Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Existence of Rights

A member of the studio audience, Janus, had an objection to a recent post of mine in which I wrote that there were two conceptions of rights.

The two that I offered were:

(1) Rights exist as entities that can be discovered in the real world. Rights exist prior to law in such a way that they allow us to judge certain laws to be just or unjust.

(2) Rights exist as state-created facts. As such, there is no such thing as a just or unjust law because a person has no right unless it the law grants him such a right.

Janus wanted me to consider a third option.

(3) That there are no moral rights. There are no entities discoverable in nature that allow us to evaluate laws and institutions as just or unjust. And states do not create and destroy rights on a whim. There simply is no such thing.

Actually, I believe that Janus is correct. (3) is a true statement. Rights do not exist. Arguments for their existence tend to be as bad (or worse) than arguments for the existence of God.

At the same time, (1) is also true. Rights exist as discoverable entities against which we can evaluate laws as just and unjust.

And (2) is true as well. States have the power to create and destroy rights on a whim. A person has whatever rights the state says she has - no more, and no less.

Is this a contradiction?

Consider the following two claims:

(1) Atoms exist

(2) Atoms do not exist.

Is this a contradiction?

It is only a contadiction if we mean the same thing by the term 'atom' in both sentences.

However, the original definition of 'atom' is that it is the smallest possible unit of an element and that it has no parts. "A-tom" literally meant (to the Greeks who invented the term) "without - parts".

Yet, we know that the individual units of an element do have parts - electrons, neutrons, and protons.

So, atoms (the smallest units of an element that, themselves, are made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons) certainly exist. At the same time atoms (the smallest unit of an element which, itself, has no parts) do not exist.

There is no contradition here.

In exactly the same sense, I hold that rights most certainly exist. That is to say, there are certain maleable desires (such as an aversion to cruel punishment, a desire to have guilt proved before somebody is punishment, an aversion to sex without consent, an aversion to responding to mere words with violence) that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote.

At the same time, governments clearly have the power to create and destroy rights. If a government gives a company a permit to cut trees in a national forest it has created a right to do so. If the government revokes that permit than it has taken away that right.

And, as Janus has pointed out, rights, understood as intrinsic value properties that can be found inherent in certain families of actions, do not exist. No action or family of actions contains within it an intrinsic property of "ought to be doneness" or "ought not to be doneness". Any assertion that such an entity exists is false.

Now, we take these three propositions, and we add a fourth.

(4) We must choose one of the first three propositions as being true, and reject the other two as false.

Now, we have set the stage for an endless and utterly pointless debate. Now, we have ushered in a colossal waste of time, energy, and brain power as each proposition gathers a camp of faithful defenders around it – and nobody can actually be proved wrong.

Yet, the culprit in this case is not (1) or (2) or (3). The proposition that we must reject is (4). Once we get rid of (4), then we can put all of that wasted time and energy that goes into deciding which of the first three options to reject back into productive use.

33 comments:

Eneasz said...

I believe Janus's complaint wasn't quite "there are no moral rights". I think his main complaint was "there are no moral facts". Which is a more basic question.

More like the claim "There are no things that are the smallest units of an element that, themselves, are made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons. Any attempts to prove that these things exist have always failed".

I'm not entirely sure how to respond to such claims. Janus, if you are reading this, can you agree that you have an aversion to holding your hand in a fire? If so, can you agree that you therefore have strong motivation to instill in others an aversion to forcing your hand into a fire? And if so - isn't that a basic, observable fact of morality? ("burning other people's hands is bad")

(and yes, this is greatly simplified right now for clarity's sake)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Eneasz

I believe Janus's complaint wasn't quite "there are no moral rights". I think his main complaint was "there are no moral facts". Which is a more basic question.

I see this as substantially the same argument. The claim that there are no moral facts is substantially the same as the claim that there are no atomic facts - where "atom" is defined as "the smallest unit of an element which, itself, has no parts."

There are no atomic facts, if this is how you define an atom - other than the fact that all propositions that refer to such entities are false.

However, there certainly are atomic facts where "atom" means "the smallest unit of a element which, itself, is made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons."

Propositions about relationships between maleable desires and other desires are facts. Whether one wants to call them "moral" facts or not is as arbitrary as debating whether the term "atom" will be used to refer to things with parts or the term "planet" will be used to refer to things that have cleaned their orbits up of other debris.

People who are interested can debate those subjects, but it has no relevance to the question of what is true or what is false.

If you are in a discussion about the chemical composition of some substance, and a third person steps up to say, "There are no atomic (smallest unit of an element that itself has no parts) facts," how would you answer him?

I answer by saying, "Well, yes, that's true, but let's not change the subject."

Janus said...

In defense of my aversion to arguing for objective moral facts, I should say first that I do agree with you, Eneasz: I do agree that I have an an aversion to holding my hand in a fire, and so on.

I am no existentialists - I should say that first. I think some structures of society are far better than others, but only if we believe that universal freedom is to be preferred over slavery, or that individualism is to be preferred over collectivism, or that open dialogue is to be preferred over dogma.

