Monday, March 23, 2009

The Proper Object of Moral Evaluation

A member of the studio audience asks Why are desires the primary object of moral evaluation?

[M]aking desires the objects of evaluation seems like an arbitrary "trick" to make your normative theory "come out right," rather than a solid inference from what we observe in the real world. Making desires the objects of evaluation solves lots of problems that plague act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism, but why should we think that desires are the CORRECT objects of moral evaluation, rather than the most CONVENIENT?

This question repeats a common mistake in the field of ethics – the mistake of confusing questions about the meanings of terms with questions about the things the terms refer to.

When we are concerned with the meanings of terms, there is no law of nature that dictates what any term should mean. It is a mere accident that we call the color of ripe McIntosh apple 'red' and a four-legged domesticated feline 'cat'. Nobody can give any answer as to why this must be the case. Nor can they give us a reason as to why we cannot reverse these, if it pleases us to do so.

Yet, once we set a definition, the real questions of an objective science are questions about what is true of this thing we call 'red', or these entities we call 'cats'.

I cannot give an answer to the question of why relationships between malleable desires and other desires are to be called 'morality'. This is simply an arbitrary choice that we seem to have made as we mutually work to help to create the English language.

The questions that I can answer are questions about what is objectively true of these relationships – that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, that some desires are malleable, that people generally have reason to promote malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

I can point out the coincidence between many of the implications of this set of claims and what is true of that institution that we call 'morality'. I can say that, among these relationships and their implications we can find an account of what an 'excuse' is and distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate excuses, can understand the claim that 'ought' implies 'can', and can handle the concepts of negligence and moral dilemmas.

However, I cannot give an objective answer to the language question, "Why call these complex relationships between malleable desires and other desires 'morality'?"

It is not a mere convenience that we have reasons to use social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, or inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. This is a natural fact.

Nor is it a mere coincidence that any claim that breaks the inference between an agent’ desires and some prima facie appearance of wrongdoing is a claim that says that applying the social forces of blame or reward makes no sense. There is no sign, in these cases where an agent has a legitimate excuse, that there are bad malleable desires out there to be molded.

These facts remain no matter what people decide to do with the term 'morality',

This is true in just the same way that the physical properties of Pluto remain the same regardless of what the astronomers decide to do with the concept 'planet'.

So, why are relationships between desires and other desires the correct references for the term 'morality'? The answer is – they are not. The assignment of meanings to terms is arbitrary and wholly guided by human convention.

But it also isn't important. The real-world facts of the matter regarding the relationships between malleable desires and other desires remain the same, regardless of what we decide to call them.,/p>

11 comments:

Luke said...

Gotcha. But is this really the correct convention, the correct descriptive theory for moral language? Most people I know refer to good and bad actions (or right and wrong actions, as you've corrected me), and less often to good and bad people, and perhaps sometimes they refer to good and bad character traits. But I've almost never heard people speak of good and bad desires - not unless they're a desire utilitarian.

Emu Sam said...

Or a Buddhist.

1. Right view
2. Right intention
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration

Eneasz said...

Luke - I think that may be a matter of practicallity. It isn't possible to punish or reward a desire. Only people can be punished or rewarded. So if you want to motivate someone, you let him know that someone labeled as "bad" will be punished and shunned, and someone labeled as "good" will be rewarded and accepted. You can point out direct examples of such people, both to serve as role models, and as demonstrations of the consequences being applied in real life.

You can also let someone know what actions will result in them being labled either "bad" or "good".

Since it's impossible to detect someone's desires directly, it's much harder to label someone as "should be punished" or "should be rewarded" by those alone. However a person's actions will reveal his motivating desires. Thus it seems like the actions are the objects of moral evaluation, whereas they are actually being used as a means of determining the agent's desires, which is the real object of evaluation.

If I understand correctly.

Luke said...

Eneasz,

You're saying that desires really have been the object of evaluation in our common moral language all along, but it just SEEMS like we were talking about actions because actions are what we see?

Eneasz said...

Luke - basically, yes.

To use Alonzo's oft-cited example: the action of shooting someone dead. Whether this action is ultimately judged as good or bad depends on the desires of the actor. Was he acting as a soldier, in defense of his country? Was he acting as a victim, in defense of himself or his loved ones? In those cases, we view the action as good (or at least acceptable). Was he acting so that he could go through the now-dead person's pockets and take his money? In that case, we call him a murderer and punish him appropriately. It is not the action itself we are judging (the act of taking a life), it is the motivation for this action (ie: the desires of the agent).

Luke said...

Hmmmm. I'll have to think more about that. I suspect there are counter-examples.

Also, if we took a survey of people alive today about what they are evaluating when they use moral terms, and "desire" or "motivation" is not even close to the #1 option, would that mean that desire utilitarianism is semantically incorrect, and should thus be discarded along with, say, non-cognitivism?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Luke

Also, if we took a survey of people alive today about what they are evaluating when they use moral terms, and "desire" or "motivation" is not even close to the #1 option, would that mean that desire utilitarianism is semantically incorrect, and should thus be discarded along with, say, non-cognitivism?

If we took a survey of ancient Greeks on what they were talking about when they talk about water, I bet the answer that they are talking about molecules made up of oxygen and hydrogen would not even be on the list.

Yet, this is what they were talking about.

When they talked about the planet Venus they would not have said that they are talking about an earth-sized rock orbiting the sun, but they were talking about an earth-sized rock orbiting the sun.

When people use moral terms what they are talking about are reasons for action that exist (not about desires). However, as it turns out, desires are the only reasons for action that exist. And relationships between maleable desires and other desires makes the most sense of the things they refer to using moral terms.

This is true in the same way that a liquid made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen makes the most sense out of what people are talking about when they talk about water, and an earth-sized rock orbiting the sun makes the most sense of what they were talking about when they referred to Venus.

Whether they knew it or not.

All other options assert reasons for action that do not exist, or deny the relevance of reasons for action that do exist.

Luke said...

Alonzo,

Thanks for your reply. I'm still concerned that when you say people have been talking about "reasons for action" that exist, that sounds plausible if we mean "reasons for action" definition #2 (from the question I forwarded you recently):

2. There are reasons why people should act such that...

Most people can be persuaded that that's what they mean when they use moral terms. But this is differently from saying that they've been using moral terms to talk about:

1. There are reasons why people do act such that...

I think most people would deny that they've been talking about explanatory reasons for action rather than prescriptive reasons for action.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Luke

Again, when people speak of minds most of them would deny that they speaking about bodies. Yet, they are speaking about bodies.

Mind/body dualism is a conceptual possibility even if it is not a metaphysical possibility.

In addition, descriptive/prescriptive dualism is a conceptual possibility, even if it is not a metaphysical possibility.

Luke said...

Again, thanks for your reply!

In mind/brain dualism we have discovered that the mind IS the brain, or "what the brain does."

In body/soul dualism we have discovered simply that one of those, the soul, does not exist.

In your definition of "reasons for action", you have chosen the explanatory, not the prescriptive definition. Why should we think that this means that prescriptivism really means this particular descriptive thing, instead of assuming that prescriptivism doesn't exist, like the soul?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Luke

There is actually a continuum between full reductionism and full eliminativism. That is to say, there are reductionist strategies that reduce some aspects of a phenomena but eliminate others.

I would say that desire utilitarianism is mostly (but not wholly) reductionist. It is eliminativist with respect to non-desire reasons for action, for example.