Friday, April 17, 2009

Moral Definitions: The Great Distraction

I get to be interviewed tonight on aspects of desire utilitarianism. In this case, my interviewer, Luke Muehlhauser, sent me some study questions so that I can prepare for this evening's pop quiz. These study questions actually came from members of his audience.

(Note: This is not a live interview but a taped interview for a future podcast. I will let you know how to get to the podcast once it becomes available.)

One set of the issues that Luke's audience seem particularly interested in are issues of definition. Many of the study questions pertain to definitions.

It is true that public discussions of morality have focused heavily on questions of definitions. One question I often hear is, "Why should I accept your definition of what good is?” One form of rebuttal I often encounter is, "That's true under your definition but that's not necessarily true under this other definition over there."

When it comes to moral theory, I consider questions about definition to be the great distraction. Questions of definition are this ichthyosaurus sized red herring that derails far too many conversations about morality and gets people wasting huge amounts of time dealing with issues that are not legitimate issues.

If a theory is sound, then it should be a theory that can be translated into any language. Einstein’s theory should be translatable into Chinese, Spanish, Croatian, and any other language on Earth without damaging the theory at all. Speakers of a language might need to invent a few new terms to conveniently handle all of the concepts. However, languages are inventions anyway. In any given language, new terms are invented for conveniently discussing new subjects every day.

Imagine somebody presenting a theory at a conference, and presenting it in English. Then imagine, after the presentation, somebody says, "Okay, your theory sounds great in English, but why should I accept English as my primary language? You have not given me one single, solitary piece of evidence as to why I should change my primary language from French into English."

The response to that type of question would be to ask the speaker, "What on earth are you talking about?"

The problem in ethics – the "great distraction" – is that a lot of people have gotten it into their heads that this type of response actually makes sense. The moral theorist delivers his theory, then somebody in the audience asks, "Why should I accept your language as my primary language?" and far too many people in the audience turn to the speaker as if that person has just asked an intelligible question that the speaker should be able to answer. If the speaker cannot answer it, this is taken as reason to throw out the theory.

Of course, no speaker has an answer to that question. It does not matter if we are talking about the theory of evolution, atomic theory, a theory of gravity – no speaker can ever answer the question, "Why should I accept the language you gave your theory in as my primary language?" So, if this were a valid reason to throw out a theory, then we need to throw out every theory ever invented.

If I could make one change in our moral discourse, it would be to get people who discuss morality to realize that the question, "Why should I adopt your language as my primary language?" is not a legitimate question. They should not turn to the speaker and expect an answer (because they can never have one). They should dismiss the question and move on to real issues.

The question, "Why should I accept your definition of good?" is no different than the question, "Why should I adopt your language as my primary language." I have no answer. If you want to speak French or Chinese, that’s up to you. If you want to accept a different family of definitions, then we need to translate the theory from my native language to yours. That's all.

This is why, when somebody objects to my definitions, I merely answer, "Fine. Give me the definitions you like and we will translate the theory into your language." Translating the theory into the language of somebody who wants to assign different meanings to words is exactly the same exercise, with exactly the same implications, as translating it into French or Chinese.

Which is to say . . . none at all.

This is the great distraction in discussing moral theory. It is people who stand up and say, "You have not provided a single reason as to why I should adopt your language as my primary language. So, you haven't given me any reason to accept your theory," and people who then turn to the presenter as if the questioner raised a valid point.

39 comments:

Sabio said...

When I first read your site a few weeks ago, it seemed long-winded and technical to a daunting degree -- so I avoided it. But yesterday I read Luke Muehlhauser's summary of your work -- he did a great job. Now I want to come back and try to slowly get a handle on your ideas.
I agree with you issue on language today. One question I am forming is "Why should 'the greatest' of anything--desires or outcomes--be desirable? Where doe "greatest" come from -- seems like you made it up. (I am sure this is a common objection, just haven't read enough yet). Good luck on the interview -- lookin' forward to it.

Joe Otten said...

I wonder if part of the problem is that your audience is still thinking in terms of commandments and intrinsic prescriptivity.

Were morality based on coded laws reflecting intrinsic prescriptivity, then it would matter very much how the terms in those laws were defined.

Indeed the content of a law such as "thou shalt not murder" is entirely in the definition of murder, the commandment itself being tautological, saying: it is wrong to kill wrongfully.

But we are so familiar with this kind of thinking, with definitions being important and arguing over them that it is difficult to escape. Good luck with that.

Doug S. said...

I recently brought up Desire Utilitarianism on another forum I read. One of the commenters there brought up something that I've complained about before, and gotten no response.

"However, I do not see (having read the e-book and Fyfe's general article on DU, and skimmed the FAQ) where he develops any calculus for the weighing of desires against each other that he bases the utilitarian part of the thesis on."

There's been a lot of talk on this blog, but no math, no algorithm for actually evaluating desires, in this universe or any hypothetical one. It's like having a theory of gravity that says "Things fall" instead of "F=G*m1*m2/r^2". It sounds like it explains things, but doesn't.