That is my criticism of Alonzo's argument. I know it's old hat, but Hume did have it right (and Alonzo said it far more eloquently than I could have): there's no existential evidence we've found that somehow transforms the state of things into how we ought to behave.

I would also disagree with Alonzo on his fourth point, for I do think that a critical discussion is a moral imperative. Too many people today think critical discussion is impossible. If, for example, we assume the existence of objective natural rights, perhaps, like Plato, we assume that some people who are naturally superior to others naturally have the right to lord over those who are inferior.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, we should not assume anything, least of all objective moral facts.

Lastly, I take umbrage with Alonzo saying that, "Now, we have set the stage for an endless and utterly pointless debate," for such a critical discussion is not pointless. Such difficulties in debating moral rights are not impossible, for the difficulties are psychological, not logical. You see, I think Alonzo is going at this backwards. We are trying to debate over what would be preferable (for example, individualist societies versus collectivist societies), but once the moniker "objective moral right" comes into the picture, it ends the discussion. If someone claims they have discovered an objective moral truth, such Sayyid Qutb's collective Islamist state, or Marx's historicism, or Plato's utopia, there can only be either conversion or elimination of alternative ways of thinking.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Janus

Assume that somebody comes up to you with the following challenge.

Consider the two statements:

(1) Atoms (which are individual units of an element and are made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons) exist.

(2) Atoms (which are individual units of an element that have no parts) do not exist.

Your job – and this is of utmost importance – is to determine which of these statements is true and which of these statements are false.

This is a foolish assignment because as a matter of fact they are both true. If you come up with any answer other than the answer “they are both true” you have made a mistake.

Now, consider the two statements.

(1) Rights (which are aversions to certain families of actions that people generally have reason to promote) exist.

(2) Rights (which are families of actions that have an intrinsic moral property) do not exist.

Your job – and this is of utmost importance – is to determine which of these statements is true and which of these statements is false.

This is also a foolish assignment because as a matter of fact they are both true. If you come up with any other other than the answer “they are both true” you have made a mistake.

If you feel the need to take umbrage at the assertion, “I will not do that assignment”, then go ahead. Your umbrage does not change the fact – and it is a fact – that both propositions are true.

Janus said...

Alonzo,

I think you've made a poor analogy. Perhaps I'm talking too much in shorthand. Forgive me if I don't make much sense.

I do agree with the statement, "Rights (which are families of actions that have an intrinsic moral property) do not exist," since it's clear that there are no moral laws analogous to physical laws, just as there are no laws of historical development analogous to chemical laws. I see no trouble there.

But to call "aversions to certain families of actions that people generally have reason to promote" as "objective" is prima facie absurd.

At the very basic level of how we are to determine what is a moral truths, we must assume certain things: that debate is better than dogma, or rationality is better than irrationality, for instance. Such choices aren't a logical matter or even an objective truth, but a moral matter. And such a moral matter isn't anywhere near "reason[able] to promote" without assuming reason to begin with.

Let the historical record show that often men do not trust in reason or debate.

We should do away with trying to argue over what qualifies as an objective moral fact or right. We should focus on what kind of attitude we should have towards how we act. Often, we've chosen open societies, individualism, rationalism, and constructive criticism. If you want to call them 'objective', that's fine by me, since it's just a word; but they aren't objectively true.

Such choices are assumed, because we can't persuade anyone to favor them who doesn't already see them as desirable. After all, we've assumed that these values are desirable.

This probably doesn't make much sense. Forgive me.

Eneasz said...

Janus -

You call it just a preference to like an open society over a closed one. But that's like saying it's just a preference to like a hand that's not on fire over one that is.

It is objectively provable that creating a society where everyone has an aversion to setting other people on fire is better than a society were people do not have such an aversion. Such a anti-burning society tends to fulfill more desires, and thwart less desires, than a hand-burning one.

Is that not an objective moral fact?

Likewise, it is objectively provable whether an open society or a closed society is better - that is, which one tends to fulfill more and thwart less desires than the other. I would argue that history has proven (repeatedly) that an open society is superior.

I could be wrong of course, but regardless of whether I am right or wrong about this, is it not true that the correct answer to this is an objective moral fact?

Janus said...

Eneasz,

First of all, Alonzo has complicated things a bit with the two different uses of the phrase 'objective'. Do you believe that there is a discernible law to nature or history, something comparable to a scientific law, that says that the more desires that are satisfied, the better?

I must apologise If I wasn't clear enough. English isn't my first language. However, if you think it is objectively 'provable', that is, there must certainty to such an objective fact, please provide the proof! I would be happy to revise my previous statements if I were wrong (and there's always a chance I'm wrong).

Janus said...

Eneasz,

P.S.

I suggest reading the English translation of Hans Albert's "Treatise on Critical Reason", especially his work on the Münchhausen Trilemma. I can send you a short transcript of the passage by email if you are interested.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Janus

Do you believe that there is a discernible law to nature or history, something comparable to a scientific law, that says that the more desires that are satisfied, the better?

