefs that are relevant here are my beliefs that this painting participates in the set ‘famous art work’.

In changing my beliefs in this case, an individual would not be changing my desires-as-ends. My desire-as-end of owning famous paintings continues. I would continue to value this painting if it was a famous painting.

Changing Beliefs

In both of these cases, changing a person’s beliefs will change the way they behave, and it will change what a person claims to desires. However, it does not affect an agent’s desires-as-ends. Nor does it affect a person’s moral character.

Consider a mother who wants to feed her child. There prepares some baby formula, believing that the contents are healthy. Unfortunately, as a result of product tampering, the formula contains poison. If we change this person’s beliefs about the formula (warn her that formula with lot number N has been poisoned and that this container is from lot number N), she then decides not to feed it to the baby. By changing this person’s beliefs, you have changed her behavior – preventing her from doing a bad thing. However, you have not improved her moral character. This is because moral character is not affected by changes in beliefs. Moral character is only affected by by changes in desires-as-ends.

Now, before she learns that her container belongs to a poisoned lot, she may have well said something like, “I want the bottle of baby food over there.” She would use the language of desires. However, in this case, she is referring to desires-as-means, not desires-as-ends.

The same is true of the man buying what he thinks is a forgery. He says, “I want that painting.” Convince him that it is a forgery and he will admit that his statement, “I want that painting “ was false. He will no longer try to buy it. By changing the person’s beliefs you have changed his attitude towards that painting, but you have not affected his moral character. His improved beliefs leave him just as virtuous or just as vicious as he once was.

The Homosexuality Example

Thayne presented an example a couple of days ago that is supposed to refute my claims.

I had a friend who, to name just one example, despised homosexuals. He supported Amendment 2 here in Colorado (an amendment to the state constitution that basically made it okay for employers and landlords to discriminate against homosexuals). Why? Because his conservative religion told him to.

After debating and discussing issues with him for quite some time, he is now not religious and believes homosexuals should be free to be homosexuals without facing discrimination. His change in belief had many other effects that I think Alonzo would deem good as well.

I did not use the tools Alonzo suggests. I appealed to reason. Heavily.

Let me present a theory of what was going on here. The value (or disvalue) that this friend placed in homosexuality was due to his beliefs about its participatory value. My guess is that the friend had a desire to promote that which is good and inhibit that which is bad, a belief that scripture contained reliable information about what was good and what was bad, and that scripture identified homosexuality as bad. Consequently, he believed that homosexuality participated in the set, “That which is bad.”

Reason would be an appropriate way to convince this person that homosexuality does not, in fact, participate in the set of ‘that which is bad’.

However, Thayne’s use of reason did not affect his friend’s moral character. His friend’s moral character was reflected in the desire-as-end of promoting that which is good and inhibiting that which is bad. This was an example of using reason to prevent a good person from doing bad things, not a case of using reason to prevent somebody from being a bad person.

It is patently absurd for anybody to claim that you cannot affect a person’s behavior by affecting his beliefs. In fact, the formula that sits at the foundation of all that I write, “People act so as to fulfill the most and the strongest of their desires, given their beliefs,” points to the role that beliefs have in behavior. Also, beliefs are governed my reason. False beliefs prevent the fulfillment of desires. People have reason to promote those desires that promote true beliefs and inhibit those desires that promote false beliefs. All of this points to an important role that changing beliefs have in changing behavior.

However, changing beliefs has nothing to do with morality. Teaching a child that all squares are rectangles is not the same as teaching him virtue – though teaching him to love math could well be.

So, I am not downplaying the role of beliefs in changing behavior. Every post that I write is an attempt to use reason to affect beliefs. Whether I am arguing that ‘genetic morality’ is an oxymoron, or that people generally have reason to promote an aversion to harming innocent people that implies presumption of innocence and proof of guilt, I am appealing to reason. If I downplayed the role of reason, then why do I use so much of it? Or, at least, I try to.

No, what I argue is that a person’s moral character is not tied up in what he believes. Beliefs are important, but ‘ought’ and ‘should’ refer to reasons for action, and the only reasons for action that exist are desires. Desires are what identify the ends of human action; beliefs only pick out the means.

