Monday, February 16, 2009

Questions from the Studio Audience

My recent series on evolutionary ethics have generated a lot of comments. Some of them have been handled by others making comments.

I wish to supplement some of that exchange.

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.

There are two arguments from GE Moore that would apply here.

The first is his famous "naturalistic fallacy". He declares that "good" cannot be the same as "is such as to fulfill the desires in question" because the question, "X is such as to fulfill the desires in question, but is it good?" is an "open question." It is not an obvious tautology.

I discussed the Naturalistic Fallacy n a previous post, The Naturalistic Fallacy.

The Open Question Argument is, itself, a fallacy known as the Masked Man Fallacy. The police say that the Mayor's brother is the masked man who has been robbing people for the past several months. The question, "Jim is the Mayor's brother, but is he the masked man?" is an open question, but it does not disprove the claim that the Mayor's brother is the masked man.

The second of Moore's argument concerns a distinction between what is desired and what is desirable. There is a distinction to be made between the claim, "X is desired" and "X should be desired."

However, desire utilitarianism recognizes this distinction. Desire utilitarianism concerns compromoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires. That is to say, there is a disctinction between what is desired and should be desired - what would be desired if the agent had those desires that people generally have reason to promote.

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.

I am not certain what you mean in identifying "virtue" with "action that tend to promote other desires".

I do not equate virtue with actions of any type. I equate virtues with desires that people generally have reason to promote, not with actions of any type.

Also, I reject all act utilitarian theories. The right act, in this case, is not the act that maximizes utility. It is the act that a person with good desires would perform. Good desires, in turn, are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. However, it is quite possible for a right action to bring about bad consequences in a specific instance.

My, and others, points were simply that your criticism is trivial and that you are, in effect, making a one-person argument.

The whole point of this series is to address the issue of atheists entering debates into theists on the possibility of morality without God. If I am right and evolutionary ethics has nothing to offer on that subject (because it says nothing about what is truly right or truly wrong), then atheists need to look elsewhere to answer that question.

The ultimate issue that began this series has to do with atheists debating the possibility of morality without God. It is relevant to note that it would be fruitless to try to find an answer in the realm of evolutionary ethics.

14 comments:

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo,

Thanks for the post. I am still not sure that you've allayed my Moorean concerns. You write:

"However, desire utilitarianism recognizes this distinction. Desire utilitarianism concerns compromoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires. That is to say, there is a disctinction between what is desired and should be desired - what would be desired if the agent had those desires that people generally have reason to promote."

But the crux of the Moorean criticism is that you are suggesting that there is an exact congruence between "good" and "that which tends to fulfill desires." I, and I suspect many others, do not see these terms in a 1:1 relationship. There are things commonly recognized as "good" which do not "tend to fulfill desires" (truth-telling does not derive its "goodness" from its tendency to fulfill desires). There are also things which tend to fulfill desires that are not recognized as "good" (child pornography).

To restate, the Moorean "naturalistic fallacy" argument simply suggests that unless you can show that "good" and whatever criteria you are suggesting are exact synonyms - you have not, at least to my satisfaction - then your are guilty of the naturalistic fallacy.

Kevin Currie said...

"The whole point of this series is to address the issue of atheists entering debates into theists on the possibility of morality without God. If I am right and evolutionary ethics has nothing to offer on that subject (because it says nothing about what is truly right or truly wrong), then atheists need to look elsewhere to answer that question"


Perfectly agreed. I apologize, as I think I misconstrued your larger intent from early on. Where I thought you were arguing that evolutionary ethics claims to be normative but cannot be, you were simply stating the FACT that unless it is normative, people should not use it so.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Kevin Currie

You wrote: But the crux of the Moorean criticism is that you are suggesting that there is an exact congruence between "good" and "that which tends to fulfill desires." I, and I suspect many others, do not see these terms in a 1:1 relationship. There are things commonly recognized as "good" which do not "tend to fulfill desires" (truth-telling does not derive its "goodness" from its tendency to fulfill desires). There are also things which tend to fulfill desires that are not recognized as "good" (child pornography).

