Thursday, February 19, 2009

On Subjective and Objective Value

The debate among members of the studio audience has wandered into questions about objectivity and subjectivity.

This is an area where I think that the concepts are so muddled and inconsistent that they are guaranteed to keep debates going indefiniately as participants talk past each other at every step.

At one point I had been asked to participate in two debates on the objectivity of ethics. In one case, I was billed as defending subjectivism, because I hold that there is no value without desires. That is to say, no desire (or brain-state) independent value exists in the universe.

At about the same time, in a second debate, I was held billed as the defender of moral objectivism. This is because I hold that moral properties are substantially independent of the beliefs or desires (mental states) of the speaker. They exist in the real world as properties that existed before the assessor was even born, and will continue to live long after his death.

The way that this happened is that I tend to shun labels. I simply declared that I will present my views and allow people to determine how they want to categorize me.

People do not, in fact, all have the same understanding of subjetivism. So, some people hold a definition of subjectivism where they classify me as a subjectivist. Others use a definition of subjectivism that results in their classifying me as an objectivist.

These are not inconsistent views. While I hold that moral properties are dependent on mental states, they are at the same time substantially independent of the mental states of the speaker. They are dependent, instead, on the desires that people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote or inhibit.

There is a discoverable fact of the matter regarding how these desires relate to each other that is substantially indepdendent of the beliefs and desires of the assessor.

Intentional actions are explained by the interaction of beliefs and desires.

Beliefs and desires are propositional attitude. A belief that P is the attitude that P is true. A desire that P is a motivational state that drives the agent to create or preserve states of affairs in which P is true.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

People act so as to fulfill the most and the strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. However, they seek to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires.

We know that (beliefs and) desires exist because we use them to fairly reliably explain and predict a huge set of real-world observations - intentional actions.

Desires are the only (ends-producing) reasons for action that exist. If there are any other, ends-producing reasons for action, let me know what evidence there is of their existence.

Some maleable desires tend to fulfill the desires of others, Those others, then, have reasons to act so as to promote those desires.

Some maleable desires tend to thwart the desires of others. Those others, then, have reason to act so as to inhibit those desires.

The tools for promoting the first type of desire and inhibiting the latter type of desire are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

The fact that a desire tends to fulfill other desires means that people generally have motivating reasons to promote those desires using the tools described above. That fact that a desire tends to thwart other desires means that people generally have motivating reason to inhibit that desire using those same tools.

You can call me a subjectivist if you wish - based on the fact that I deny the existence of desire-independent reasons for action. However, do not equivocate from this to the conclusion that I am the type of subjectivist who denies the existence of moral facts - that all it takes for the rape of a child to be "right for me" is for me to adopt a particular attitude towards the rape of a child.

You can call me an objectivist if you wish - based on the fact that I assert that there are moral facts and that those facts are substantially independent of the beliefs or desires of the assessor. However, do not equivocate from this to the conclusion that I hold that there are desire-independent values - some sort of intrinsic prescriptivity that adheres to states of affairs independent of any human mental state.

15 comments:

Kevin Currie said...

Good essay, Alonzo! I agree that what is meant by "subjectivist" or "objectivist" differ from place to place.

The question that would decide it for me (and for the record, I take the subjectivist interpretation of DU) is this:

In any moral case - say, acting to inhibit the desire of someone to engage in insider trading - what decides that rightness or wrongness of the action? Is the rightness or wrongness up to whatever subject is opining on the matter, or is the rightness or wrongness of the action independent of any subject?

faithlessgod said...

Kevin

"I agree that what is meant by "subjectivist" or "objectivist" differ from place to place...The question that would decide it for me (and for the record, I take the subjectivist interpretation of DU)" Granted your first sentence what on earth does this "subjectivist interpretation" mean?
This makes no sense within DU, as should become clear from the rest of this response.

"In any moral case - say, acting to inhibit the desire of someone to engage in insider trading - what decides that rightness or wrongness of the action?"
1. "Rightness" and "wrongness" sound like essences - and these, we agree,do not exist.

2.Noting that, a right (wrong) action is action that results from a good (bad) desire, which is the first step to answering your question.

3. Therefore I presume you are really asking or should have been asking - with your phrasing - is what decides the "goodness" or "badness" of a desire, where of course there are no essences still?

4. Well if a desire thwarts the desire of others, they have reason to inhibit it, the reason just being their desire being thwarted. This is a fact. They can in addition label it a "bad" desire in virtue of the fact that it thwarts their desires. However the decision is not over the labelling but the effect that the desire has on others. As anywhere else people can be mistaken over facts, but there are facts over which to be mistaken.