Furthermore, when it comes to changing desires-as-ends, beliefs are irrelevant. No belief entails a desires-as-end. Beliefs are certainly relevant to desires-as-means and desires-as-participant. However, changing desires-as-ends requires tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

14 comments:

Richard said...

"No belief entails a desires-as-end."

What about the belief that you would desire X if only you were more rational? (See here.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Richard

No.

"I believe that I would desire X if I were more rational" is compatible with "I would desire X if I were more rational" being false.

Just as "I believe that a god exists" is compatible with "a god exists" being false.

If you think that this belief entails a desire, I need some more explanation as to how this is the case.

Anonymous said...

You see Atheists really do not exist. :-)

EVOLUTION and ATHEISM: UNSCIENTIFIC & MYTHICAL

Richard said...

Alonzo - '"I believe that I would desire X if I were more rational" is compatible with "I would desire X if I were more rational" being false.'

Of course. My claim is that the belief rationally forces one to have the desire; not that the belief is necessarily true!

Compare these Moore-paradoxical assertions:
(1) P is true, but I don't believe it.

(2) I would believe P if I were ideally rational; but I don't currently believe that P.

(3) I would desire that P if I were ideally rational, but I don't currently desire that P.

My claim is that the agent who asserts (3) suffers from a rational incoherence, a kind of (almost) contradiction, the same as in (1) and (2).

That is, I claim that the BELIEF that one would desire P if one was ideally rational, rationally necessitates the agent (on pain of incoherence) to DESIRE that P.

martino said...

Richard: That is, I claim that the BELIEF that one would desire P if one was ideally rational, rationally necessitates the agent (on pain of incoherence) to DESIRE that P

The point here is one is not "ideally rational" so the "rationally necessitates" fails. There is no incoherence, to argue that there is, is surely question-begging?

Richard said...

Martino - no, you've missed the point. Even though we are not in fact ideally rational, still our present attitudes necessarily aspire to be ideal. Just like you can't knowingly believe something false (though we do so unknowingly all the time), similarly you can't knowingly endorse something that you'd reject if ideally rational (even though we aren't ideally rational, and so often unknowingly fall short).

The agent who asserts my (3) is effectively saying, "I value X but I think I'm mistaken to do so." Clearly this is incoherent: you are endorsing something that is a mistake by your own lights.

martino said...

Richard:The agent who asserts my (3) is effectively saying, "I value X but I think I'm mistaken to do so." Clearly this is incoherent: you are endorsing something that is a mistake by your own lights.
I want a cigarette but I think I am mistaken to do so.

Could it be your apparent incoherence comes from applying formal reasoning (propositional logic) to desires but desires are not propositions? My version of your statment is not harmonious - there is a clash of desires (yes some unstated) - but it is coherent to express. When it comes to desires one seeks harmony, coherence may be a fortuitous consequence but not a necessary condition.

Richard said...

Martino - "I want a cigarette but I think I am mistaken to do so."

The addict merely craves their drug; if they are a reluctant addict, then they do not really value it.

This illustrates the distinction between two fundamentally different kinds of desires, for clearly there is a difference between feeling driven to some end vs. feeling drawn to something you perceive to be genuinely worthwhile. I am talking about the latter kind of desires, i.e. values -- those that aspire to ideality, and thus admit of mistakes. (Your cigarette statement is strictly senseless, since it is a category error to call a craving 'mistaken'. There is no ideal for craving against which it might fall short.)

Even in the cigarette case, if you believe that your addiction to cigarettes is a bad thing, i.e. worth getting rid of, (i.e. you believe that you would desire to overcome the addiction if ideally rational), then this again commits one to the value-desire to overcome the addiction.

It's worth noting that there is also rational pressure to reduce disharmony within one's desire set. So one's normative belief that a craving-desire should be got rid of, by entailing the corresponding value-desire, thereby presses one to overcome the addiction. (It's also worth noting that craving-desires only last as long as the craving feeling itself; value-desires seem rather more enduring. We are generally just as happy to remove a craving as to satisfy it. The same is not true of values!)

martino said...