Do you believe that there is a discernible law to nature or history, something comparable to a scientific law, that says that Pluto is a planet?

Astronomers are still disputing whether Pluto is a planet. Are they going to find their answer to this question by finding a discernable law of nature or history that will tell them whether to adopt a definition of 'planet' that includes Pluto, or excludes it?

The answer to the question is "no".

However, once the definition of 'planet' is fixed, then they will be able to discover discernable facts about Pluto that will determine whether or not Pluto is a planet.

Now, the answer to the question is "yes".

So, the answer is both "no" and "yes".

The difference is whether or not you are asking a question about the word "planet" - or asking a question about the rock orbiting on the other side of Neptune (most of the time) and the meaning of the term 'planet' is now fixed.

Unless you are clear about what you are asking, you invote equivocation between these two questions.

It is exactly this same equivocation that plagues discussion about the objective nature of morality. People equivocate between questions about the meanings of terms (where the answer to your question is 'no') and questions about things in the world under the assumption that the meaning has been fixed (where the answer to the question is 'yes'). They take a 'no' answer from the first question and apply it to the second, or take a 'yes' answer from the second question and apply it to the first.

Both moves are mistakes.

Janus said...

Alonzo,

I'm not interested in the definitions of words.

We both understand that Pluto - if we call it a 'planet', a 'rock', or an 'orange' - exists, and its movements are predictable according to scientific laws. Anyone arguing over whether Pluto is a planet or a big rock isn't doing much to further scientific discovery.

Can the same be said for morality?

We can call our own concepts of right and wrong 'objective', but that doesn't mean such concepts are discoverable in the same way as the proposed trajectory of a released ball, or the weight a string will then break, or relating to anything outside the human mind, other than the state of other human minds, such as some people desire some things above other things.

I mean, they certainly aren't 'objective' in the same way that Pluto the 'aardvark', orbiting the Sun, is objectively real, or that a scientific statement is tentatively objectively true.

So, if objective moral truths aren't an underlying principle to how nature behaves (such as a proposed scientific theory, like the theory of relativity), nor are they tangible, or discoverable, like Pluto or apples or neutrons or gravity (which all tentatively exist according to observations and scientific theories), what are objective moral truths?

Is there another kind of entity that can be discovered? Can you show me? (I do hope you can.)

Just as we can throw out the word 'planet' and still talk about Pluto, why don't we just get rid of using the word 'objective' altogether during this discussion? What does it matter, when we're clearly talking about true statements? It's not like we've lost something important.

For instance, I propose, "It is immoral to butcher someone else." Or, "No one should kill someone else." Would it make any difference to throw in the word 'objective', since I'm clearly not talking about 'subjective' morality? Both of us understand such a statement, and can discuss if such a proposed ethical behavior is desirable or undesirable.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Janus

Actually, concern about the meanings of words is a prerequisite to concern about existence.

If I were to ask, “Do oavhalics exist?” the only legitimate answer to this question is, “I don’t know, what are oavhalics?”

This answer is a recognition of the fact that questions of the meaning of terms have to be answered before we can begin to answer questions about the existence of things.

If oavhalics are flammable rocks that are made up almost entirely of carbon, then oavhalics exist.

If oavhalics are intelligent beings less than one inch tall that live at the bottom of gardens in North Dakota, then oavhalics almost certainly do not exist.

Do rights exist?

If rights are families of actions that have an intrinsic property of “not to be doneness”, then rights do not exist.

If rights are families of actions that have the property of being such that people generally have reason to promote an aversion to performing, then rights do exist.

What are objective moral truths?

They are relationships between reasons for action and states of affairs. Whereas the only reasons for action that exist are desires (which are as real as Pluto) moral values are relationships between states of affairs and desires.

More specifically, they are relationships between malleable desires (desires that people generally have reason to promote through social forces such as praise and condemnation) and desires. Every item in this description is real and discoverable, as are the relationships between them.

The only thing you can say against this is, “I don’t want to call those things you are talking about morality.” Yet, that is precisely a statement about the definition of words.

Against this, I would answer, “Fine. Call them whatever you want. That does not make them any less real.” I have absolutely no problem with the option of throwing out the word morality, and talking specifically about these relationships between malleable desires and other desires.

Janus said...

Alonzo,

I do care about the meaning of words, but I am emphasizing that I do not care about the definitions of words. If we start out with defining what 'morality' is to be, then we should continue to define in greater detail each word in the definition of morality, and each subsequent word, ad infinitum. (Such a problem of a regress will be addressed later in this comment.)

This question may sound pedantic, but how do we choose which desires are desirable?

For when you say, "If rights are families of actions that have the property of being such that people generally have reason to promote an aversion to performing, then rights do exist," it sounds like you're advocating some kind of nominalism, in that the state of affairs dictates how we should behave, like Hegel (forgive me).

Everyone has reasons for what they do. Numerous desires conflict with each other all the time. You are incredibly intelligent - perhaps one of the most thoughtful people I've read on the internet - so I'm sure you have answers to my quibbles.