Until you can give a technical explanation of desire utilitarianism instead of a verbal one you really don't have a theory. (Many other theories of meta-ethics have a similar problem, but that doesn't excuse you!)

For example, I might say that the desire to avoid incest between siblings is a desire that generally tends to thwart other desires (because it thwarts the desire to engage in sex by making some people off limits), and therefore we would be better off if we could make the incest taboo magically disappear. Someone else claims the opposite, saying that, on balance, we should keep the incest taboo, because incest causes birth defects and we don't have perfect contraception. How do we resolve this, in principle? Until you come up with some actual math, your theory of morality is no better than the "Things fall" theory of gravity.

notreallyalice said...

Are you saying that desire utilitarianism is the same as any other moral rule, but using different words?

Or are you conceeding the point that definitions of good are more-or-less equally valid?

I am confused about your comparison of morality and language.

And I was under the impression that definitions are important because words and communication and understanding is important.

If a theory is sound, as you say, it can be translated into any language. But if a theory is sound, it is because it is defensible. Could you be more specific in answering the question of why this definition of good is, well, good? Or be more specific about why that is not the right question? Your comparing it to language was not helpful to me.

I think I can see that the complaint you mention is useless, mainly because it says "Oh yeah??" without any specific concern. It's like saying, "Well, I don't like it," for no reason. If someone says "That's true under your definition but that's not necessarily true under this other definition over there," the response to that seems to be, "Yeah, so?"

I guess I'm saying that the question of how best to define "good" is an interesting question, even if it is a red herring. I just don't see that it is. I mean, isn't that the point of ethics, defining good?

RichardW said...

Hi, Alonzo. I'm the one who's been pestering Luke to define what he means by morality. In the course of our discussion he has several times handed my questions and objections over to you, and then referred me to your resulting blog posts, but those never quite address the point I was asking. So I've decided to come over here and see if I can get an answer straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. ;)

You've argued above that questions of definition are a distraction. But often they are central. You claim to have established a system of objective morality. But, if your argument depends on a definition that completely changes the meaning of the word "morality", then what you've established is not a system of objective morality but something quite different.

Luke has been defining moral terms in such a way that "murder is wrong" comes to mean "there are reasons why people do not commit murder". But the latter is merely an explanation. "Murder is wrong" is a judgement. The two are quite different.

Tom Freeman said...

Alonzo, I do take your point that fizating on terminology won't get us much anywhere. However, I don't think they can satisfactorily be brushed aside.

The fact is that you yourself use words such as 'morality', 'right' and 'good' in describing DU, and in doing so you seem to assume (rightly) that these are appropriate words to use in discussions of this type. There's no sense in then suggesting that these words don't matter, even if technically you could paraphrase without them.

Your situation seems a little like, for instance, Daniel Dennett's in responding to criticisms of his views on consciousness. Many of his critics think that his explanation pertains only to some set of phenomena too limited to merit the term 'consciousness', and so he's missed the point.

His response is that these supposedly limited phenomena are all that really exist in the territory of what we ordinarily term 'consciousness'; and that once certain metaphysical misconceptions are cleared away, we can see that these phenomena he describes are indeed all the 'consciousness' we have and that the supposed limits don't actually cause us to miss out on anything of real concern. So we may as well use the familiar (if vague) term for what really exists.

I think your position with DU is pretty analogous: some of your critics are, as Joe says, "still thinking in terms of commandments and intrinsic prescriptivity".

So, just as a tactical suggestion: hang onto the terms and remind people that the personal understandings of right and wrong that take shape in our heads exist prior to any theorising we might do about theology or intrinsic value. These notions have managed to sneak inside many of our ordinary moral concepts and create the illusion that to explain morality, we must do so on their ground.

Luke said...

Richard,

That is not quite what I meant, but...

I think my later reply to you, and the interview I just did with Alonzo, will be of some help on this topic.

RichardW said...

Hi again, Alonso. I've just listened to Luke's latest podcast interview with you. (Thanks, Luke.)

Much of the time you seem to be taking a moral anti-realist position. You argue that there are no categorical oughts, only "hypothetical" oughts, which take the form "if you have desire X you ought to do Y". This is just practical advice, effectively a factual statement equivalent to "the way to achieve X is to do Y". Since this is not a moral ought, you seem to be denying the existence of moral oughts. You then talk about influencing other people's desires in order to better achieve one's own desires. Again, this is just practical advice on how best to achieve one's own desires.

You talk about "reasons to act that exist". But _whose_ reasons? Why are other people's desires reasons for _me_ to act? (Of course, I may have empathy with other people, in which case their desires become to some extent my desires.) Sometimes you seem to imply that morality is just about long-term satisfaction of one's own desires. If I behave in a way that tends to fulfill desires generally, then other people will be more likely to do the same, so I'll be more likely to have my desires fulfilled in the long run. Is that what you mean?