5. Since moral questions are questions of some form of universal applicability the challenge is to determine whether a desire more likely fulfils or thwarts other desires universally. I think you are really asking who decides whether a desire is thwarting or fulfilling universally other desires (or tends to)?

A1: The answer is this is discovered - not decided - just like any other empirical investigation would be done, by the appropriate persons and using the skills for whom an answer can be determined and for whom an answer is relevant . Can they be mistaken? Yes but only in an internal critique sense - operating within the same framework the relevancy and effects on specific desires and so can be disputed, but this again, is no different to many day to day disputes over matters of fact and more formally and systematically within scientific (and legal) investigations. The decisions are provisional, fallible and defeasible and are answers over what are the empirical facts and conclusion can be drawn from them.

A2. Finally it decision independent of the agent and the assessor - it is discovery - that is any assessor should be able to come to the same conclusion if the data is clear enough - it is an epistemically objective task that is not dependent on the whims or culture of the assessor, the same as in any other empirical enterprise.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

faithlessgod

You have done an excellent job presenting desire utilitarianism. However, in this case, you are mistaken on item (2).

Or, at least, it is dangerously ambigous.

The right action is the action that a person with good desires would have performed. The actual desires that motivated it are not important - only that it be the same action that would have been done if the agent had good desires.

I will bring this issue up in a couple of posts regarding the bad samaritan.

faithlessgod said...

This is the trouble when I want to try my own version of saying things! I don't want to appear to be parroting you - and when writing own blog to appear to be plagiarising phrases of yours - but to say the same things (at least the things we agree upon) in my own voice.

Anyway I think you are referring to the intended versus knowable distinction in jurisprudence/ Mens Rea). Yes my formulation allows there to be lack of a desire that a good person would have, my mistake.

BTW how come smileys have started working on your blog? Cant get them on mine :-(

Christian Apologist said...

How do you respond to the Buddhist who claims that all suffering in the world is caused by desire itself.

Let us examine desire, what are its qualities? Desire is like an engine which is always operating. Or like an unlimited source of energy. Our beliefs and values are what guide our desires. Let me put it another way for anyone here who understands vectors. Vectors have both magnitude and direction. Human action is the same. Desire is equivelant to magnitude and beliefs are equivelant to direction. Thus we can change the amount of desire we have but in order to change its direction we have to change our beliefs.

faithlessgod said...

Christian Apologist

" How do you respond to the Buddhist who claims that all suffering in the world is caused by desire itself.
Short answer: Buddhist desire is a different meaning to here that used in belief-desire psychology.

As for how Buddhist desires maps onto the belief-desire psychlogy well if there is a Buddhist in the studio audience interested in this, we could discuss that.


A - desire and belief. This is a different conception of a d


Let us examine desire, what are its qualities? Desire is like an engine which is always operating. Or like an unlimited source of energy. Our beliefs and values are what guide our desires. Let me put it another way for anyone here who understands vectors. Vectors have both magnitude and direction. Human action is the same. Desire is equivelant to magnitude and beliefs are equivelant to direction. Thus we can change the amount of desire we have but in order to change its direction we have to change our beliefs.
"

David said...

faithlessgod
what on earth does this "subjectivist interpretation" [of DU] mean?

Just like I said, I think any system of ethics is compatible with subjectivism. In this interpretation, DU is a system that says, "if you want to maximize compatibility of desires, do these things" (forgive me if that's an oversimplification of DU's goals). So the "rightness" or "wrongness" would hinge on a person's goal to maximize compatibility. It's nothing about "essences". I think his question is, to the extent you say something is "right" or "wrong" (under DU), would I necessarily have to agree (also under DU)?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

David

Desire utilitarianism does not say anything about "if you want to maximize compatibility of desires." It does not matter if a person wants to maximize the compatibility of desires.

An agent with an aversion to pain by that fact alone has a motivating reason to prevent others from having desires that would cause him to be in a state of pain. He does not need an aversion to pain and a desire to maximize compatibility of desires. The second desire is entirely unnecessary and can be cut out without affecting the results.

Every desire that P is a motivating reason to realize any state of affairs in which P is true. This means that the desire that P is a motivating reason to make it the case that others do not have desires that would tend to prevent states of affairs in which P is true.

This claims are true as a matter of fact. They are not just true under "DU" any more than evolution is only true "under Darwinism."

Kevin Currie said...

Faithless God and Alonzo,

Thanks for your clarifications.

I see how you are saying that whether something thwarts or fulfills desires of others is an objective fact. This is true.