There is a congruence between "good" and "that which tends to fulfill desires." This, then, implies that there is a congruence between "good desire" and "desires that tend to fulfill (other) desires". This, in turn, leads to a second-order goodness, "good" as "that which tends to fulfill good desires."

It is the desire for honesty, and the aversion to lies and deception, that is the virtue. Truth-telling does not derive its moral value from its tendency to fulfill desires. Honesty, however, does - and truth-telling derives its value from its relationship to the virtue of honesty.

Child pornography might well fulfill certain desires. However, it fulfills desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. These "reasons to inhibit" the desire are, themselves, the desires thwarted by the desires that child pornography fulfills.

You mentioned rule-utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism states that acts are to be evaluated according to their conformity to certain rules, and rules are evaluated by their consequences.

Desire utilitarianism goes rule utilitarianism one better. Acts are to be evaluated according to their conformity to certain desires, and desires are evaluated by their consequences (in terms of the fulfillment of other desires).

To restate, the Moorean "naturalistic fallacy" argument simply suggests that unless you can show that "good" and whatever criteria you are suggesting are exact synonyms - you have not, at least to my satisfaction - then your are guilty of the naturalistic fallacy.

Then I am not guilty of the naturalistic fallacy. I equate "good" with "reasons for action that exist." That desires are the only reasons for action that exist is not an a-priori truth. It is still true, but not an a-priori truth.

One can equate water with H2O without having to answer an open question argument. The question, "This is water, but is it really made up of molecules comprised of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom?" is an open question.

Yet, it is still the case that water consists of H2O.

And it is still the case that value consists of relationships between states of affairs and desires.

Dan Doel said...

Not to go around this argument once more (since it's been in so many circles here over the past few days), but there are situations where something like 'evolutionary ethics' is useful. For instance in this article PZ Myers mentions that Francis Collins claims the innate "sense" of fairness and such is evidence of a god, because allegedly said god is the one who put it in us. Showing that other species have such "senses," and providing an evolutionary explanation for them is a counter to that argument, even if it doesn't provide one with a basis for making moral prescriptions (which, I agree, it doesn't). And it is an argument that some theists actually make, even if it's not the one Alonzo is talking about. :)

Also, on the subject of Moore, this post that recently appeared on the atheist blog roll gives a critique of it, concluding that at its core, it's no better than, "my gut tells me that's not what morality is," aside from some rhetorical devices.

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo,

Thanks for your response.

You write: "There is a congruence between "good" and "that which tends to fulfill desires."

This still does not sit right with me, as it is commonly recognized that some desires are "beyond the pale" of goodness. We can certainly try to explain each one of these exceptions away on a case by case basis, but the very fact that the most common intuition seems to be that there is no EXACT congruence between desires and goodness means that suggestions that "good" is shorthand for "what fulfills desires" is awkward.

You write: "Child pornography might well fulfill certain desires. However, it fulfills desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. These "reasons to inhibit" the desire are, themselves, the desires thwarted by the desires that child pornography fulfills."

But if child pornography fulfills desires for those who make and consume it, and inhibiting child pornography fulfills a desire by those who detest it, then what good is desire uttilitarianism if it equates "good" with "that which fulfills desires?" In the end, it tells us nothing other than what we already know: that people like to fulfill their own dseires, and what is "good" - or "fulfills their desires" - is irreducibly up to the subject?

You write: "Desire utilitarianism goes rule utilitarianism one better. Acts are to be evaluated according to their conformity to certain desires, and desires are evaluated by their consequences (in terms of the fulfillment of other desires)."

Since I am not as familiar with desire utilitarianism as you, how "close a cousin" is it to rule utilitarianism? It seems that its "big picture" approach and suggestion that we act in ways that reslut in most people being able to fulfill most of their desires most (not all) of the time, seems to me almost indistinguishable from rule utilitarinism.

