Wednesday, March 25, 2009

False Beliefs and Unfulfillible Desires

In response to my previous posting where I declared that value is independent of belief, a member of the studio audience asked if I believed in the possibility of 'infeasible desires'.

What about the theist. Say they have a desire-as-end to serve the will of god. They mistakenly beleive this desire is... feasible? If they knew all the facts, then they would know that this desire is...infeasible?

Actually, in desire utilitarian terms, they would be unfulfillable desires. A desire that P cannot be fulfilled if it is not possible or P to be true. A desire to serve God is an unfulfillable desire. God does not exist, so the proposition "I am serving God" can never be made or kept true.

A person can be made to believe that he is serving God. As a result, a person with a desire to serve God and a belief that he is serving God can be made to feel a certain amount of satisfaction in his life. However, this type of satisfaction is similar to the satisfaction a person might feel if he wishes to be Napoleon and believes that he is Napoleon, or if he wishes to own a Rembrandt and believes the cheep painting in his living room is actually a Rembrandt. It has no real value.

In these types of cases, a change in the agent's beliefs may well result in a change in what the agent believes to have value. This is true. This is, actually, quite trivially true. However, it is compatible with this that beliefs are not relevant to whether something has value. Saying, "X has value means A would believe that X has value if A was fully informed," is still as trivial as saying, “The earth is 93 million miles from the sun means A would believe that the earth is 93 million miles from the sun if A were fully informed.”

In fact, learning that the painting is not a Rembrandt constitutes learning that it never did have the value the agent thought it did. It was never a Rembrandt – it was only believed to have been a Rembrandt. And it never was as valuable as the agent thought it was.

This is true in the same way that learning that somebody was born in 1950 instead of 1955 constitutes learning that she is 59 years old rather than 54 years old. Depending on her birthday, the proposition "She is 54 years old." did not suddenly go from being true to being false. It was always false (for the year in which this example applies).

"The painting is valuable" did not suddenly go from being true to being false, in just the same way that "The painting is a Rembrandt" did not go from being true to being false. Only beliefs about its value changed, not its actual value.

One of the implications of this is that, if a desire is unfulfillable, then no harm is done by any action that prevents the desire from being fulfilled. For example, a person may believe that he has the power to teleport from Los Angeles to New York as long as I do not trim my finger nails. My trimming my finger nails does not do constitute a harmful action because it does not prevent the proposition “I can teleport from Los Angeles to New York” from being true. The laws of physics do that for me.

So, if a person values legislation opposing homosexual marriage because he thinks that his actions serve God, and he desires to serve God, opposing that legislation does him no harm. Opposition to that legislation prevents him from serving God in the same way that my trimming my fingernails prevents the person in the previous example from teleporting from Los Angeles to New York.

Now, agents do tend to have a desire for the satisfaction that comes from having a desire that P and a belief that P is true. Though the desire that P cannot be fulfilled, the desire for the physical sensation that comes from the combined desire that P and belief that P is true can be fulfilled. That desire for satisfaction can be thwarted.

The anguish that a person may feel when he discovers that I have trimmed my finger nails or I have prevented her from passing legislation harmful to the interests of homosexuals are real and morally relevant – even if the desires that give rise to that anguish are not.

That anguish has some moral weight.


Martin Freedman said...

Hi Alonzo

Thanks, this was my point that a Railton or Griffin informed desire account is addressing desire-as-ends as well as (hypothetical) desire-as-means.

To elaborate, in case you have little time to check this yourself, these utilise a form of ideal observer or really ideal advisor versions of the Agent, call it Agent+ - the Agent as full informed, having succeeded at a cognitive therapy etc. and so would know that certain actual desires-as-ends of the Agent are unfulfillable. Presumably, Agent+ would advise against pursuit of such desires by Agent. Of course how the Agent changes their desires is another matter, as we agree that one cannot be reasoned out of one's desires.

