I am responding to a flurry of questions I have received on the moral principles that underlie this blog. In my previous post, I wrote about the difference between desires-as-ends and desires-as-means. Desires-as-ends provide the only reasons for action that exist. Even with respect to desires-as-means, the desire for the end that the "means" will help the agent achieve provide the "reasons for action that exist" to realize those means.
This has important implications for the "teaching" of morality.
If desires-as-ends are not dependent on beliefs, and morality is concerned with promoting good desires-as-ends and inhibiting bad desires-as-ends – this suggests that we do not teach morality by altering a person’s beliefs. It is quite possible for a person to hear a logical syllogism that tells him, "X is wrong", know that the premises are true and that the argument is valid, accept the conclusion as true, and simply shrug his shoulders at the conclusion and do X anyway.
The problem is not that he does not believe that X is wrong. The problem is that he does not care. And caring is in the realm of desires, not beliefs.
This goes against a common claim that "a person who knows the good will do the good." All you have to do is to prove to somebody, through calm reason, that X is the right thing to do, and he will do X.
That common claim is true, to some degree, for people who actually have a desire to do the right thing. If somebody has that desire, and a belief that "X is the right thing to do", then he has a motivating reason to do X. Still, the belief without the desire is insufficient.
Each agent only does what fulfills the most and strongest of his own desires given his beliefs. If he does not have a desire to do the right thing, or some set of desires that he can be convinced will be fulfilled if he does X, then he has no motivating reason to do X, regardless of the moral argument.
This does not imply that there is no role for reason in morality. Reason is what tells us what needs to be done, but it does not actually do the work.
In the past, I have compared the practice of morality to the task of changing a tire. You can reason all you want with the flat tire while you sit on the side of the road. That will not get the tire changed. You have to do the work of getting the jack and the tire-iron out and physically changing the tire.
However, reason still has a role to play. Reason tells you why you should change the tire (in terms of the desires-as-means for changing the tire), and how to do so. However, reason alone will not do the work.
The same is true of morality. I argue that morality is concerned with using social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote malleable desires that people generally have reason (desires-as-ends) to promote, and inhibit malleable desires that people have reason (desires-as-ends) to inhibit.
Reason alone does not do the work. You have to have people out there praising, condemning, rewarding, and punishing people in the way that reason recommends to do the moral work.
In the absence of moral work being done in the form of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, nothing changes. Nothing gets done. That is the arena in which moral work gets done. If people are not in that arena, then they are not doing the moral work. They are leaving that job to others.
In my next post, I will look at what the moral work consists of, particularly on issues relevant to secularists and atheists.