Monday, February 16, 2009

Answering the Theist's Moral Question

A member of the studio audience left the natural follow-up question to my last post.

In that post, I objected that evolutionary ethicists have no answer to the question that theists are asking when they ask about the possibility of morality without God. Evolutionary ethicists claim to be able to give an evolutionary account of a "moral sense", but this is nonsense unless one can give an independent account of morality against which any "sense" can be calibrated.

We can phrase the question coming from theists in the form of, "What is this true goodness and true badness against which our 'moral sense' can be calibrated, and where does it come from, if it does not come from God?"

I argue that, once we understand true goodness and true badness, it shows that the very idea of an evolved 'moral sense' makes no sense. This thing that the evolutionary ethicist is trying to explain is just as much a fiction as God itself. Consequently, it doesn't need any explanation.

So, how do I answer the question?

If you give me any population with malleable desires (desires that are molded through experiences rather than genetically hardwired), then I can give you true goodness and true badness.

It does not matter if that population evolved or was designed. It does not matter if it is a population of robots or a population of animals. It simply has to be a population whose desires are malleable - whose desires can be altered by making changes in the environment in which the members of that population live.

Value has to do with reasons for action.

Let's look at the prescription/description divide. Prescription, by its very definition, has to do with reasons for action. It has to do with saying, "You should do this," and "You should not do that," then looking for the "reasons for action that exist" for doing this or not doing that.

Desires are reasons for action. Once you have a population of entities that have desires, you can start to make statements about what agents should and should not do. The reasons for action that you then look at in justifying such a statement are desires.

This gives us means-ends rationality. This is not yet morality. This is the type of "should" that says, "If you rape a child you should then kill her, because it is harder to be convicted of murder than it is to be convicted of child abuse." This is not morality . . . at least not yet.

Now, we add to this that desires are malleable. These creatures with desires can now alter what other creatures desire by altering the environment. Specifically, we have the ability to alter what other people desire through the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Because we have this power to alter desires, we have this capacity to ask and answer the question, "What should we cause each other to want?" We can look at a desire, see that it tends to thwart other desires, and bring the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to bear to inhibit that desire.

We flag desires that we have reason to promote with the term "virtue" and we call the actions that those desires motivate their agents into performing "right actions". We respond to them with praise and reward, and we respond to their absence with condemnation and punishment.

We flag desires that we have reason to inhibit with the term "evil" (or "vice" in the ancient Greek sense of the term) and we call the actions that those desires motivate agents to do "wrong". We respond to them with condemnation and punishment and we respond to their absence with praise and reward.

Now, we have a system against which we can calibrate any type of "moral sense" to determine if that sense is picking out "true good" or "true evil". We look for desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and we look for desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Evolutionary ethicists have certainly shown that evolution can favor desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and disfavor desires that tend to thwart other desires.

However, evolution, at times, can also favor desires that tend to thwart other desires. Evolution, after all, has given us predators and parasites. It has given us lions that kill their step children when they take over a pride, a human disposition towards violence against members of other tribes, genetic dispositions towards rape and racism (for favoring those who 'look like us' over those who 'look different').

History makes it an undeniable fact that holocausts and other forms of genocide, slavery, rape, theft, wanton violence, irresponsible conduct from drunk driving to intellectual recklessness, are all within the realm of our genetic potential. We know this, because we are surrounded by it.

To say that evolution provides an answer to our moral problems is nonsense.

Most importantly, morality turns out to be concerned with malleable desires - desires that can be molded through environmental factors such as praise and condemnation. To the degree that evolution gives us fixed desires to engage in kin selection or "reciprocal altruism", this is fine. But fixed desires are outside the realm of morality.

It makes absolutely no sense to issue praise and condemnation, to offer reward and punishment, for the presence or absence of fixed desires. The person genetically required to give his life for his child deserves no more praise than the person who accidentally falls off of a building and happens to land on his child's assailant.

It only makes sense to apply moral concepts - to use the tools of praise and condemnation - where they can have an effect. Where they have an effect is not with desires that are determined by our genes, but with desires that can be influenced by environmental factors.