Interesting, please note I am trying this approach for size. Lets proceed
The addict merely craves their drug; if they are a reluctant addict, then they do not really value it.
Craving is decomposable using BDI theory like any intentional state. It is a form of desire that is related to a state of affairs - smoking a cigarette, it does have (relational) value.


This illustrates the distinction between two fundamentally different kinds of desires, Yes but they are both desire and so do both have value.

for clearly there is a difference between feeling driven to some end vs. feeling drawn to something you perceive to be genuinely worthwhile. Yes these are different reasons for action but both are still desire-dependant - is there anything else that can cause a reason for action?

I am talking about the latter kind of desires, i.e. values This is our key disagreement. Considered this way there not two types of desire when it comes to values.

those that aspire to ideality, and thus admit of mistakes. Not sure what you mean by "ideality" but you seem to be implying that some desires are norming. Do you mean every desire specifies its conditions of fulfilment? Failing to fulfil these conditions means the desire is thwarted but where is the mistake? The creation of the desire in the first place? Bu then such desires are not mistaken they are good or bad as in Alonzo's formulation.

(Your cigarette statement is strictly senseless, since it is a category error to call a craving 'mistaken'. There is no ideal for craving against which it might fall short.) And nor for any other desire! Alternatively the only way I can make sense of this is that beliefs can be false and so mistaken, and so we can say we have mistaken desires - given those mistaken beliefs. It was a mistake to start smoking, which was the result of false beliefs. Even if directly due to recklessness, in which case it was a mistake to believe one would not crave cigarettes and so on.

Even in the cigarette case, if you believe that your addiction to cigarettes is a bad thing, i.e. worth getting rid of, (i.e. you believe that you would desire to overcome the addiction if ideally rational), then this again commits one to the value-desire to overcome the addiction. Not sure I follow this. I now have two desires, the desire to smoke and the desire to stop. The desire to stop is predicated on the belief that the desire to smoke is a mistake. Otherwise surely there is no need for the desire to stop?

It's worth noting that there is also rational pressure to reduce disharmony within one's desire set.
So one's normative belief that a craving-desire should be got rid of, by entailing the corresponding value-desire, thereby presses one to overcome the addiction.

Hmm your explanation looks, if I Understand you correctly, like you are saying you have a desire-independent reason for action driven by your normative belief - how is that possible?

(It's also worth noting that craving-desires only last as long as the craving feeling itself; value-desires seem rather more enduring. We are generally just as happy to remove a craving as to satisfy it. The same is not true of values!) Cravings can long lasting but not active all the time. Don't see the difference you are trying to make here.

Richard said...

Martino -- On the question of how evaluative beliefs can be motivating, see my comment here. For now, let me try to convince you to take the craving/value distinction more seriously.

Suppose you just feel a compulsive drive to smoke; you do not have any conscious pro-attitude towards it, and you do not "want" it in the sense of feeling happy in anticipation of smoking. It wouldn't even give you any pleasure to smoke. You are simply under a compulsion.

A BDI theorist can model and predict your behaviour by calling this compulsion a "desire". But it has no ethical relevance. The desire has no value to you -- even if asked, you would say that you do not wish it to be fulfilled, you can gain no satisfaction from it at all. You don't consider smoking to be a 'goal' or an end of yours. But you just can't fight the compulsion; it is as though you are possessed.

Suppose that you are also drawn to academic inquiry. Unlike the smoking compulsion, you have a conscious pro-attitude towards philosophy. You enjoy it, judge it to be a worthwhile activity, and encourage others to take it up too. It is something you wholeheartedly endorse (value).

I claim that there is no relevant commonality besides these two "desires". Sure, they both causally influence your behaviour, but why should that matter? The former is mere compulsion -- no more a value to you than is a gun to your head. It is coercion from the inside.

Further evidence of the difference, I suggested, is that "We are generally just as happy to remove a craving as to satisfy it." Indeed, in the above scenario you would explicitly prefer to lose the compulsion than to fulfill it! Compare your desire for philosophy (or whatever else you value): would you be just as happy for me to wipe that out of your head? Surely not!

