Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Who Gets to Decide?

Who gets to decide?

I often encounter this question in moral debate, typically from somebody who claims that the difficulty in answering this question provides some sort of benefit to his position. Who gets to decide whether a particular speech counts as hate speech? Who gets to decide whether a religion is good or bad? Who gets to decide whether a group is responsible for some moral crime?

In logic terms, “Who gets to decide?” questions almost always commit the fallacy of complex question – like, “Do you still beat your wife?” The question itself contains a number of assumptions. Those assumptions generally turn out to be false.

To bring those assumptions into the light, imagine somebody asking the question, “Who gets to decide the chemical composition of a water molecule? Who gets to decide the age of the earth? Who gets to decide whether humans evolved or were designed? Who gets to decide whether God exists? Who gets to decide God’s powers?”

The answer to these questions is, “Nobody does. There is a fact of the matter, and either we get that fact right, or we get the fact wrong.”

I am a moral realist. Nobody gets to ‘decide’ what the moral facts are. There is a fact of the matter, and either we get those facts right, or we get them wrong.

Now . . . stop right there!

Somewhere out in the studio audience somebody is thinking, “Here we go again. Some self-important writer thinks that he has the capacity to prove the existence of intrinsic moral values. Sorry, but intrinsic moral values do not exist, and arguments for their existence always turn out to be as twisted and convoluted as arguments for the existence of God. Go ahead. Give it a shot. You’re going to fail.”

Well, I would like to thank this person for being so open minded. But, in spite of the fact that this individual has already made up his mind, here goes:

Intrinsic moral values do not exist. Arguments for the existence of intrinsic moral values always turn out to be as convoluted and twisted as arguments for the existence of God. I have no argument for the existence of intrinsic moral values – and I do not think that any exist.

The aforementioned member of the studio audience would probably respond to this by saying, “Wait a minute. You said you were a moral realist.”

I am.

I deny that moral realism requires intrinsic-value realism. There are a lot of things in the universe that are real. Only a very small subset of them are ‘intrinsic properties’. My viw on the nature of value is:

(1) Value is a relational property.

(2) Relational properties are real.

Take, for example, the property “1 meter away from”. This is not an intrinsic property. You cannot study A in isolation – independent of everything else in the universe, and determine whether (or what) it is 1 meter away from. You can only do this by looking at A, in relationship to B.

Yet, scientific papers and reports are filled with claims about the distance of things. Angstroms, meters, kilometers, light years, are all units of measurement that are fully accepted in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Yet, none of these terms refer to an intrinsic property.

Value is a relational property. Value statements are statements that relate A to B.

Furthermore, one of the entities that value claims relate are mental states. Specifically, they relate objects of evaluation to desires – at least when they are true. Actually, value claims relate objects of evaluation to reasons for action, but desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Therefore, only value claims that relate objects of evaluation to desires are true. All other value claims are false – because the reasons for action they refer to do not exist.

This is consistent with the claim that, “If there were no people, then nothing would have any value.” This proposition is often offered as proof that value is not a real property – that value is ’subjective’.

However, if there were no people, then the number of people in the world will be zero. This certainly does not prove that people are not real. People are real. All of the real-world properties of people are real. The fact that these facts would be different in a universe without people does not imply that, in a world with people, they are not facts – that they are not real.

So, desires are real. Objects of evaluation are real. The relationships between desires and objects of evaluation are real. They can be studied. We can make true and false claims about them. We can study them scientifically. This means that we can study value scientifically.

I am a value realist. However, I am not an intrinsic value realist. I am hold that value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. However, these relationships between states of affairs and desires are real. Nobody gets to ‘decide’ what those relationships are. We get to discover them, the same way we discover the distance between different objects.

I have so far spoken about value in general. Moral value is a species of the genus ‘value’. As a member of the genus ‘value’, morality shares the quality of being concerned with states of affairs and reasons for action – of which desires are the only reasons for action that exist. However, as a species within that genus, it is concerned with a subset of those relationships.

My argument has been that morality is concerned with the subset that consists of (1) states of affairs in which certain malleable desires are made more or less common and/or more or less powerful, and (2) other desires. In other words, morality is concerned with ‘reasons for action’ for promoting or inhibiting malleable desires, promoting those malleable desires that we have reasons-for-action to promote, and inhibiting those malleable desires that we have reasons-for-action to inhibit.

On making this claim, a standard follow-up question tends to be, “Who gets to decide whether morality is concerned with these relationships between malleable desires and other desires or something else?”

The answer to this question is, “It doesn’t matter what you decide. Deciding what to call things does not affect what they are.”

Desires exist. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Some desires are malleable. There are real-world ‘reasons for action’ that promoting some desires and inhibiting others. These are all real-world facts. Call these facts whatever you want, this changes nothing. The answer to the question, “What malleable desires are there reasons-for-action to promote and inhibit?” does not change.

Who gets to decide whether people generally have reasons to promote or inhibit certain malleable desires?


From here, I tend to get two further questions. I have already answered them elsewhere, so I would like to simply refer to reader to those answers.

First question: Are you saying that if somebody desires to harm other people, that this means that it is good to harm other people?. Answer: The question of whether a desire to do something that harms others is good or bad is a question about whether the desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires. Desires to do things that harm others are desires that thwart other desires – so they are not good. For more, see “The 1,000 Sadists Problem.

Second Question: What if I don’t care about fulfilling the desires of others? Why should I want to do so? The answer here is that this is a poorly formed question. To see why, please go to, “The Hateful Craig Problem.