But your answers are just part of an infinite regress of justifications for assuming some desires are moral while other desires are immoral.

Now, I'm not talking about ending such an infinite regress with some kind of dogma, like the existentialists often demand. Instead, I am saying that we must accept, tentatively, an agreed-upon starting point, like "pain is bad", or "freedom is better than slavery", or something of that sort. If someone has a problem with such statements, we can discuss the underlying problems at length until the individual is satisfied.

We need to agree that some kinds of reasons - like "I just felt like it", or "God told me to" - aren't good enough reasons.

We need to agree that some kinds of desires - like "I want to kill my neighbor because God told me to" - aren't good desires.

This requires, as I've said before, making a moral commitment to certain things, like evidence, or rationality, or the ability to listen to others. If people are willing to listen to others, or have an open mind when they see evidence, often are willing to change their desires.

Call it, perhaps, the irrational choice to accept rationality, the dogmatic choice not to accept dogma, etc. We must end the infinite regress of justifications, but dogma isn't a good answer. We need to choose certain attitudes towards how we conduct ourselves.

I do not know if I am making sense. Perhaps I talk too much in coded words and shorthand.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

This question may sound pedantic, but how do we choose which desires are desirable?

Desires are evaluated the way everything is evaluated, according to whether reasons for actions exist to promote or inhibit a particular desire. That is to say, according to whether a desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires.

But your answers are just part of an infinite regress of justifications for assuming some desires are moral while other desires are immoral.

The correct term is 'recursive' or 'virtuously circular'. It is the same type of circularity that applies to coherentist epistemologies, homeostatic systems, Rawlsian 'reflective equilibrium', and linguistic translations (the latter of which you yourself described in your comments).

Now, I'm not talking about ending such an infinite regress with some kind of dogma, like the existentialists often demand.

You are assuming a foundationalist approach - which is a system that I reject in favor of a coherentist approach.

We could, now, enter into a debate between the rlative merits of foundationalism versus coherentism. That would be a long discussion.

At the moment, I will suffice to say that philosophers in general have no problem accepting it.

It gives us a way of answering the question of how to determine the value of a desire - the same way we determine the value of everything else - by determining its relationship to other desires - forming, ultimately, a large coherentist web, or virtuous circle, of relationships.

Janus said...

It would be an interesting discussion, especially if I was advocating anything to do with foundationalism.

But I'm not. I'm not trying to justify anything. In fact, I don't think justifying truth statements adds anything when we're talking about truth statements. I'm a rare breed, but then again, look at the state of academic philosophy today.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Janus

While, your previous post was nearly a textbook presentation of foundationalism.

The thesis that if we justify A in terms of B, and B in terms of C, we must either (1) suffer an infinite regress or (2) arrive at some set of propositions that are either self-justifying or must be accepted without justification.

(1) is absurd.

Therefore, we must adopt (2). These self-justifying propositions or propositions accepted without justification then serve as the foundation (thus the term "foundationalism") for all future knowledge.

My response to the foundationalist argument you gave is to escape between the horns of the dilemma, to offer a third option - described alternatively as virtuous circles, coherentism, reflective equilibrium, recursive justification, and a few other names.

Janus said...

Alonzo,

I apologise for not being as clear as I could. The earlier reference I made to the Münchhausen Trilemma was supposed to begin something with Eneasz, but I have not heard from him in some time.

In short, I see justification as a large problem of modern philosophy, as do others. The Trilemma leads to either an infinite regress of justifications or to a closed circle. Either choice is undesirable, since recourse to a committed self-evident truth doesn't mean it's true; neither does a coherent closed circle. (That is, unless you assume a coherent closed circle can only be true. ... Just like dogmatists think their dogmas are self-evident.)

I'm not talking about justification, providing a good foundation for knowledge, or even giving good reasons for what we believe.

We start with certain assumptions, but we're not committed to them, since they are held tentatively. Just as we assume the external word exists - until we're shown otherwise - that's perfectly fine. There does not need to be commitment to the dogmas of empiricism or rationalism, only the willingness to change one's mind when someone asks questions about tentative assumptions. This applies to everything: no thing is to be committed to. I'm not looking for a strong foundation to knowledge, since it can't be found.

And such an epistemology. however, means that our ethics are built on a marsh. And when we're satisfied, like the tentative assumption that freedom is better than slavery, for instance, often people who think otherwise are not willing to engage in debate.

no2religion said...

I really hope this discussion continues and I hope Eneasz rejoins. While my brain is hurting trying to follow some of the thought provoking arguments, I am enthralled with the debate.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Janus

I agree that epistemologists still have some work to do on the philosophy of justification.

However, the fundamental problems of justification are problems that affect all human knowledge equally. There is nothing within those problems that distinguishes morality from science.

I hold that it is sufficient for my purposes to show that no differences between morality and science need exist – that it is sufficient to show that the objectivity of morality is on just as secure (or just as insecure) a footing as objectivity in astronomy or chemistry.