Certainly, the existence of malleable desires and the different ways in which environmental factors mold those desires, require (at least in part) an explanation grounded in evolution. However, the concept of "the existence of environmentally influenced malleable desires" bears no relation to the concept of a "moral sense".

This answer also ties in with another of the objections that I raised against evolutionary ethics. I wrote that the theist is not concerned with evils that we have no capacity to perform (because evolution has fixed our desires in such a way that they are impossible for us). The theist is concerned with the evils that surround us every day. It is nonsense for the evolutionary ethicists to say, "We do not need to worry about those because we have evolved dispositions not to treat each other so harshly." If an evolutionary ethicist said such a thing, he would be wrong.

How can we reduce the amount of evil that we quite obviously have the capacity to perform?

Well, we do so by promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires, by bringing the social forces of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to bear against them.

We do not need a God to do this. We do not need a God to have a reason to do this. All we need are desires and the ability to influence the desires of others. From this, we get a list of desires that we have reason to promote (desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others), and desires that we have reason to inhibit (desires that tend to thwart the desires of others).

15 comments:

Justus Hommes said...

Do I understand correctly that everything hinges on malleable desires? Does that leave room for instinctual action such as fight or flight? And why does this malleability have to take so long to determine right and wrong? People have known slavery was wrong for thousands of years, but critical mass happened only 200 years ago. How do you explain that?

David said...

I have a question for you: How do you actually define the term morality itself? Must it be absolute and universal to be true morality? Must it be valid and have a sound basis, or could it just be "personal preference"? I ask because some people say "morality doesn't exist" where others say "morality exists but doesn't have significance" with the same meaning. Your system definitely makes sense as some function of morality, but why maximize instead of minimizing it? Why not flip the system on its head and try to modify desires so that they're thwarted as often as possible? It sounds to me like DU is useful, but wouldn't really satisfy the theist, who usually wants some kind of universal, necessary morality.

I also want to mention that explaining the source of something (evolution) does not make it no longer necessary. I've heard a lot of this argument in various forms, and it's dead wrong. The statement "evolution enforces morality, so don't worry about it" is flawed, because the worry is part of evolution's effect. It's a feedback loop. (Incidentally, the same argument in reverse also undermines "evolutionary prescrptivism").

Teleprompter said...

Thanks for trying to provide an explanation. I am still curious how you determine which malleable desires should take precedence, because your standard seemingly only requires that "desires should be fulfilled", but you do not say which desires should be fulfilled?

How do you compare the benefits and repercussions of different types of desires? Don't you need to ground your system in the terms of suffering/pleasure?

You should visit Ebonmouse's website at Ebon Musings - he has a somewhat similar ethical theory, except that his theory (which he calls "universal utilitarianism") says:

"Always minimize both actual and potential suffering; always maximize both actual and potential happiness."

I believe that your system of malleable desires needs to have some kind of justification established to sort out exactly *which kinds* of malleable desires should be prioritized.

I'm sure you have thought about this, and if you already have, I am very sorry to make a fool of myself. I just wondered what you thought.

Anonymous said...

Hello Alonzo,

I recently purchased and read your book, A Better Place. It helped to sit down and follow the argument and how you address important challenges. It's cheap and I recommend it to anyone chiming in here with their good questions.

One question I have that didn't seem to be addressed in the book is the method and timing of praise, condemnation, reward and punishment.

That is, there seems to be a presumption of sorts that simply condemning someone is sufficient to actually change a malleable desire. However, the field of psychology suggests that reliably changing desires is much more complex than delivering a simple condemnation. For example, people often redouble their positions when simply condemned.

I agree that ultimately our methods of changing desires can be categorized as reward, punishment, praise and condemnation but the method, timing and context of delivery seem to be important details. I don't think my question challenges (and it is not meant to challenge) desire utilitarianism.

Perhaps you have addressed this in previous blog entries. Sorry if I missed that. I have seen that you advocated certain actions like letter writing but that isn't the sort of level of analysis I'm inquiring about today.

Great blog. Thanks for any insights you may offer.

Jon Newman

faithlessgod said...