At other times you seem to be taking a moral realist position. You claim that a good desire is one which, if it spread throughout the community, would tend to fulfill other desires (with everyone's desires considered equally). But you don't justify this claim. If you think you can, please show how. I maintain that you can't, unless you pick a question-begging definition, because you can't get a moral ought from an is (a value from a fact).

RichardW said...

At the risk of straying from my main point, I also have a question about the implications of desire utilitarianism.

It seems to me that DU implies the absence of any moral right in the ownership of property. Resources should go to whoever has the greatest desire for them, regardless of current ownership (all other desires being equal). Those of us who have plenty to eat probably have less desire for money than a starving person who will die without money to buy food, so we should give away most of our money to feed the starving people of the world.

Do those who accept DU agree that it has those implications?

Ulrich said...

RichardW: I also got the impression that DU does not really propose moral oughts. It puzzled me at first, because I expected those from a moral system, but I think I've got it now:

One central tenet of DU is that every person will always act such as to fulfill their most and strongest desires. Under this assumption, moral oughts - telling a person what to do - are useless because they won't change anything. The only way to change how someone acts is to alter their desires.

That said, I do think that DU can serve indirect moral oughts. Provided that I have the desire to do good acts, DU does tell me what acts are good. In Alonzo's terms, it gives me a (hopefully) true belief about the nature of goodness. Coupled with the basic desire to do good this can lead to me adopting other desires to do, e.g. act A, which DU tells me is good.

If I do not have a desire to do good, however, DU probably isn't going to change the way I act by a iota. Nor is any other form of moral teaching. According to DU, the only thing that will change it is a change in my desires (or beliefs, to be exact). Hence, promoting morally good behavior means altering people's desires. Alonzo has written about the tools that can be used for this purpose - praise, condemnation, reward and punishment.

Summary: DU - as I understand it - is not a moral code, but a theory (in the scientific sense of the word) of human behavior and of morality. As such, it is not prescriptive, but descriptive.

As for the claim that "a good desire is one which tends to fulfill other desires": We commonly use the word "good" to refer to things that have a value to us, i.e. things we strive to achieve. According to our initial assumption, all we strive for is fulfillment of our desires. Therefore, for the purpose of DU, "good" is equivalent to "fulfilling desires". The claim you ask for follows immediately from this equivalence.

Ulrich said...

Regarding your latest post, I'd say that in DU a "moral right", say R, exists if we have reasons to promote the desire to respect R. In your case, that means if we have reasons to promote a desire to respect private property, then there is a moral right to private property. So this question cannot be answered by DU without taking outside considerations into account.

On the other hand, I do believe that giving to those in need is a good act according to DU - because it tends to fulfill their desires. But is it morally mandatory? This question looks a bit trickier. I'd like to see what Alonzo thinks about it.

Luke said...

Richard,

I'll respond to some of your points here instead of by email. Hopefully Alonzo will respond to these objections as well, as I inevitably won't say it best. Probably, I will say something slightly wrong, as I am still struggling with the new paradigm and language advanced by desire utilitarianism.

>> Much of the time you seem to be taking a moral anti-realist position. <<

Yes, desire utilitarianism is "opposed" to theories of morality that refer to things that don't exist. If "morality" is rigidly defined as "that which God wills," then morality does not exist. If "morality" is rigidly defined as referring to "intrinsic prescriptivity," then morality does not exist.

But what if we consider that morality is, at the most basic level, about "reasons for action?" Then we can drop out the proposed reasons for action that do NOT exist, talk only about reasons for action that DO exist, and then we have a theory of morality that is still talking about what we call "morality" (aka reasons for action) but still refers to things that actually exist.

Again, the analogy to the atom is useful. We can still talk about "atoms" even after dropping out the part of the definition that turned out to be false - that atoms are indivisible.

>> You argue that there are no categorical oughts, only "hypothetical" oughts... this is just practical advice on how best to achieve one's own desires. <<

Not necessarily. Desire utilitarianism says a great deal about which desires tend to fulfill other desires, whether or not they tend to fulfill your desires.

>> Why are other people's desires reasons for me to act? <<

Alonzo does not argue that you should try to fulfill other people's desires, and especially not that you will feel motivated to act fulfill other people's desires if they are explained to you. No, we always act to fulfill our own desires.

Let's consider the question raised in the hateful Craig problem.

"Why should I, who for purposes of this question hate everyone, have desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others?"

Alonzo's answer is, "The claim that you should have these desires that fulfill the desires of others is the claim that people generally have reason to use the tool of praise on those who exhibit such desires, and the tool of condemnation and, in the worst cases, punishment, on those [whose acts] are hateful."

And if we understand morality to be about "reasons for action" rather than ancient, mistaken notions of "God's will" or "intrinsic prescriptivity," then the above claim is a moral claim.