Do you see the difference (and its significance)?

martino said...

Hi Richard. First let me quote from the link you provided

The error, I think, is that proper desires are, contra Hume, amenable to reason. If I realize that I can't achieve both of two proper desires I have, in my experience, one of those desires has been extinguished or, at least, de-emphasized. Consistency is one feature of rationality; so, in these sorts of cases, inconsistency alters proper desires. Indeed, if it doesn't, it's hard to figure out why people don't try to achieve incompatible things all the time
So, if I understand you, you are now arguing that desires (not urges) are amenable to reason and hence operate under consistency constraints.
1. You are asserting that these non-urge desires are amenable to reason but how does one go about "extinguishing or de-emphasizing" a desire using just reason?
2. Why should desires be consistent? Logically it is, of course, appealing that they could be but practically we often deal with incommensurate desires and there is no possibility of equating them. Alonzo's argument for desires to be in harmony seems to deal with this.

Now to your actual answer here

You are trying to make a crave/value distinction here in classifying desires. Lets avoid equivocation here. Cravings do have value or disvalue (even if not desired! - this is a coherent statement). This is due to the theory of value being applied here: (generic) value being the relation between a mental state and a state of affairs. Many of our desires, not normally considered cravings, also do not have a "conscious pro-attitude". The burden is on you to make a clear distinction between these desires. Lets us call them urge-desires and proper-desires.

Now what is it that distinguishes proper-desires from urge-desires? It cannot be beliefs because we are talking about desire-as-ends not desire-as-means (where beliefs can alter those). So what is it that distinguishes the two categories of desire?

Richard said...

Your quote is from the comment after mine. But I do agree that values operate under consistency constraints.

Values are the kinds of desires that result from appreciate the inherent worth of the goal. Hence, if you change your belief about the worthiness of some goal, you thereby change the degree to which you value-desire it. (My linked comment suggests one way to understand this: as rational agents, we essentially have a desire to pursue worthwhile goals.)

On to your "actual" response: How am I equivocating? In fact, I don't see how anything you've written there engages with my previous comment. You just re-assert Alonzo's old "theory of value", which my compulsion example demonstrates is inadequate. I gave examples of the two different kinds of "desire", and specified some of the noteworthy differences. The main difference is in the pro-attitude: a value is something you judge to be good or worth pursuing; a craving is just something you do (compulsively) pursue -- possibly without any kind of positive appraisal at all!

I'm hoping this distinction is intuitively obvious. If not, there's really nothing more I can say.

martino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
martino said...

Values are the kinds of desires that result from appreciate the inherent worth of the goal. Lets us call these goal-values to differentiate them from relational-values? What is required to "appreciate the inherent worth" that result in goal-values. You also seem to implying some sort of intrinsic value to these goals?

Hence, if you change your belief about the worthiness of some goal, you thereby change the degree to which you value-desire it. So are you changing beliefs about your goals or beliefs about the "worthiness" of your goals or changing the intrinsic value of these goals?

You just re-assert Alonzo's old "theory of value", which my compulsion example demonstrates is inadequate.Yes and I don't see how your compulsion argument makes Alonzo's theory (relational-value) inadequate.

I gave examples of the two different kinds of "desire", and specified some of the noteworthy differences. I don't deny there is difference but relational-value can handle this whereas yours is more limited in scope (as I think you want to argue - to exclude urge-desires from value)

The main difference is in the pro-attitude: a value is something you judge to be good or worth pursuing; So where does this good or worth come from. What is the basis for its evaluation?

a craving is just something you do (compulsively) pursue -- possibly without any kind of positive appraisal at all! Never said there needed to be a "positive appraisal". Yes it is something you - just- do and it has value because of that. Any relation between a mental state and a state of affairs has a value, whether it should be valued - to be pursued or suppressed - is the question at hand.

I'm hoping this distinction is intuitively obvious.It is and I was trying to show, poorly probably, that your argument for goal-values is circular. Alonzo has answered this far better, indeed he has answered my question to you "Now what is it that distinguishes proper-desires from urge-desires?... So what is it that distinguishes the two categories of desire?"