Chemists once faced a situation where it turned out that what they thought they were studying did not exist. The Greek Atom – the smallest unit of an element that itself had no parts – was not real. So, what the Chemists did was shifted the meaning of the term ‘atom’ to something that did exist. They did not lose an iota of objectivity in their field of study by doing so.

With respect to rights, I hold the same thing. The original concept of rights points to something that does not exist – sets of actions that have an intrinsic ‘ought not to be doneness’ that was put in them either by God or nature.

We can easily shift the meaning of “rights” to something that does exist – malleable aversions to certain families of actions promoted through social forces such as praise and condemnation because those aversions tend to fulfill (or, at least, prevent the thwarting) of other desires.

We have something just as real as atoms made up of elections, neutrons, and protons. Though these relationships are not as easy to study as the individual units of an element, we can still make objectively true and false claims about them. Furthermore, they are are objectively true and false claims are true and false claims about reasons for action that exist.

Whereas chemists did this without any threat at all to the objectivity of chemistry, ethicists can make the same move without the least threat to the objectivity of moral claims.

Furthermore, chemists could have kept the definition of atom fixed and adopted a new term (e.g., “tritoms” or “three-parts”) to refer to these individual units of an element. While scientific research is relevant to determining whether these units have no parts or three parts, scientific research cannot determine whether or not to call these units “atoms” (and change the meaning of the word), or “tritoms” (keeping the meaning of ‘atom’ constant).

This arbitrary decision regarding the definitions of terms is no threat to the objectivity of chemistry, and the same decision regarding the question of applying the term ‘rights’ to ‘malleable aversions that people generally have reason to promote’ is not an argument against the possibility of objective moral facts.

Janus said...

Alonzo,

I agree with you as well: nothing we’ve been talking about so far is exclusive to morality. Justification is supposed to be part of all epistemology, not just ethics; however, I deny that justification is obtainable in the least. As before, there are either to be an (1) infinite regress of justifications, or (2) irrational commitments like ‘undeniable truths’ in rationalism or ‘sense experiences’ in empiricism, or (3) attempts to justifying such statements by appealing to the statement itself. Therefore, the problem of justification is present in epistemology as well.

Such a trilemma exists only if we accept justification as a criteria for truth statements, which I think relates back to the concept that all truth statements mean that an individual knows for certain a statement is true if he can provide a good authority to demonstrate its truth.

If knowledge is to be objective, often, objective knowledge is far from certain; it is tentative, rarely has good authorities to turn to, and always open to revision (and I think such ethical statements are similar to science in this regard) - and is therefore not 'justified true belief', but simply 'true belief'.

I think the large miscommunication is the fact that while you are correct, and I agree with you that we can make objective statements about preferences (“I would rather not be a slave” is one of them), such objective statements about preferences have little to do with moral judgments.

While we can base our moral values in relation to such statements (“There is a reason why I, and most others, would rather not be a slave, and this is why...”), we cannot base them on such statements, otherwise we would fall into the same problems with justifying truth statements by appeals to the authority of the evolved ethical structure of men.

Eneasz said...

Hello Janus. I thought you and Alonzo were doing well without my input, so I stepped aside. I don't have the training either you possess, so I'm less qualified to speak, but if my input is wanted I'll go ahead and add my thoughts.

In general I am having trouble understanding why you consider somethings that are objective to not be objective enough.

Do you believe that there is a discernible law to nature or history, something comparable to a scientific law, that says that the more desires that are satisfied, the better?

Of course not. But, by way of comparison, there is no law of nature that says "the members of a species best adapted to their enviroment shall have a greater likelyhood of passing on their genes via more offspring than less-adapted members". However it is objectively true that this is what actually happens, even if there's no natural law saying it SHOULD happen. Something can be objectively true without a natural law that says it must be so. The evidence in nature shows that this IS what happens.

So, if objective moral truths aren't an underlying principle to how nature behaves nor are they tangible, or discoverable, what are objective moral truths?

I object to the statement that they are not discoverable. It is very easy to discover some aspects of morality. For instance, it's easy to discover whether or not people have an aversion to having their hands in fire. Other aspects of morality take more effort to discover. But that does not make them undiscoverable. Once you know if something is to be desired or avoided, don't you have an objective fact?

This question may sound pedantic, but how do we choose which desires are desirable?

No one chooses this. Just like no one chooses what the mass of the earth is. One can discover what the mass of the earth is, but one cannot choose it. Likewise, one can discover what desires then to fulfill other desires (thus making them desireable desires) and what desires tend to twart other desires (thus making them desires to be avoided)

it sounds like you're advocating some kind of nominalism, in that the state of affairs dictates how we should behave

Is it not true that in reality, states of affairs (together with desires) DO dictate how we behave? If the state of affairs is that your hand is in a fire, and you have an aversion to that, then this will dictate how you behave. "Should" doesn't come into it, it's just how reality works.

If knowledge is to be objective, often, objective knowledge is far from certain; it is tentative, rarely has good authorities to turn to, and always open to revision...