>> You claim that a good desire is one which, if it spread throughout the community, would tend to fulfill other desires (with everyone's desires considered equally). But you don't justify this claim. <<

This is a semantic claim. What we usually mean by "good" (in the generic, non-moral sense) is that something tends to fulfill the desires in question. So if the desires in question are to laugh my ass off, then Borat is a "good" movie for me to watch tonight. Or if the desires in question are for me to eat tasty food, then a cup of frozen yogurt from YogurtLand is "good."

But we can call desires themselves good or bad using the same logic. A good desire is one that fulfills the desires in question. So if the desires in question are a university's administrators' desires to produce important new research, then their faculty's desires to seek new knowledge with integrity and rigor are good desires.

But "morality" is generally spoken of as taking account of all the reasons for action that exist. Even a divine command theory does this, except it holds that the only reasons for actions that exist are God's desires. So, God may desire that everyone come to love him, but (some theologians say) he has an even stronger desire that humans make free choices. Because of this, it is morally permissible for him to allow some people to burn in hell forever because the best feasible world for God to create is one in which the highest possible number of people come to love him freely, even though this (supposedly) entails that some will freely reject him. That is, non-universal-salvation is morally persmissable for God given all the reasons for action that exist (in this case, all God's desires).

But desire utilitarianism holds that God's desires do not exist, and thus they are morally irrelevant. However, the desires of other sentient beings do exist. So moral claims are about which desires are "good" in that they "fulfill the desires in question" when "the desires in question" is equal to "all desires."

But even I am not happy with my responses, so I look forward to your continued objections, and hopefully Alonzo will respond to you directly!

RichardW said...

Hi Luke. Please excuse me if I don't respond to everything you wrote above, but we've already had a long discussion of such matters by email, and just ended up going round in circles. I've posted here because I'm interested to see whether Alonzo has anything different to say from you on the central question.

My main objection to Alonzo was this: "You claim that a good desire is one which, if it spread throughout the community, would tend to fulfill other desires (with everyone's desires considered equally). But you don't justify this claim."

Luke, you've interpreted "good" here in a non-moral sense. But it seemed to me from the context of Alonzo's comments that he was talking there about moral good. If he wasn't, then he needs to identify where else in his argument he first makes a moral claim (a moral statement that he asserts is objectively true) and explain how he justifies that claim.

I think I need to add a comment on your (and Alonzo's) non-moral use of the term "good". You define it here as "tend[ing] to fulfill the desires in question". But whose good and whose desires are we referring to? I take you to mean that something is defined as good for a particular person if it tends to fulfill that person's desires. (You really need to be much more careful about your definitions. It seems to me that your argument is based on fallacies of equivocation, such as equivocation between non-moral good and moral good, and it's failure to define your terms clearly that stops you from seeing the equivocation.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

RichardW

Okay, then, here is my definition of morality.

Morality is that institution that deals with universal obligations, permissions, and prohibitions, guilt, shame, excuses, praise, blame, condemnation, punishment, right, wrong, good, evil, justice and injustice, ought, should, relationships between is and ought, relationships between ought and can, prescription - particularly as it relates to description, and all that kind of stuff that people tend to talk about as if they are all related to each other somehow.

That's it. That's my definition of morality and that is what I am going to try to make sense of.

In claiming to have an objective definition of morality, I am claiming that I can construct propositions using those terms that are (1) substantially consistent with how people actually use the terms, (2) are capable of being objectively true or false, and (3) some of them are objectively true.

One of the issues that comes up with . . . well . . . let's explain it like this.

Take any object O1, and replace each of its pieces one at a time from object O2. At what point does O1 cease to exist? At what point, when you talk about that object, are you talking about a different thing?

I do not think that it is worth spending a lot of time on this particular question. I tend not to care whether you call the object O1 or not as long as the things said about the object are objectively true. I will leave the fight over whether this really is O1 (since some its parts are changed) or not to others.

The same is true here. One of the things that this theory is going to do is call for the elimination of some of our moral practices (because we cannot make objectively true statements out of them).

All moral practices having to do with divine commands, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, social contracts, impartial observers, free will . . . all of these are going to be tossed out. This is precisely because we can make no true statements using these terms.

What we have left are maleable desires that can be molded through social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment - and "reasons for action" for molding them.

However, these entities end up having a great deal of power when it comes to covering such things as universal obligations, permissions, and prohibitions, guilt, shame, excuses, praise, blame, condemnation, punishment, right, wrong, good, evil, justice and injustice, ought, should, relationships between is and ought, relationships between ought and can, prescription - particularly as it relates to description, and all that kind of stuff that people tend to talk about as if they are all related to each other somehow.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

RichardW

Much of the time you seem to be taking a moral anti-realist position. You argue that there are no categorical oughts...If you take moral realism to refer to categorical oughts, then I am an anti-realist.

If you further claim that moral terms must necessarily refer to categorical oughts, I disagree. Moral terms refer to "whatever it is that makes sense of our moral practices." And categorical oughts are not required to make sense of our moral practices.