Now we also agree that Agent+ does not exist, only Agent. Still there is the question over ethics serving to best fulfill the desires of Agent versus advised by Agent+. Railton and Griffin argue that ethics should only serve to fulfil the informed desires of Agent (that is as informed by Agent+) even if the Agent is, in fact, actually uninformed. They claim that this is a better theory of well-being rather than just (actual) value, and criticise actual desires (actual value) accounts on the basis that many desires do not count for the well-being of the agent, regardless of what agent (presently) thinks.

Are you arguing that none of this matters, that however an agent might not chose the course of actions they would if otherwise informed, the best they can do is pursue their current, evolving desire set and learn and update it as they succeed (or fail)? I think you are given your counting grass example used elsewhere? This is simpler and I tend to agree.

I think dealing with this is important as such informed desire-based utilitarian accounts share much in common with desire utilitarianism, indeed the actual versus informed desires distinction is, in my view, the key distinguishing feature between these.

I also note that Griffin's use of fulfilment is AFAIK identical to yours but I believe you got this from C.I. Lewis?

Martin Freedman said...

"indeed the actual versus informed desires distinction is, in my view, the key distinguishing feature between these."
Woops my mistake. It is not. It is the means to evaluate desires-as-ends by treating them as means with respect to all other desires-as-ends that is. Indeed their use of informed desires is a weaker and incorrect method to determine
the desirability of a desire.

I think I have just given myself a new blog post topic,

Luke said...


I would love to see you post a summary of Railton's ethical theory. It sounds very similar to Alonzo's, but I can't be sure as Railton does not write as clearly as Alonzo does.

What, if anything, do you think is WRONG with Railton's account?

Martin Freedman said...

I am not as familiar with Railton (or Brandt) as Griffin. My next post (written already) will be Informed Desires considering Griffin's prudential value theory.

The problem with Railton as I understand it is this, very similar to Griffin and Brandt:
"an individual’s good consists in what he would want himself to want, or to pursue, were he to contemplate his present situation from a standpoint fully and vividly informed about himself and his circumstances, and entirely free of cognitive error or lapses of instrumental rationality"
it is a second order desire account, what the agent ought to want.

Griffins is milder but amounts to the same thing in the end IMV. I am just recompleting his Well Being and might revise some of this once I get his full moral theory clear (again) but basically it is informed preference satisfaction but applied only to informed desires not actual desires so rejecting economic consumerism (actual desire fulfilment). (as to whether his is act or rule utilitarianism I cant remember and will hopefully get to this later today, in my reading that is).

Granted I was just re-reading this book it was quite timely that this came up when it did in Alonzo's blog.

Any good material by Railton?

Luke said...

"Facts, Norms, and Values" is a collection of his crucial essays on moral realism. Railton is not as clear as Alonzo, and I haven't yet studied ethical philosophy at a university, so it was hard to make sense of him without a Cliff's Notes.

Martin Freedman said...

Can't see the link will do a search.

What is amazing is how unclear these philosophers are in getting to the point and the lack of clarity compared to Alonzo's approach.

There are plenty who are as clear and regard it as part of their job such as John Searle (who thinks there is no such topic as ethics and famously said , albeit against Derrida, "If you cant say it clearly, you don't understand it") but Railton, Brandt, Mackie, Hare and Griffin are IMHO far poorer communicators of their ideas than Alonzo.

This does not mean they are bad writers some of Mackie's papers are brilliantly presented such as Co-operation, Competitition and Moral Philosophy still his own key book "Inventing Ethics" has been widely and variably interpreted and part of that must be due to him struggling to make some of his points clear.

[Also note it is crucial to read his follow-up book on Hume, as I have just discovered and am reading in parallel with Griffin. He gets beyond Error Theory there with his Objectification thesis (not quite fictionalism/quasi-realism) for his cognitivism. Still Fyfe's approach is IMHO better (and different on this issue).]

Martin Freedman said...

Oh BTW my latest post is up Informed Desires

Martin Freedman said...

Woops somehow the link from my aforementioned post to this post was dropped. I have republished it with the link.

Luke said...

Thanks for the link, faithlessgod. I, for one, am subscribed.