I also want to ask how subjective desire utilitarianism sees values and "the good" as. From where I stand, equating "good" with "that which fulfillls desires" means that, as desires are subjective, desire utilitarianism is a very subjective system of ethics that says "whatever fulfills your desires and does not get in the way of others abillity to fulfill their desires is good."

If that is what you are saying, then I am quite sure we are on very similar pages.

(My only invoking of Moore was to suggest that I think he is correct in suggesting that "good" is an irreducible term that can only be defined intuitively. Oddly, he took that for some sort of objectivism in morals, where I see it having radically subjectivist consequences. But I digress.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Let me focus on the relationship between desire and rule utilitarianism.

I have described desire utilitarianism as rule utilitarianism where the rules are written into the brain as desires.

This, then, answers a common objection to rule utilitarianism.

Rule utilitarians have trouble answering the question, "What if an action that violates the rules happens to maximize utility?" Either following the rule has to have value independent of utility, or the right thing to do is to break the rule (and rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism).

Desire utilitarianism says that the rules are written into the brain in the form of desires, and agents act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires.

If an act that violates the rules comes along, the agent will still act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires. That is to say, the act must necessarily follow the rules.

Applying the principle that "ought" implies "can" (or "cannot" implies "it is not the case that one ought") we get the conclusion that it is not the case that the agent ought to perform the act-utilitarian best act.

The only way that the agent can, in this case, perform the act-utilitarian best act is if we "change the rules" (change the desires). Yet, this then opens up the question of whether that rule change (if made universal) would tend to thwart other desires in other common circumstances that people find themselves in.

If the answer is "yes", then we reject the proposal to change the rules and it is not the case that the agent should perform the act-utilitarian best act.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Kevin

A few points in addition to Alonzo's there is no point repeating him and he usually says things better and more concisely than me.

"But the crux of the Moorean criticism is that you are suggesting that there is an exact congruence between "good" and "that which tends to fulfill desires." I, and I suspect many others, do not see these terms in a 1:1 relationship."
You are imposing an unreasonable and unjustifiable constraint on answering a Moorean challenge, nowhere does Alonzo say there is such a 1:1 correspondence and if you are really familiar with Mackie then you would know his "indeterminacy of good" argument, hence his use of the form "...of the kind in question" which both makes explicit and internalizes this indeterminancy. Otherwise a way to answer any definition of "good" is to simply select other requirement that were not of the kind in question being dealt with by the definition under critique. At least you are not relying on the Open Question argument itself and offering rational responses not a purely intuitive rejection except, with all due respect, your examples are still very poor.

You have, so far, failed to give clear examples that either show key meanings of good not explainable by the DU generic or moral good or clear meaning of generic or moral good (Mackie lists a few look them up) not reasonable covered by the DU generic or moral good definition.

"There are things commonly recognized as "good" which do not "tend to fulfill desires" (truth-telling does not derive its "goodness" from its tendency to fulfill desires)."
No it does not it is an act not a desires. You are still confusing, what Alonzo and I had explicitly addressed act based definitions with desire based in your truth-telling riposte. As a rule utilitarian you should well understand the difference between good and bad rules and right and wrong acts derived from such rules respectively. Of course Alonzo addresses this specific example but I am repeating for the second time as well pointing out the generalness of the objection to such examples.

"There are also things which tend to fulfill desires that are not recognized as "good" (child pornography)."
Now you are relying on intuition and not being the good subjectivist you claim to be. You or I may not be bale imagine that such actions can be good and none of us here, I presume, would ever think it, but it takes no imagination to see that is exactly how child pornographers do feel. And of course we are not talking about moral good. I had already addressed this in a previous post that this, possibly prematurely uncharitably accusing you of a straw man argument but I still fail to see what your justification of this is granted what has been presented to you and what you claim to know.