However, there is no natural law of definitions and, as I argued above, debating such things is a diversion of little value.

If you want to define morality as having to do with categorical imperatives and brand me an anti-realist . . . if you want to say that I am misusing the term 'morality' because I do not use it to talk about categorical imperatives . . . you are free to do so.

I think that getting bogged down in that debate would be a substantial waste of time and energy. I think that the debate itself would be built on a false premise. It assumes that language is naturally more precise than it is in fact.

Language is an invention. As such, it only needs to be good enough to do the job assigned to it. It is riddled with imperfections, vagueness, and ambiguities.

Pretending otherwise - pretending that every word in the natural language (as opposed to the artificial constructions of specific authors) - would be a mistake.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

RichardW

You talk about "reasons to act that exist" But whose reasons? Why are other people's desires reasons for me to act?They are not reasons for you to act.

They are, however, reasons for them to act in such a way so as to give you reasons to act in a particular way.

They are reasons for them to act so as to bring to bear the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment in order to alter your desires (causing you to have desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibiting in you desires that tend to thwart other desires).

Even you, given whatever reasons to act you may have, have reason to promote in others those desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

RichardW

You claim that a good desire is one which, if spread throughout the community, would tend to fulfill other desires (with everyone's desires considered equally). But you do not justify the claim.I claim that a desire that tends to fulfill other desires is a desire that others have reason to promote using the social tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

I also equate "ought" with "there are reasons for action that exist". If you tell me that I ought to do something, and I ask you why, your answer had better come back in the form of reasons for action that exist.

If they are not reasons for action, then they are not relevant. If they are reasons for action that do not exist, they are not relevant. Only reasons for action that exist are relevant.

If a desire tends to fulfill other desires, then the people who have those other desires have "reasons for action that exist" to promote that desire. If the desire can be molded using social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, then they have the means for doing so. If they have the motive and the means then it makes sense that they should, in fact, be promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

RichardW

Real amoral goodness refers to relationships between states of affairs and desires.

Real moral goodness refers to relationships between states of affairs and maleable desires that people generally have reason to promote, and the absence of maleable desires that people have reason to inhibit.

How do I justify these claims?

Because they make the most sense of how these terms (and a whole family of terms related to them) are used on common language without referring to things that do not exist.

Does this mean that the theory is merely designed to justify our moral intuitions?

Answer: No more than a heliocentric theory of the solar system was designed to justify our astronomical intuitions.

As a point of fact, we are dealing with linguistic intuitions here, not moral intuitions. One could argue, "your theory cannot count as a theory of planetary motion because planets, by definition, are wandering stars and, according to your theory, they are not stars at all. How can you justify calling them planets if they are not wandering stars?"

It is because, within the theory, the term "planet" is still being used in substantially the same way it had been used.

Similarly, in desire utilitarianism, moral terms are being used in substantially the same way that moral terms had been used.

This is as much an objection against the objectivity of morality as it is against the objectivity of astronomy.

RichardW said...

Hi, Alonzo. Thank you for spending so much time replying to me. Unfortunately, despite (or perhaps because of) the length of your replies, you still haven't given me any usable definitions.

You wrote: I also equate "ought" with "there are reasons for action that exist". If you tell me that I ought to do something, and I ask you why, your answer had better come back in the form of reasons for action that exist.I take it this is your definition of "ought". So "people ought not to commit murder" means "there are reasons for action that exist for people not to commit murder". But what exactly does that mean? Does it mean "there are reasons why people do not commit murder", which is the interpetation I put to Luke. If not, what does it mean?

You wrote:Real moral goodness refers to relationships between states of affairs and maleable desires that people generally have reason to promote, and the absence of maleable desires that people have reason to inhibit.I take it this is supposed to be a definition. Unfortunately, it's hard to understand, because you've told me what moral goodness "refers to" rather than what it means. A definition is supposed to give an expression (E) that means the same thing as the term being defined (T), so that in any sentence that uses T we can replace T with E and get another sentence that means the same as the original one.

As an example, take my clarified version of Luke's definition of non-morally good: something is defined as good for a particular person if it tends to fulfill that person's desires. Now, if I come across a statement like "blogging is good for Luke", I can apply the definition to get the statement "blogging tends to fulfill Luke's desires". The two statements mean the same thing, given that definition.

For the purpose of justifying your claim about "good desires" (which I understand to mean "morally good desires"), I'm looking for a definition of "morally good", rather than "moral goodness". It should be possible to derive one from the other. But let's not introduce an unnecessary extra step.

As I said to Luke, you really need to take a lot more care with your definitions. And I'm sorry if that sounds blunt, but I've already spent a great deal of time trying to get Luke to be clear about what he means. I don't feel like starting that all over again.

Eneasz said...