But I am not sure what moral conclusions can be drawn from that fact unless you make an unjustified leap by saying that that which thwarts others desires is bad, and that which fulfills others' desires are good.

I know that in most cases, this seems obvious, but I still do not see how "good" is synonymous with "that which fulfills others desires."

Let me ask a further question:

If two people disagree on whether a certain action was right or wrong (by disagreeing on whether the desires the action fulfilled were desires worthy of being fulfilled), is this dispute "objectively" resolvable (one right, the other wrong), or are they both "right" within their own interpretation?

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo wrote: "The right action is the action that a person with good desires would have performed. The actual desires that motivated it are not important - only that it be the same action that would have been done if the agent had good desires."

Forgive me for finding this question begging. If "right" hinges on whether the act furthered a good desire (or thwarted a bad desire), then how does one determine whether a desire was good or bad?

If the answer is subjective - I suspect it is - then DU seems like it collapses into radical subjectivism by telling us that 'right action' is determined by whether our actions further goods that we like (which is something of a tautology).

Am I going wrong in again misinterpreting DU?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Kevin Currie

But I am not sure what moral conclusions can be drawn from that fact unless you make an unjustified leap by saying that that which thwarts others desires is bad, and that which fulfills others' desires are good.

The only thing that I need to say is:

That which thwarts others desires is that which others have a motivating reason to act to inhibit. That which fulfills others' desires is that which they have motivating reason to act to promote.

I also argue that "good" and "bad" refer to reasons for action such that something is good if and only if there are motivating reasons to bring them about or preserve them. Something is bad if and only if we have motivating reasons to avoid them. However, nothing of substance hangs on these definitions.

I know that in most cases, this seems obvious, but I still do not see how "good" is synonymous with "that which fulfills others desires."

"Good" is not synonymous with "that which fulfills others desires". "Good" is synonamous with "that which there are motivating reseasons to make or keep true".

It happens to be the case that desries are the only motivating reasons that exist. So, it happens to be the case that good is reduced to that which fulfills desires. However, it is still logical possible (though false in fact) that something can be good if it fulfills a desire-independent motivating reason. There are no such things but, if such things were real, they would count towards the goodness of something.

If two people disagree on whether a certain action was right or wrong (by disagreeing on whether the desires the action fulfilled were desires worthy of being fulfilled), is this dispute "objectively" resolvable (one right, the other wrong), or are they both "right" within their own interpretation?

The dispute is objectively resolvable. There is an objective fact of the matter as to whether a desire will tend to fulfill other desires.

It might not be easy to answer. In fact, it might be the case that answer is too complex for us to know. But this does not show that there is no right answer.

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo:

'"Good" is not synonymous with "that which fulfills others desires". "Good" is synonamous with "that which there are motivating reseasons to make or keep true".'

Isn't it true, though, that anyone who acts in any way can be said to have a motivating reason to do what they are doing (even if the reason is that they want to do it)?

This is where I think that DU is morally vacuous (in a wwy you seem not to want). If "good" is synonymous with "that which there are motivating reasons to make or keep true," then it seems that anyone who acts to do anything is said to be doing the good (becuase it is absurd to think that anyone acts without reason that is motivating to them).

"The dispute is objectively resolvable. There is an objective fact of the matter as to whether a desire will tend to fulfill other desires."

But the two people disagreeing kover the rightness of an act are not disagreeing about whether the act fulfills other desires. They are arguing about whether fuflilling the other desires was the right thing to do.

To put it concretely, the child pornographer may argue that he is furthering the desires of those who consumer child pornography. Those who thwart the child pornographer's efforts may fully agree that the pornographer was furthering desires of consumers. (Thus, the dispute is NOT about whether desires were furthered.) The argument is about whether furthering the other desires was morally right.

Eneasz said...

Isn't it true, though, that anyone who acts in any way can be said to have a motivating reason to do what they are doing

Yes. All motivating reasons are desires, and a person will always act to fulfill their own desires at the time. To claim anything else is incoherent.

If "good" is synonymous with "that which there are motivating reasons to make or keep true," then it seems that anyone who acts to do anything is said to be doing the good

No, because you are looking only at the desires of the actor, and not bothering to discern if the actor's desires are good or not. A good act is one that a person with good desires would perform. A bad act is one that a person with bad desires would perform. Simply fulfilling any desire is not enough for an act to be called good.

I can see a souped-up Ferarri driving down the street, and have a desire to own it. However I also have an aversion to stealing, and my aversion to stealing is stronger than my desire to own the car. All people in general have many strong reasons to promote in others a strong aversion to stealing. Therefore it is a good aversion to have, and a good person will not steal the car.