To restate, the Moorean "naturalistic fallacy" argument simply suggests that unless you can show that "good" and whatever criteria you are suggesting are exact synonyms - you have not, at least to my satisfaction - then your are guilty of the naturalistic fallacy.
You have made another unreasonable and unjustifiable demand. A definition, certainly are reductive definition makes no sense as a synonym. For exmaple, what is the definition of big? - large? - No, that is just a synonym.

Secondly I listed the three Moorean versions (there are others both better and worse) of the naturalistic fallacy which ones are we guilty of. Just stating this without specifics is far to vague for the level of our discussion.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

On the subjectivity of desires, I note that desires are subjective in the same way that height, weight, age, blood pressure, hair color, and current location are subjective.

That is to say, desires (and beliefs) are real properties of individuals. As such, we can talk about them in real terms.

Beliefs and desires happen to be brain states. However, brain states are real - they are a part of our real-world explanations of real-world events. We use them to explain and predict intentional actions - just as we use physical laws to explan and predict the motion of planets.

Whereas brain states are real, relationships between brain states and states of affairs in the world are real. A "desire that P" is fulfilled if any only if there is a state of affairs S and P is true in S. The statement that a desire is fulfilled is an objectively true or false statement.

Having said this, desires are still brain states. Objectively true statements relating states of affairs to brain states are not independent of brain states. There is no such thing as a brain-state independent morality.

Also, one's own brain states are not the only brain states that exist. Only one's own desires can motivate one's actions - if somebody else's brain state was moving my muscles they would be his actions and not mine. Yet, those actions take place in a world where other brain states exist (as a matter of objective fact). One would be as foolish to ignore the facts of the existence of other brain states as one would be to ignore the facts of the existence of microbes, gravity, and radiation.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Kevin (again)

"This still does not sit right with me, as it is commonly recognized that some desires are "beyond the pale" of goodness."
What do you mean by goodness? If you mean moral or ethical goodness then yes but no-one here is disputing this. If you mean generic good then your point does not work. Charitably can I ask if this is accidental equivocation? Again you must be well aware such distinctions given that Mackie devoted a whole chapter to this in Inventing Right and Wrong.

"We can certainly try to explain each one of these exceptions away on a case by case basis, but the very fact that the most common intuition seems to be that there is no EXACT congruence between desires and goodness means that suggestions that "good" is shorthand for "what fulfills desires" is awkward."
I am sorry but relying on intuition is simply insufficient and as I have already argued question begging. I have already noted that your EXACT demand is unreasonable and am waiting a argument for it, if you do no retract this. Without equivocation over good I see no issue, but you go on to say - again:- (admittedly in a response to Alonzo)

"But if child pornography fulfills desires for those who make and consume it, and inhibiting child pornography fulfills a desire by those who detest it, then what good is desire utilitarianism if it equates "good" with "that which fulfills desires?" In the end, it tells us nothing other than what we already know: that people like to fulfill their own dseires, and what is "good" - or "fulfills their desires" - is irreducibly up to the subject?2
This is not what DU says. You are referring to the more basic and general desire fulfilment theory of value from which DU is (partly) derived. I humbly suggest you qualify the term good with prefix labels such as generic, prudential and moral etc. and argue that if you do, this whole theme dissolves away. I certainly would love for you to show otherwise.

"I also want to ask how subjective desire utilitarianism sees values and "the good" as. From where I stand, equating "good" with "that which fulfils desires" means that, as desires are subjective, desire utilitarianism is a very subjective system of ethics that says "whatever fulfills your desires and does not get in the way of others abillity to fulfill their desires is good."
The appeal of DU is that it is not subjective but objective. Crucially you failed to respond to Fyfe pointing out that Mackie had rejected objective values as in "intrinsic prescriptivity" but not the objectivity of values as in, as we would put it, the relation between desires and states of affairs, which is an empirical, physical, material matter of fact in other words objective.

Just because what states of affairs to bring about are originated by desires - subjective states you might say - does not mean that the fulfilment or thwarting of those desires by whether states of affairs pertain or not is also subjective. To insist that this is so is to commit the genetic fallacy. Again surely you are familiar with Mackie's exam argument and that no subjectivist would deny that, once requirements are determined (as in "conditions of fulfilment" as I would put it)there is an objective fact of the matter at to whether those requirements (or conditions of fulfilment) are met or not.