Hello Doug. Unfortunatly, no instruments yet exist that can measure utility or desires in discreet units. That is why you don't see equations. However, one can still throw a spear at a gazelle without posessing a knowledge of Newtonian physics and a personal computer to run the equations. Thus, one can still *do stuff* with morality without having equations to work with.

RichardW:
As an example, take my clarified version of Luke's definition of non-morally good: something is defined as good for a particular person if it tends to fulfill that person's desires. Now, if I come across a statement like "blogging is good for Luke", I can apply the definition to get the statement "blogging tends to fulfill Luke's desires".

Richard, you've basically got it, all you have to do for things that are morally-good (instead of just good-for-Luke) is to extend the point of reference from just Luke to everybody. Love-Of-Truth is a moral good because widespread Love Of Truth tends to fulfill everyone's desires. Rape is morally bad because widespread rape tends to to thwart everyone's desires.

Doug S. said...

"However, one can still throw a spear at a gazelle without possessing a knowledge of Newtonian physics and a personal computer to run the equations."

On the contrary. Successfully throwing a spear at a gazelle is, in fact, impossible without a knowledge of Newtonian physics and a computer to run the equations. Fortunately for us humans, we do have exactly that. Evolution has provided us with a computer, called the human brain, that has such knowledge basically hard-coded into it - and which solves the equations without bothering to tell our conscious minds what it's doing.

Eneasz said...

Then what's the problem with morality being in the same pre-measuring-instrument era?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

RichardW

You wrote: As I said to Luke, you really need to take a lot more care with your definitions. And I'm sorry if that sounds blunt, but I've already spent a great deal of time trying to get Luke to be clear about what he means. I don't feel like starting that all over again.

Tell you what.

Just pick whatever definition you like and go from here.

Choosing a definition is nothing more than choosing a language.

If you choose English, then I will explain desire utilitarianism in English. If you choose French, then we'll need to find somebody to translate it into French, but it will still be the same theory.

If you choose "morality = definition 1" then I will tell you what desire utilitarianism says in definition1ese. If, instead, you choose "morality = definition 2" then all I have to do is translate the theory into definition2ese.

Either way, it will still be the same theory. The only thing we are choosing is the language to express that theory in.

The great distraction has to do with claims that seem to be grounded on the assumption that the choice of a language is somehow relevant to the content of the theory.

G-man said...

RichardW

Let me see if I can lend some insight. I've missed being part of these discussions :)

You seem to be getting close to understanding the definitions. You wrote,

So "people ought not to commit murder" means "there are reasons for action that exist for people not to commit murder". But what exactly does that mean? Does it mean "there are reasons why people do not commit murder", which is the interpetation I put to Luke. If not, what does it mean?Start with the basic idea you have with Luke. "Luke desires that X is true." If that proposition is true, then Luke has reasons for action to make X true.

Level 2: In just the same way 'states of affairs' or objects (like X) can fulfill desires, desires can fulfill other desires. So Which desires will tend to make Luke happiest? Well, something like "the desire to know truth" is a good example. In general, it's a good idea for him to have that desire because it will make his ability to interpret the world much more effective. Ok.

Level 3: Which desires, as a rule, would tend to make the world a better place if more people had them? Take "the desire to be honest," for example. Everybody has reasons for action to promote this desire in others. Even dishonest people do.

So if people have reasons for action to promote the desire to be honest in others, we have an "ought." And our reasons for action to promote or discourage these desires are completely objective. The desire to be honest, in an objective sense, tends to be a good desire for people to have. We all have reasons to encourage others to have that desire. If you disagree, we can argue about it on objective grounds.

So we make objective, prescriptive claims when we say "there are reasons for action to promote the desire for honesty," and "there are reasons for action to inhibit the desire to murder."

Second point:

I think Alonzo uses the phrase 'refers to' because it's grammatically awkward to say 'moral goodness is the relationships...' or 'moral goodness are the relationships...'

So it may make it more difficult to understand, but there are constraints to the language :) Although 'refers to' generally has the same meaning as 'means.' One might say 'moral goodness relates to the commands God gives to mortals,' and I think you'd consider that at least a partial definition.

I hope I'm being more helpful than confusing - I'm sure Alonzo will step in to clarify if I've misconstrued something.

RichardW said...

Alonzo. You're the one claiming you can derive objectively true moral propositions from facts about the world. If you can't say what you mean by those propositions, then your claim can't be justified.

It's no use asking me to supply a definition for you. The main reason I am a moral anti-realist (essentially a non-cognitivist) is because it seems impossible to define moral terms (without using other moral terms). However one thing that is clear is that when people make moral claims, they are normally expressing a sense of judgement, of approval or disapproval about something. Though you've been unable to say clearly what you mean by your moral terms, your attempts indicate that you are trying to define them in ways that make moral claims into mere accounts of people's motivations ("there are reasons for action that exist"). This deprives them of the vital element of approval/disapproval, and contradicts your claim (in the podcast interview) that you are using these terms in essentially the sense they are normally used. If you are not using them in essentially the sense they are normally used, then what you are deriving are not moral propositions, but something quite different, and you are committing a fallacy of equivocation.