Teleprompter

DU specifically rejects internal happiness/suffering or satisfaction/frustration based moral theories.

DU instead evaluates desires on their external empirical - that is physical and material - effects on all other desires, that is as to whether they help or hinder the fulfilment of those other desires or brings about or encourages the thwarting of those other desires.

There is no need to look as to whether one gains satisfaction or frustration from the fulfilment or thwarting one's desires and that does not help in such an evaluation.

I like to say it does not matter how much satisfaction you get from your desire, it is the effect of its fulfilment on me (my desires) that matters, and vice versa.

Once you understand the difference between happiness/satisfaction and fulfilment, frustration/suffering and thwarting then just drop the restrictions between you and me, and see its effects on everyone's desires and you have the basis for any moral evaluation.

faithlessgod said...

Anonymous

DU provides the means to determine what is praiseworthy and what is blame worthy, what to reward and what to punish. How that is to be done in practice is within the scope of psychology, sociology, economics, jurisprudence and so on. What DU provides is the (only IMHO) coherent and consistent grounds apply those social forces.

Really most debates on morality should be on what are the relevant and effective the methods of praise and blame for differing situations but most (nearly all) debates get side tracked into deciding what to praise or blame and never get to deal with this.

faithlessgod said...

Teleprompter

Maybe I responded too quickly but you also ask why should one want to promote desires that tend to fulfil others rather than inhibit them.

Well look at the implications of doing this for oneself. Do you want to prevent all your desires being fulfilled indeed have them thwarted? No-one - (usual exceptions e.g mentally ill excluded, of course) does, it would be absurd for them to do so. The whole point of any desire is that one is disposed to act (the desire is the reason to act) to keep or bring a state of affairs where desire is fulfilled. DU just drops any restrictions over whose desires, your, mine, a groups (as the aggregate of a collection of individuals desires) but the same principle applies.

Why would you want to promote a desire that thwarts as many other desires - whoever has them - as possible? (Ignoring the obvious that you might if that desire was in your favour which is what DU is designed to deal with) Certainly you would not, if it would thwart your desires and this is the general principle. The same as you based on, say, self-interest discourage others from thwarting your desires, morally you would still discourage others for having desires that would thwart or tend to thwart yours or anyone you cared about and by extension anyone they care about and so on.

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo,

I like your post and find few flaws with it.

One flaw I do find, though, is that, like all forms of utilitarianism, you run up against GE Moore's criticism that "good" is simply not reducible to "those actions which tends to fulfill other desires" or any other such formula.

First, we can see this by recognizing that questions like "Are actions that tend to fulfill desires good?" is not anything close to tautologous, and further by the fact that the question must be answered by saying: "Certainly not all of them are good."

We would not call my action to let someone in on an insider stock tip in exchange for money as good, even though my action "tends to fulfill other desires," - namely, the recipient's desire to engage in insider trading and my desire to recieve cash.

Nor would we suggest that a child pornographer's posting of pictures on the web is being "virtuous" even though he/she is certanly engaging in activities that "tend to fulfill other desires."

Long and short: I cannot see that your identification of "virtue" with "action that tends to promote other desires" as a direct relationship, or as overcoming GE Moore's challenge to utilitarians to avoid the naturalistic fallacy.

Can you show me how you get around Moore?

David said...

Can you show me how you get around Moore?

Yes, by looking at the big picture. I think that's the single missing piece in almost every discussion of morality.

You're talking about actions that affect hundreds or millions of people, and evaluating them based on the desires of one or two people. Insider trading benefits a few people involved and hurts everyone else in the market. Why do you think child pornography is illegal when adult pornography isn't? To protect the desires of the child, who is either too naive to know what he/she wants or too weak to enforce it. Not to mention that child pornographers and sexual predators are considered to be linked, so all children and their parents in the area want the pornographer behind bars.

The problem with Moore and/or your reading of him is that you take a few moral statements, notice some discrepancies, and go on to assert that good is a universal, indivisible, undefinable essence more significant than the things that bear it. Why not consider that the discrepancies might be in your own usage and interpretation of language? How do you even notice the discrepancies except by deferring to your "internal moral sense" or to legal definitions.