Let me interrupt. I believe that is a good definition for scientific knowledge. We think we know that objects are attracted to each other through a mechanism we call "gravity". But we could be wrong, and that knowledge is held tenatively for as long as evidence supports it. If evidence to the contrary is discovered, our knowledge will be modified to match the evidence. Are you trying to find something even more "objective" than knowledge gained by physical evidence? I don't think there is anymore more objective available to humans. If your claim is that this is not objective enough, then I think your use of the word "objective" is out of sync with the rest of humanity.

.. rarely has good authorities to turn to, and always open to revision (and I think such ethical statements are similar to science in this regard) - and is therefore not 'justified true belief', but simply 'true belief'

I'm sorry, but what authority is greater than physical reality? If the world's greatest philosopher tells you that fire cannot truely harm you, but in the real world fire will maim or kill you, who is the greater authority? You say that physical evidence is not enough for "justified true belief", but what greater justification than the real world is there?

I don't have much patience for philosophers, which most people would call a personal failing of mine. However I find that they often get so wrapped up in their mental musings that they fail to test their claims against the real world. You can make up anything in your mind - the test of whether you are right or not comes when you compare it to reality.

I would HIGHLY recommend this post as a very quick primer to evidence-based reasons.

and I agree with you that we can make objective statements about preferences (“I would rather not be a slave” is one of them), such objective statements about preferences have little to do with moral judgments.

While we can base our moral values in relation to such statements (“There is a reason why I, and most others, would rather not be a slave, and this is why...”), we cannot base them on such statements,


This made no sense to me at all. You say we can make objective statements about preferences/desires. Can't we also then make objective statements about which preferences/desires tend to fulfill many desires (thus making it desirable for everyone to instill such desires in everyone else) and which preferences/desires tend to thwart many desires (thus making it desirable for everyone to prevent anyone else from having such desires)?

That is what morality is. Instilling desirable desires in society, and preventing undesirable desires in society. (see also: Hateful Craig) If one can objectively determine what desires are desirable and what desires are to be avoided, then one has objective morality. And, as I mentioned near the top of this comment, it is very easy to objectively determine what some of these desires are. Others take more work to discover, but are still determinable.

Sorry this was so long, I had to reply to a lot of comments at once. I'm sure I missed some things, please let me know if I missed anything you wanted my particular opinions on.

Thanks for reading all this. :)

Janus said...

You can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. If the universe consisted of ten people, put them in a room, then nine of them agreed that they didn’t like the odd one out and then killed him, is this moral? How are personal preferences moral in the least?

What if the odd one out didn’t want to die, and he voiced his opinion, how would we choose which desires are desirable? The nine or the one? It seems obvious to us which are moral and immoral (and with good reason, no doubt), but we shouldn’t appeal to the authority of our evolved preferences for several reasons; one of them being the problem that someone will say, ‘The state of the world shows that the strong should rule over the week, for it is clear that some people are inferior in their abilities to others.’

I am not trying to say morality should be on any stronger ground than science; in fact, quite the opposite. Our moral systems should follow assumptions, similarly to science, that are always open to revision. These systems are not grounded in something like sense experience or incontrovertible proof or our evolutionary past, but use such examples tentatively.

And my issues with justification can be put as follows: A solipsist comes upon a burning man. The burning man says, “Help me, I am on fire!” The solipsist says, “How do you know?”

The burning man says, “Can’t you see me burning? Can’t you smell my flesh burning?” The solipsist says, “But for all you know, your sense of sight and your sense of smell have been working up till now. So how do you know?”

The burning man says, “Aaaaargh! The pain!” The solipsist says, “For all you know, your pain receptors have been working properly up till now. So how do you know?” The burning man says ... well, not much, since he’s dead.

And that is the problem of justifying knowledge. The solipsist can always call its foundations into question. “How do you know?” he asks.

I do not like solipsism; however, there is a point to be gleaned from their twisted view of the world. Our connection to reality is tenuous at best, with evolved systems of perception that worked only as good as were needed at the time.

However, they work well enough so that our subjective perceptions more often than not align themselves with the objective world - but we should not turn to our evolved capabilities - such as sight, which cannot perceive infrared or ultraviolet light; our hearing, which cannot hear many frequencies; our evolved generative grammar, which often make serious linguistic mistakes; or even our evolved emotional reaction to the state of affairs, which often are right, but just as often are wrong.

Eneasz said...

If the universe consisted of ten people, put them in a room, then nine of them agreed that they didn’t like the odd one out and then killed him, is this moral? How are personal preferences moral in the least?

I never claimed that personal preferences are morally good. The desire these 9 people have to kill the 1 guy are morally bad desires. We know this because they thwart many strong desires. If the 9 people did not have this desire, then no desires would be thwarted. That is what makes it a morally bad desire. Morality is based on desires - determining which are good and which are bad. It is not a simple statement of "the largest number of desires are automatically good".

What if the odd one out didn’t want to die, and he voiced his opinion, how would we choose which desires are desirable? The nine or the one?

Again, no one chooses which desires are desirable. One discovers which desires are desirable by observing what desires tend to fulfill other desires, and what desires tend to thwart other desires.