I've already been round this loop a few times with Luke. The very first response I made to him was to challenge him to define his moral terms. After nearly a month and many posts I'm still waiting. I think I can safely say that Luke and you have failed the challenge. But thanks for having a go. ;)

RichardW said...

Eneasz, thanks for your attempt at a definition, which appears to be that something is morally good to the extent that it fulfills everybody's desires. You seem to be taking Alonzo's claim about what is morally good (or something like it) and treating it as the definition of morally good. (I hope everyone understands the difference between a definition and a claim.) At least, I think Alonzo intended that as a claim, not a definition. If it was his definition, he could easily have said so, but he hasn't.

The trouble is that taking this as a definition begs the question (of what is morally good) by inserting a particular claim about what is morally good into the definition. If that claim were accepted as the definition, people who to date have made different moral claims (e.g. that what is morally good is what is commanded by God) would no longer be able to make such claims. Such a claim wouldn't be false, it would be a contradiction in terms. So clearly this is not what people normally understand morally good to mean. This sort of question-begging definition is rather like that of the religious apologist who defines God as "the first cause" and then argues that because there must be a first cause there must be a God.

RichardW said...

After reading through the discussion again, I realise I omitted something from my last response to Alonzo.

I wrote: Though you've been unable to say clearly what you mean by your moral terms, your attempts indicate that you are trying to define them in ways that make moral claims into mere accounts of people's motivations ("there are reasons for action that exist").I forgot to mention another alternative, namely that you are taking moral claims to be "hypothetical oughts", e.g. if you desire a certain result which depends on other people then you ought to (i.e. have reason to) influence other people's desires in a certain way. Much of your writing seems to imply this, even though you haven't stated it explicitly. However, as I wrote earlier, such claims are merely neutral factual statements about cause and effect, equivalent to "the way to achieve X is to do Y". They are not moral claims. They lack the sense of approval/disapproval that moral claims carry.

faithlessgod said...

Doug.S in reply to Eneasz

"On the contrary. Successfully throwing a spear at a gazelle is, in fact, impossible without a knowledge of Newtonian physics and a computer to run the equations."
Maybe for robotics but this is not how human (and animal) brains work.

"Fortunately for us humans, we do have exactly that. Evolution has provided us with a computer, called the human brain, that has such knowledge basically hard-coded into it - and which solves the equations without bothering to tell our conscious minds what it's doing."
No it does not. This a common and popular myth but it is not supported by the evidence. The heuristics and biases we have often solve the problems with doing any solving of differential equations etc. Look up the heuristics of ball catching for the best known refutation of your position.

Luke said...

RichardW,

I'm sorry my explanations have not been helpful. I'm very glad you've brought your questions here. Hopefully Alonzo and Eneasz and others will be able to explain things better than I did.

G-man said...

RichardW

I guess my prior response wasn't very helpful, but let me try again with your newer comment.

You write,
"I forgot to mention another alternative, namely that you are taking moral claims to be "hypothetical oughts", e.g. if you desire a certain result which depends on other people then you ought to (i.e. have reason to) influence other people's desires in a certain way. Much of your writing seems to imply this, even though you haven't stated it explicitly."
Actually I think Alonzo stated this quite explicitly, and I believe it's true in desire utilitarianism.

You add, "However, as I wrote earlier, such claims are merely neutral factual statements about cause and effect, equivalent to "the way to achieve X is to do Y". They are not moral claims. They lack the sense of approval/disapproval that moral claims carry."You probably think so because the terms are discussed in such a dry, abstract manner. Alonzo wrote a post a while back about the emotional aspect to real-world examples of moral claims. Imagine a parent. Do you really think there is a lack of moral approval/disapproval in that parent's desire to raise a child in a world where hate, dishonesty and violence against children is discouraged?

Is it not a moral claim to wish there were fewer pedophiles and molesters, and, if possible, to discourage those tendencies and to create a society where those desires do not belong? And do parents not have an obligation to foster such a society? Once you get past the dryness of definitions, I think you'll find plenty of "oughts" that are both moral and objective.

RichardW said...

Hello, G-man.

Thanks for your and others' attempts to clarify Alonzo's meaning. But I want to hear it from Alonzo himself. If one of you has got him exactly right, he could just say so. But he hasn't.

You wrote: "Do you really think there is a lack of moral approval/disapproval in that parent's desire to raise a child in a world where hate, dishonesty and violence against children is discouraged?"

I didn't say anything like that. I said that statements of the form "if you desire X you ought to do Y" don't express a sense of approval/disapproval. They are simply factual statements about how best to fulfill a desire, equivalent to "the way to fulfill desire X is to do Y". They express nothing about whether the speaker approves of that desire. (Well, I suppose you could use your tone of voice to indicate disapproval, but then it's the tone of voice that conveys the disapproval, not the words themselves.)

