Today, I want to give some emphasis to something that I added to yesterday’s post, and which played a role in a response that I gave to Atheist Observer to days ago.
Typically, somebody who writes about morality is anxious to assert that their theory can be the only true account of morality, and that no other use of the term ‘morality’ is legitimate. In contrast, I hold that language is an invention, what is true of things in the world does not depend on what we call them, so I do not care if somebody decides to use the term ‘morality’ in some way other than the way that I use it.
Let’s look at the propositions that provide the foundation for desire utilitarianism.
(1) Desires exist.
(2) Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.
(3) Desires are propositional attitudes.
(4) People seek to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of their desires are true.
(5) People act to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the object of their desires are true, given their beliefs – meaning that false or incomplete beliefs may thwart their desires.
(6) Some desires are malleable.
(7) Desires can, to different degrees, tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. That is, they can contribute to realizing the propositions that are the objects of other desires true, or contribute to preventing the realization of those propositions.
(8) To the degree that a malleable desire tends to fulfill other desires, to that degree people generally have reason to promote or encourage the formation and strength of that desire. To the degree that a malleable desire tends to thwart other desires, to that degree people generally have reason to inhibit or discourage the formation and strength of that desire.
(9) The tools for promoting or inhibiting desires include praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.
I have given these propositions without once using the term ‘morality’ or even the term ‘value’. Ultimately, it does not matter whether people actually do take this set of propositions, wrap them up in a package, and call them ‘morality’ or give them some other name. None of that affects the question of whether these propositions are true or false. It simply does not matter, ultimately, how a person wants to use the term ‘morality’ because it does not affect whether the things that I say above are true or false, or the implications of what follows from these propositions if they are true.
I would further assert that value-laden terms including moral terms carry with them assumptions about reasons for action. To say that a state of affairs is ‘good’ means that there exists some reason for action to realize such a state, and to call it ‘bad’ is to say that there are reasons for action for avoiding such a state.
People assert the existence of reasons for action other than desires – such as ‘God’s will’ or ‘intrinsic merit’. However, these ‘reasons for action’ do not exist. Because they do not exist, all statements that assert a reason for action grounded on God’s will or intrinsic value or some other form of desire-independent reason for action are false. They are not a matter of opinion.
Claims about desire-independent reasons for action are not ‘subjectively true’. Either these desire-independent reasons for action exist, or they do not. If they exist, then a theory that makes use of them should be able to do a better job of explaining and predicting intentional action. If a theory that makes use of them fails to do a better job of explaining and predicting intentional action, then by virtue of Occam’s Razor, we can eliminate them from our ontology.
It is true that a person can claim that some action X serves God’s will, and then act to realize X. However, we can adequately explain this type of behavior by asserting that the agent has a desire to serve God, and a belief that doing X serves God. However, in this case, the agent can never fulfill his desire, because he can never realize a state in which the proposition, “I am serving God” is true. He can only realize a state that he falsely believes is a state in which “I am serving God” is true. This means that such an agent cannot actually fulfill a desire – cannot actually realize something that has value. He can only falsely believe that he has realized a state that has value.
This account is still fully consistent with the claim that desires are the only reasons for action that actually exist. What motivates the agent’s action, in this case, is a desire to serve God and a false belief that doing X will serve God. The desire to serve God is a genuine reason for action that exists. However, it does not recommend any real-world action because no real-world action can actually realize a state where ‘I am serving God” is true.
If somebody wishes to assert that ‘morality’ attaches to something else, I will respond by asking, “In calling that moral, are you saying that there are reasons for action for realizing that which you call ‘moral’ or preventing the realization of that which ou call ‘immoral’? If you are, then I am going to ask you to demonstrate that the reasons for action that you are talking about actually do exist. If they do not exist, then your claim that there are reasons for action for realizing what you call ‘moral’ or for avoiding the realization of what you call ‘immoral’ is, quite simply, false. If they do exist . . . well, I would like to see an argument for the existence of reasons for action other than desires.
If you are claiming that in calling something ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ you are not saying anything about what we should realize or prevent from being realized, then I am going to accuse you, at best, of inventing a new language and, at worse, of uttering nonsense. I could take you at your word – and say that because no ‘reasons for action exist’ for bringing about what you call ‘moral’ then the fact that something is ‘moral’ is unimportant. You cannot coherently insist that I bring about that where there exists no reason for me to bring about.
If, on the other hand, in calling something ‘moral’ you are saying that there are reasons for action for bringing it about, and in calling something ‘immoral’ you are saying that there are reasons for action to prevent its realization, I am going to ask you to demonstrate that those reasons for action are, themselves, real.
If you can’t meet this challenge and show that your reasons for action are real, then I am going to assert that your claim that there are reasons for action for bringing about that which you call ‘moral’ are false. If you can demonstrate that there are reasons for action that are real . . . well, I’m going to assert that you must be referring to desires, since desires are the only reasons for action that exist. If you are talking about malleable desires, then I get to ask questions about whether there are reasons for action for promoting or inhibiting those desires.
Desires that tend to fulfill other desires matter because reasons for action exist for promoting the occurrence and strength of desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Desires that tend to thwart other desires matter because reasons for action exist for inhibiting the occurrence and strength of desires that tend to thwart other desires. These ‘reasons for action’ are the desires fulfilled or thwarted. So, I do not face a problem at least in theory, when it comes to answering the challenge, “Do reasons for action exist for promoting that which you call ‘moral’ or inhibiting that which you call ‘immoral’?” I don’t need to use the word ‘moral’ for any of this.
Where those reasons for action exist, they exist whether we use the term ‘moral’ or not. Whether to attach the term ‘moral’ is not relevant to the whether the proposition is true or false. What matters is whether ‘reasons for action exist’ for realizing that which the speaker says should be realized, or for avoiding the realization of that which we are being told to avoid realizing. What doesn’t matter is what terms are used to refer to these facts.