In the scenario you posit, what SHOULD happen is irrelavent. The fact is, the one guy will end up dead. (unless he's a ninja or something I suppose). The point of morality is to prevent bad desires from being instilled in people, and promote the adoption of good desires. If morality had been functioning correctly in that society, the 9 people would not have had a desire to kill the 1 guy, and no desires would be thwarted.

I have no time for solipsism. It is the pinnacle of not bothering to check your ideas against reality. They care nothing for knowing the truth. I'd rather argue over which Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle is cooler with a 6-year-old than argue anything with a Solipsist. I'm sure there are others who will take you up on this offer, but you'll please forgive me if I say I personally don't have the stomach for a discussion on solipsism, and bow out.

Janus said...

I'm sorry you're stepping out, Eneasz, since my comment about solipsism was directed at the apparent foundations of knowledge - either appeals to the senses or appeals to inborn knowledge. I do have one last question, and if you're not willing to answer it, perhaps someone else is willing.

You said, The desire these 9 people have to kill the 1 guy are morally bad desires. We know this because they thwart many strong desires.

Don’t these nine accomplish many strong desires as well? I’m trying to understand how conflicting desires are resolved. It sounds like we’re supposed to create sets of good and bad desires, and shape our desires accordingly to such sets. However, how do we know what are good and what are bad desires? How do we - objectively, mind you - put such actions, like rape, murder, etc. into the set of bad things, when each of these examples has someone desiring the rape, murder, etc. of another person(s)?

faithlessgod said...

Janus

"Don’t these nine accomplish many strong desires as well? I’m trying to understand how conflicting desires are resolved. It sounds like we’re supposed to create sets of good and bad desires, and shape our desires accordingly to such sets. However, how do we know what are good and what are bad desires? How do we - objectively, mind you - put such actions, like rape, murder, etc. into the set of bad things, when each of these examples has someone desiring the rape, murder, etc. of another person(s)?"

You evaluate a desire with its material affect on other desires and compare it to its absence. (Remember all desires that are fulfilled ... are fulfilled, the question is over the desirability of that desire with respect to all other desires, not just those of the agent(s) ).

Scenario 1: 9 people desire to kill the other, result the other person's desires - whatever they are - are terminally thwarted, so this is a desire the thwarts other desires.

Scenario 2: 9 people lack the desire to kill the other, result no desires are thwarted.

Now in both scenarios the desires of the 9 are fulfilled, that is not in question.

The above is one scenario, there many where this desire or its absence could have affects. For example, in another such scenario one of the 9 could be the other.

In general the question is not over just these 10 people but over everyone, the question to ask being do people have reason to promote or inhibit such a desire? Do we have reason to promote or inhibit a world - a world where the question is that in either scenario that we could be the "other" - a world in which scenarios of type 1 or scenarios of type 2 are more likely to occur in general?

The unbiased conclusion is that since this desire thwarts other desires, this is the reason for people to inhibit it - to discourage it in each other, so as reduce one possible source of their desires being thwarted.

Note: I did not both to use terms such as good or bad in the above. These are redundant or supervenient over the natural empirical facts. There are no additional facts wrt to "good" or "bad" in the above. (You can use them for convenience and efficiency if they do not cause confusion).

faithlessgod said...

Janus

"You can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’."

Of course. However, trivially, one can get an 'ought' from an 'ought'. The question is what, if any, 'oughts' exist - that is are also 'is'? This is an empirical question and not one that can be ruled out by fiat. Since any ought is by definition a reason to act - saying 'one ought to X' is a way of saying 'there is a reason to X' - the question becomes what reasons to act exist? So far we know of only one type of reason to act that exists, desire.

"If the universe consisted of ten people, put them in a room, then nine of them agreed that they didn’t like the odd one out and then killed him, is this moral? How are personal preferences moral in the least?"

I note here that you have stipulated a universe of 10 people and only this one scenario. This is act consequentialism not desire consequentialism. Our evaluation focus is looking at what desires - not acts -to promote or inhibit, as people do all the time anyway to each other. Anyway how does one promote or inhibit a single act? One cannot, but one can affect their desires as to whether actions are performed or not. One way to do that is to condemn or praise certain actions in certain scenarios that have occurred, as one of the means to encourage or discourage people to having the relevant desires and acting upon them in the future.

Eneasz said...

Hello Janus! I'm not completely stepping out, I'm just leaving questions of solipsism for others. :) In reply to your question - faithlessgod beat me to it. Basically everything he said is what I would have said if I were more articulate. Thank you faithless!

Eneasz said...

Actually, I guess I do have something to add.

A very common mistake made when first encountering DU is to confuse it for a Desire-Fulfillment Act Utilitarianism theory. This generally takes the form of assuming that DU says that the "morally good" act is the act that fulfills the most/strongest desires (such as in your given scenario). However DU does not evaluate acts (at least, not directly). DU evaluates desires. First one must determine which desires are good (ie: desires that people have reason to promote because they tend to fulfill other desires) and which desires are bad (the opposite).

This is commonly done by comparing two hypothetical worlds (one with the desire and one without) and discovering in which world more desires are fulfilled and less are thwarted - as faithlessgod did.