If you still think that moral claims are equivalent to statements of the form "if you desire X you ought to do Y", then please tell me what statement of that form is equivalent to the moral claim "murder is wrong".

People are offering me various would-be definitions of moral terms, but no one (except Eneasz) has attempted to actually apply their own definition to a specific moral statement like "murder is wrong". Come on, folks. Before you propose a definition at least try applying it to a specific case!

Emu Sam said...

"Murder is wrong" in desire utilitarian terms would probably be "People generally have many and strong reasons to apply social or other pressure (in the form of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment) against a desire to murder."

Or perhaps, in another language, "We're all better off if no one wants to murder."

More prescriptively, "Murder is wrong, so condemn and punish those who murder or those who show by their actions that they want to murder (i.e. attempted murder)."

How do we find out if murder is wrong, in desire utilitarian terms? I'd probably hire an army of sociologist, psychologists, economists, and statisticians to model a world in which no one wanted to murder and design tests to compare it to the real world. Possible tests would be to compare the standard of living of countries with varying murder rates, or suicide rates among individuals who have had more people close to them murdered.

Dan said...

Murder is wrong. Murder is always morally wrong and can't be otherwise.

Why? Because 'murder' is unlawful killing. If you can describe an act correctly as 'murder,' it's already got 'wrong' attached to it.

Killing exists outside of a moral code.

Murder does not exist outside of a moral code.

The real moral question is to determine if killing is always murder or if a particular killing is murder or something else.

Is it wrong to wrongfully kill? Well, it has to be, doesn't it? Otherwise, we're just wrong.

Matt M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt M said...

Why? Because 'murder' is unlawful killing. If you can describe an act correctly as 'murder,' it's already got 'wrong' attached to it.Sorry to butt in here...

But doesn't this assume that "illegal" and "wrong" are synonymous?

Most people would struggle to condemn killing someone as a last resort in order to stop them killing you and your family as wrong -- but it could still quite easily be made illegal.

Whether murder is always wrong or not really depends on exactly what actions the term is made to cover.

Eneasz said...

I didn't say anything like that. I said that statements of the form "if you desire X you ought to do Y" don't express a sense of approval/disapproval.So wait, your objection is that the language isn't emotional enough? I believe the emotional aspect is supposed to come from the humans. The theory is there to provide an accurate description of how the real world works.

Unless I misunderstood? Perhaps you mean that translating "Killing is bad!" to "An aversion to taking life tends to fulfill more and stronger desires of everyone and thus people have reasons to promote such an aversion in everyone." doesn't express disapproval of killing? I would argue that, even tho "Killing is bad!" has more emotion strength, the later sentence still expresses disapproval of killing. After all, it specifically states that an aversion to killing is better than a lack of such an aversion, and that people are well-advised to promote such an aversion in others. That sounds like disapproval of killing to me.

Emu Sam said...

Dan,

Substitute anything else for murder.

"X is wrong" is approximately equal to

"People generally have many and strong reasons to apply social or other pressure (in the form of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment) against a desire to X" which is approximately equal to

"We're all better off if no one wants to X" which implies

"X is wrong, so condemn and punish those who show by their actions that they want to X."

We would find out if X is wrong by testing as described, much of which testing has been performed in the past thousands of years of civilization.

Dan and Matt M,

We're falling into the trap of definitions that Alonzo specifically warns about. Language is useful to communicate, and effective communication requires mostly agreed-upon definitions. But demanding that definition distracts from the fact that the idea being communicated is more important than the symbols (words) used to communicate it. It should be possible to communicate any idea using different sets of symbols.

Dan said...

My point about 'murder' is that it's a compound symbol: wrong + killing. Murder is wrong a priori.

(Matt M has a good point about unlawful and wrong not always being equal. Still, a legal system usually is intended to parallel a moral one for the most part, right?)

Murder is already defined as wrong. Theft is wrong because it's wrong + taking of property. The repo man isn't a thief. Assault is wrong + hitting. A boxing match isn't assault.

Emu Sam, regarding definitions: You can't build a moral system using terms that are already morally loaded. Asking if murder is wrong is stuffing output into the input end of the system.

Kristopher said...

doug s.

i think your question as to the calculus of utility is like asking for the equation for all of math. and then discounting mathematics when no one provides the equation that underlines all mathmatical theories.

but math has to be applied to something and when it is applied to different things it will have different equations

when we apply math to gravity we get one equation when we apply math to the heat generated by circutry we use a different equation. and we plug in numbers from relevant propostions about the world

ethics is very much the same. your example of incest is an area that might require one equation while the application of ethics to torture would find a different equation and in both we would need to find and plug in real facts about the world to make our decision.

but for all the equations we have to use the same rules of mathmatics

just like we need to use the same rules of ethics to build our equations regarding specific moral instances

the rules of Ethics are like explaining the basic rules of mathmatics and how they work and why we should chose those rules.