<rant>
Can everyone please, please, please evaluate the foundations and conclusions of your argument before giving voice to it, and please not tolerate the fallacy that "it may be, therefore it must be"? I can't understand a word anyone says about morality for all the half-intentional vagueness and spiritualizing.
</rant>

faithlessgod said...

Kevin Currie

"Can you show me how you get around Moore?"
And you said you are influenced by Mackie! There is very little difference between Mackie and Fyfe here and you misread both when you say:
"good" is simply not reducible to "those actions which tends to fulfill other desires"

Mackie: "good is such as to satisfy the requirements of the kind in question"

Fyfe: "good is such as to fulfil the desires of the kind in question."

Taking Fyfe's generic good and where the "desires of the kind in question" are everyone's desires whoever is affected without exception we get "moral good is such as to fulfil or tend to fulfil other desires (whoever has them)".

Now where does your definition - around actions- come from?

Then your sentence quoted ends "or any other such formula".
But that is what is in dispute you have turned this into a priori defeater to dismiss all possibilities, this is not an argument. Any candidate needs to be examined on its merits.

Now what is challengeable is the validity of Moore's Open Question argument. You cannot assume a priori that
a) moral properties are basic: and so cannot be reduced to anything else
b) moral properties are non-natural: and so cannot be reduced to natural properties
c) moral properties cannot be reduced to other natural properties
These are the three types of naturalist fallacies that Moore needs to show (that at least one is) being committed in any reduction. His method is the Open Question Argument. So is (a),(b), or (c) shown by the Open Question argument?
Well (a) and (b) might be explanations or reasons of why supposedly all candidates fail the Open Question argument - if this this argument works.

This leaves (c), however (c) highlights the problem that reduction of moral terms is somehow different or special from anywhere else - there is no Open Question argument anywhere else, what is the difference that makes it apply here - without question-beggingly assuming basicness (a), non-naturalness (b) or specialness (c)?

All that is left is an appeal to intuition when Moore's version was meant to be an argument for intuition. The intuition that there are two different things not one can be explained by referential opacity - it is a mistake in the way we think about it.

To sum up Moore's Open Question Argument and his three types of naturalistic fallacies (there are others and better ones) is window dressing to cover up one saying that if any presentation conflicts with one's intuition it must be wrong. Some argument huh?

Anyway you carry on with:

"First, we can see this by recognizing that questions like "Are actions that tend to fulfill desires good?" is not anything close to tautologous, and further by the fact that the question must be answered by saying: "Certainly not all of them are good."
Apart from your misrepresentation of Fyfe's definition how about you give an example of where this does not work and lets see which makes more sense your intuition or the evidence.

Here you go on, in addition to your mis-definition of moral value, to display a dubiously mistaken use of the DU method of evaluation of desires:
We would not call my action to let someone in on an insider stock tip in exchange for money as good, even though my action "tends to fulfill other desires," - namely, the recipient's desire to engage in insider trading and my desire to recieve cash.
This is not a desire that fulfils or tends to fulfil all other relevant desires of whoever has them, therefore no DU analyst would suggest this as a an example of "moral good". You example is a.k.a. a straw man. Try again.

Oh dear yet more strawman, you say you understand Hume and Mackie since in one sense DU is a continuation of both this authors, it is not like you are new to this field so how can you misunderstand this so deeply like a moral noobie?
Nor would we suggest that a child pornographer's posting of pictures on the web is being "virtuous" even though he/she is certanly engaging in activities that "tend to fulfill other desires."
The "other desires" cannot be restricted to a selection based on the agent nor by a critic such as yourself, as soon as you or the agent does that then this is no longer a moral evaluation in any sense of universal (remember Mackie?)

I cannot see that your identification of "virtue" with "action that tends to promote other desires" as a direct relationship, or as overcoming GE Moore's challenge to utilitarians to avoid the naturalistic fallacy.
I cannot see how you have done any such thing yet as you have
a) Misdefined DF/DU and misapplied it
b) Criticised DU based on straw men counter-examples
c) Still need to show that your intuition is more reliable and less error prone than other methods.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Well I have a book in which I discuss Mackie, Moore, and Hume in some detail.