"Oddly, he [Moore] took that for some sort of objectivism in morals, where I see it having radically subjectivist consequences. But I digress."
I have a wonderful reference but unfortunately packed up that moral (objective) intuitionists and stereotypical moral subjectivists are just using two different methods base on different presuppositions to talk about the same process. Then it is not so odd and explains why Moore's (poor) argument is so popular with subjectivists. (The "poor" partly because it is weak in its own right and because there are far better arguments in favour of moral subjectivism and for use against DU but I am not going to help you by pointing out what they are -they still don't work IMHO for course. Indeed I am finding the testing of Moore by a defender quite illuminating, thanks).

Christian Apologist said...

"Having said this, desires are still brain states. Objectively true statements relating states of affairs to brain states are not independent of brain states. There is no such thing as a brain-state independent morality.

Also, one's own brain states are not the only brain states that exist. Only one's own desires can motivate one's actions - if somebody else's brain state was moving my muscles they would be his actions and not mine. Yet, those actions take place in a world where other brain states exist (as a matter of objective fact). One would be as foolish to ignore the facts of the existence of other brain states as one would be to ignore the facts of the existence of microbes, gravity, and radiation.
"

What makes radiation,gravity, and microbes objective is the fact that they exist both independent from and in agreement with any observers.

Desires however are entirely individualized and therefore are subjective. Thus any moral system which bases itself on desire is inherently subjective.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Christian Apologist

"What makes radiation,gravity, and microbes objective is the fact that they exist both independent from and in agreement with any observers."
No what makes these and other topics objective is a type of epistemology, namely epistemic objectivity, knowledge of shareable observations that remain after the transcending the dependencies of any observer's preferences, prejudices, perceptions and practices. Sets of observers who are willing and successfully achieve such epistemic objectivity can indeed reach agreement on independent natural phenomenon. There is no reason why epistemic objectivity cannot be applied to morality.

You then say:
"Desires however are entirely individualized and therefore are subjective. Thus any moral system which bases itself on desire is inherently subjective."
Your conclusion does not follow from your premise. It might be quite correct that desires are individuated which I read as existing within an individual agent
but your "entirely" is far too vague. Humans shared many features biologically and psychologically which contradicts this assertion. The capacity to desire, act upon desires and effect states of affairs to fulfil or thwart desires are mostly shared universally among relevant agents.

You have not presented any reason why an observer cannot examine these capacities and processes in an epistemically objective fashion, that is objectively. Just labelling these "individuated states as "subjective" is just labelling and a bias that is dependent upon the observer's preference, prejudices and practices. Such labelling does not alter the facts of the matter as it would be irrelevant in any epistemic objective investigation - which strives to be independent of such bias.

Christian Apologist said...

"What makes radiation,gravity, and microbes objective is the fact that they exist both independent from and in agreement with any observers."
No what makes these and other topics objective is a type of epistemology, namely epistemic objectivity, knowledge of shareable observations that remain after the transcending the dependencies of any observer's preferences, prejudices, perceptions and practices. Sets of observers who are willing and successfully achieve such epistemic objectivity can indeed reach agreement on independent natural phenomenon. There is no reason why epistemic objectivity cannot be applied to morality.


We are saying the same thing about objectivity. And thus far I am unaware of any instance of the use of reason to discover an epistemicaly objective morality if there were we probably would not be on this blog.

Your conclusion does not follow from your premise. It might be quite correct that desires are individuated which I read as existing within an individual agent
but your "entirely" is far too vague. Humans shared many features biologically and psychologically which contradicts this assertion. The capacity to desire, act upon desires and effect states of affairs to fulfil or thwart desires are mostly shared universally among relevant agents


while every human being has an objective quantum of desire, those desires have differing results. Some men have the desire to rape women, or murder other people, or eat waffles. Some men are not motivated by any of these desires. Thus what is desired is subjective.