Often you don't even need to construct hypothetical worlds, you can simply look back on recorded history to see what the effects were. This is preferable IMHO, because then you have real-world evidence, which is always superior.

I believe Alonzo once wrote a post about this issue. And as a matter of fact, google just returned this post of his, it may be of more help.

Janus said...

faithlessgod & Eneasz,

Thank you for your responses. They've answered my questions more than adequately. I must say that I am merely playing devil's advocate, and since I'm in a devilish mood, I should ask some more:

Should the nine work to save the life of the one, if the one is in danger?

Should the nine work to alleviate the suffering of the one, if the one has made a mistake?

Should the nine work to make decisions for the one, if the nine knows what’s best for the one?

Should the nine prevent the actions of the one, if the one is doing something not in the interest of the nine?

You see, while I do agree with your mission, there is no demarcation to be drawn as a natural demarcation between any of these answers, or between desire utilitarianism and other forms of utilitarianism.

Our choice to choose desire utilitarianism, for instance, is a choice that is not supported by any state of events - that murder is objectively wrong, for it conflicts with the desires of the murdered.

Eneasz said...

Hi again Janus!

Should the nine work to save the life of the one, if the one is in danger?

A person with good desires would do so, yes. That is why we publicly praise and even reward heroes. A desire to help someone else who is in danger benefits everyone, since you never know when it might be you that is in danger. This is actually a fairly simple question that was answered very early in human development, it is why even the most basic moral systems encourage helping others who are in danger.

Should the nine work to alleviate the suffering of the one, if the one has made a mistake?

Generally, yes. We all make mistakes from time to time. A desire to help others who've made a mistake is to be encouraged. Obviously this cannot go on forever. If someone keeps making the same mistake, over and over, there's comes a point where helping them is only encouraging them to keep making the same mistake at the expense of others. So this is a bit more trickey. But in general, yes, allieviating the suffering of someone who's made a mistake is a good thing.

Should the nine work to make decisions for the one, if the nine knows what’s best for the one?

Ah, a more tricky question. That depends on the situation of the one. If the one is obviously incompetant - a child, or mentally retarded, or unconscious, then yes. However, as Alonzo has pointed out before, an agent will always act to fulfill the most/strongest of his desires, which do not always align with the desires of the subject. For the best possible results, it is best to leave the decision-making in the hands of the person who has the most information as to the subjects desires, and is the least corruptible agent. In almost all cases this is the subject himself (or herself). Thus the overwhelming emphasis on personal freedom. The only time this should be breached is when it is nearly inarguable that someone else would be better suited to make decisions for the subject than the subject himself (as is the case with children and the mentally retarded).

Should the nine prevent the actions of the one, if the one is doing something not in the interest of the nine?

I'm afraid this is too vauge to answer directly, you'll have to provide some more information.

If it goes directly against the interests of the nine, then they will prevent the actions of the one whether or not they "should" do so. This is a simple fact. Maybe they "should" do so (if he is acting on bad desires that he shouldn't have) or maybe they "shouldn't" do so (if they are acting on bad desires that they shouldn't have). There is insufficient information to say who is doing the "correct" thing in this case.

If his actions do not harm them, but are also not directing in their interest, they may try to offer him incentives to work in their interest (pay, praise, whatever). These are morally neutral options.

Our choice to choose desire utilitarianism, for instance, is a choice that is not supported by any state of events

I am hopefull (reasonably so, I feel, in light of the evidence) that our choice to choose desire utilitarianism actually IS supported by the state of events in the real world. It appears that DU is the theory that best explains the actions that people take, and best describes what desires are beneficial and what desires are harmful. As such, it is the most accurate and helpful moral system currently available. That makes it not some random solipsistic choice, but rather one that is grounded in real-world facts and states-of-affairs. I could be wrong, of course, and I try to keep that in mind. But I reject the idea that I am making this choice arbitrarily.

Anonymous said...

In a 10 person universe....

I realize this is an old posting, so I may not get a response. I also realize that endless 'what ifs' is not very productive but I'm trying to clarify, for myself, the aspect of "most and greatest desires".

In the scenario of 10 people in the universe and 9 don't like 1 and desire to kill that 1. What if the 1 desires to be killed?

In a subtler version, what if the 9 don't like the 1 but don't desire to kill the 1. However, the 1 so much desires to be liked that s/he desires to die. Does the 1's desire to be liked, to the extent of death, imply that a desire to like everybody for the more and greatest desires be encouraged.
Alternatively, should an aversion to disliking anyone be discouraged? Would a person with good desires overcome their own dislike, strictly for the purpose of another's well-being? After all, if there was no desires to dislike anyone fewer desires would be thwarted.

Thanks.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous,

You may find the answer you are looking for in the posting, The 1000 Sadists Problem

Anonymous said...

Thank you. That was helpful.

Anonymous said...

One thought though, if there is no intrinsic value in specific desires, could one not achieve the same effect by 'dialing up' the desire for masochism rather than dialing down the desire for sadism?