Desire utilitarianism is certainly an offshoot of Hume's theory. Hume said a virtue was a character trait that was pleasing and useful to oneself and others. I say that a virtue is a desire that tends to fulfill, directly (pleasing) and indirectly (useful) the desires of self and others.

Mackie, as fathlessgod points out, not only identified "good" with "such as to fulfill the requirements of the kind in question." He also said 'Good', I think, always imports some reference to something like interests or wants, and I intend 'requirements' to be read in this sense." (p. 58).

And, in denying that there are objective values, he added, "Something may be called good simply in so far as it satisfies or is such as to satisfy a certain desire; but the objectivity of such relations of satisfaction does not constitute in our sense an objective value.

In other words, Mackie was perfectly open to values being objective. In denying the objectivity of values he was actually concerned specifically with denying intrinsic prescriptivity

Well, I deny intrinsic prescriptivity as well. I focus, instead, on the type of objectivity that Mackie defends - relationships to desires.

Kevin Currie said...

David wrote:

"[We can get around Currie's Moorean objection] by looking at the big picture. I think that's the single missing piece in almost every discussion of morality."
_____________________________

I think this gets away from what Fyfe was saying about desire utilitarianism. He suggested that under his view, "good" is "that which tends to fulfill other desires," rather than "which tends to fulfill other desires...when seen in a "big picture" view."

There was no qualifier on his statement of the type you made, and I think morality would be reduced to government if it were. (Who is it left up to to decide what promotes fulfillment of desires in the "big picture" other than a governor of some sort?) And who is to decide how many desires need to be furthered in order to justify an act as "good"?

David said...

I think this gets away from what Fyfe was saying about desire utilitarianism. He suggested that under his view, "good" is "that which tends to fulfill other desires," rather than "which tends to fulfill other desires...when seen in a "big picture" view."

I'm pretty sure that's what the word "tends" means, and that "tends in the big picture" is a little redundant. I'm saying that child pornography and insider trading don't tend to satisfy more and stronger desires than they frustrate. It's meaningless to say something tends to be good if its net harm tends to be greater than its net benefit.

We're talking "net" here, not "gross", so we're not just trying to find somebody pleased, we're also wanting to not find anybody angry. The "tendency" part means you don't have to worry about everyone, individually, so long as you don't cherry pick who to worry about. Kevin picked the scenarios and he picked who to consider in them.

And no, it's not like government, because I'm not talking about enforcing it. I'm just talking about definitions. You decide for yourself how to interpret it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

David

I'm saying that child pornography and insider trading don't tend to satisfy more and stronger desires than they frustrate.

In desire utilitarian terms, that's not relevant.

The relevant question is whether the desires for and absence of aversions to child pornography and insider trading tend to satisfy more and stronger desires.

Remember, desire utilitarianism evaluates desires. It evaluates acts only in terms of their consistency with good desires.

The desires that would motivate an agent to consume child pornograph are desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. That those desires also motivate actions that tend to thwart other desires is well know.

Insider trading represents a form of fraud. It is like selling a car that one knows has a defective engine that will drop out in 100 miles without informing the buyer of that fact. We have good reason to promote an aversion to fraud.

It is the conformity of actions to desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit universally, or aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally, that makes these actions wrong.

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo wrote:


The desires that would motivate an agent to consume child pornograph are desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. That those desires also motivate actions that tend to thwart other desires is well know."

Thus, some have desires in one direction and others have desires in the other. Some want to see child pornography available and others want to thwart it.

So, I am not sure how you are at all justified in suggesting that "good" is synonymous with "that which tends to fulfill other desires," when we can see that wanting to thwart child pornography - a desire that clearly does not work to fulfill, but thwart, other desires - is also "good."


At root my problem with desire utilitarianism is a problem that I think is endemic to any kind of utilitarianism (and any kind of attempts to define "good" with necessary or sufficient critiria): "good" is a term that (a) seems to me irreducibly intuitive (like "beautiful") and (b) too many people have too many differing conceptions of it to ever hope for a definition that would seem correct to all but a sliver of the population.