If my aversion to stealing was weak enough that I went ahead and stole the car, then yes - I would be fulfilling the most/strongest of my own desires. However, since a good person would have a strong enough aversion to theft that he wouldn't do this, it is still a bad act.

To put it concretely, the child pornographer may argue that he is furthering the desires of those who consumer child pornography. Those who thwart the child pornographer's efforts may fully agree that the pornographer was furthering desires of consumers. (Thus, the dispute is NOT about whether desires were furthered.) The argument is about whether furthering the other desires was morally right.

In this case you are looking only at a small subset of desires - the desire to view child porn. And yes, those would be fulfilled. However, for the reasons already mentioned, that is a bad desire. Everyone who cares for a child and has an aversion to seeing harm done to that child (so basically every person in the world) has many strong reasons to inhibit in others a desire to watch child porn (and even to create a strong aversion to it). A desire in others to watch child porn would tend to thwart their own desires that the child be safe and happy. Everyone has strong reasons to inhibit such a desire via any means they can. Therefore, the desire to watch child porn is a bad desire. And the desire of the pornographer to fulfill those bad desires it itself a bad desire.

I think you're getting too hung-up on the words "bad" and "good". We all are somewhat I suppose. And this is understandable, you must teach morality at a young age, when a child is still far to young to understand malleable desires, tools of social conditioning, and so forth. So they are simply taught that "good people" are loved and rewarded, and "bad people" are hated and punished. And then as events transpire in their lives they are instructed "That is a good thing to do" or "that was a bad thing to do!" and learn from that. This method has some problems, but it is very effective and practical.

For purposes of clarity, rather than deal with the emotional baggage of such words, it may be helpful if - for a little while at least - you replace every instance of the word "good" with "desires that nearly everyone has many strong reasons to promote", and the word "bad" with "desires that nearly everyone has many strong reasons to inhibit".

faithlessgod said...

Hi Kevin

Eneasz said:"I think you're getting too hung-up on the words "bad" and "good". I have to agree.

I am saying this from the view that I think you are genuinely interested in DU as it is (a) only two small steps from your RU and (b) this equips you to better able to provide a robust criticism of DU

Well there are two themes getting mixed up here that need to be separated out.
(a) An objective analysis of desire-desire interactions
(b) The subjective labelling of those different types of interactions.
If you want to criticize (a) confusion can be avoided by leaving moral-speak out of it. It either works or has flaws, regardless of moral-speak and this can be examined absent moral-speak.

In parallel you can also use your meaning of moral-speak as in (b) and see where they conflict or can produce counter-examples in exploring (a), in which case you need to explicate what you mean rather than just use indeterminate terms such as "good" which looks like equivocation.

Whether you subjectively agree that this maps onto your (or anyone elses') definition of moral-speak or not is (b) and is a different topic.

Alonzo, eneasz,emu sam, myself and others are (trying to) discuss (a) not (b).

This is the best way to move this conversation forward as all I can see for now, charitably, is that you are doing what Mackie calls "trading off the indeterminancy of good".

faithlessgod said...

Alonzo

"Good" is not synonymous with "that which fulfills others desires". "Good" is synonamous with "that which there are motivating reseasons to make or keep true".
I think the issue of "synonymous" here is interesting.

To us who see this it is now trivial it is obviously synonymous. To those who do not (yet) agree or are looking just to test this no definition would accepted as synonymous. Still I think there are two meanings of synonymous and we are using one and Kevin is using another.

The phrase "such as to fulfil the desire of the kind in question" is a valid co-referentially transparent substitution for "good" that retains semantic value or intensional meaning in relevant contexts (and sentences).

Does this does answer the Moorean intuition which relies on referential opacity that is that there is no such substitution for "good", the intuition that good is "referentially opaque"?

In one sense yes, the Moorean challenge is to propose such a substitution and in one sense that means they are asking for a synonym and what else can "synonym" mean but a referentially transparent substitution that retains intensional meaning?

However "Large" is a synonym for "big" but that is looks like a different type of synonym.

Well with "big->large" no reduction occurs and the ontological status remains the same.

Whereas with "good->such as to fulfil the desire of the kind in question" a reduction occurs and the ontological status changes

And here is where a potential confusion with Kevin arrives. He is using the concept of synonym that does not imply any ontological reduction, whereas we are. Answering the demand for a synonym in such discussions can lead to such equivocation.

One would think this would only apply to traditional moral non-reductive objectivists who would refuse the ontological reduction?

In my view this also applies to subjectivists because we are also applying another type ontological reduction to their conceptions of subjective good!! We are eliminating it as being of any value at all.

Just some thoughts on this.