You have not presented any reason why an observer cannot examine these capacities and processes in an epistemically objective fashion, that is objectively. Just labelling these "individuated states as "subjective" is just labelling and a bias that is dependent upon the observer's preference, prejudices and practices. Such labelling does not alter the facts of the matter as it would be irrelevant in any epistemic objective investigation - which strives to be independent of such bias.

Because investigating is an action and striving is another name for desire. Since the premise of DU is that all actions are derivitive of desire you cannot objectively examine desires because the action of examining itself, is biased by your own desires, which can be different from one observer to another. Desire itself plays such a large role in every daily activity that it is impossible to have a control group without desire to properly examine desires role in morality.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Christian Apologist

I said:"... epistemic objectivity, knowledge of shareable observations that remain after the transcending the dependencies of any observer's preferences, prejudices, perceptions and practices... There is no reason why epistemic objectivity cannot be applied to morality."

You said:"We are saying the same thing about objectivity". Well you know what I mean when I say epistemically objective. The rest of your post show you do not mean this at all. For example if we were saying the same thing about objectivity, you would not then go on to say:

You said:"And thus far I am unaware of any instance of the use of reason to discover an epistemically objective morality" This is confused. Epistemic objectivity is the best (as in reliable, repeatable, robust etc.) standard of reasoning to investigate anything. The fact the we can and are applying it here to the topic of morality means that either:

(a) you cannot be unaware of this and are contradicting yourself
(b) you are not yet being epistemically objective and need to try harder.
(b) incorporates (a). That is either way you are not being epistemically objective, at least on this topic.

This demolishes any grounds and negates any conclusions that you might try to could draw from your claim that you are unaware of anyone else doing this.

You said:"while every human being has an objective quantum of desire, those desires have differing results". Strange use of language "objective quantum". Of course desires have different results, why state the obvious? If an agent A has a desire that P, this desire is the motivation for the agent to bring about a state of affairs S in which P is true. A, S and P are variables. Different As have different desires - that is different Ps - and so differentially act to bring about different Ss. All these can be examined objectively indeed has just been stated in quite objective terms or..

You said:"... Thus what is desired is subjective".Your reasoning is invalid, this conclusion does not follow your premises (again). Even subjectivists agree that what is desired is objective. Or to put it a another way you are denying that there are any "objects of desire" which is the same as saying desire does not exist, since there are no states of affairs ("objects of desire") that agents are motivated to bring about (due to their desires).For the second time, can you provide at least valid and coherent argument that is not so or not?

I said"...Such labelling does not alter the facts of the matter as it would be irrelevant in any epistemic objective investigation - which strives to be independent of such bias.

You said:"...Because investigating is an action and striving is another name for desire. Since the premise of DU is that all actions are derivitive of desire you cannot objectively examine desires because the action of examining itself, is biased by your own desires, which can be different from one observer to another".Yet you claimed your notion of objectivity is the same as my explicated epistemic objectivity which has already dealt with this! So now, as in your last reply, you are contradicting yourself within the same post!

You said: "Desire itself plays such a large role in every daily activity that it is impossible to have a control group without desire to properly examine desires role in morality.
Finally a half decent point after your confusion above. To achieve epistemic objectivity one has to have, at a minimum a desire for truth that is stronger with competing desires - such as desire for comfort or a desire to believe (faith) and so on.

The control group concept applies to the topic under study. It does not apply to the observers themselves, this is an issue of epistemic objectivity (and peer review etc.) here in the sense of specifically neutralising corrupting desires, as it does anywhere else regardless of the topic under study.

Your argument fails because it trades off confusing the ontology of the topic under discussion with epistemological means to investigate it.

Luke said...

My favorite illustration of the masked man fallacy at work:

1. Superman is someone Lois Lane believes can fly.
2. Lois Lane does not believe Clark Kent can fly.
3. Therefore, Superman is not Clark Kent.