Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Should Do vs. Will Do

Some more comments from a member of the studio audience:

If it is demonstrated that keeping women in-doors is harmonious (tending to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts), it would still be wrong - because we value the freedom of women, not just the average desire fulfillment, and am willing to sacrifice desire fulfillment on the altar of freedom and autonomy.

First, I have to ask where the term 'average' came from in 'average desire fulfillment'?

Second, nothing in desire utilitarianism states that we value desire fulfillment. What we value is chocolate, sex, the company of friends, praise, physical comfort, the absence of pain, name recognition, excitement, and thousands of other things – different things and to different degrees for each person. There is probably some desire for desire fulfillment in there somewhere, but it would still only be one desire among many.

Desire fulfillment is just a word to describe a state in which there is a desire that P and P is true.

Third, the moral question is not what we are willing to sacrifice on the altar of other values. The moral question is what we should be willing to sacrifice of other values. It does not follow from the fact that we are willing to make a particular sacrifice that we should make that sacrifice.

Fourth, if it is demonstrated that keeping women in-doors is harmonious, it would have to be harmonious with the love of freedom, would it not? The only way to allow this type of imposition is if we inhibited or suppressed the love of freedom. However, if we inhibited the love of freedom, then we would have to do without the desire-fulfillment that freedom brings.

There are, as I have argued repeatedly, many and good reasons to promote an overall love of freedom. They begin with the fact that the most informed, least corruptible agent to put in charge of each person's desire fulfillment is typically that person himself. This might not be the case for young children and mentally handicapped adults, but it is generally true.

Since each of us is the most knowledgeable and least corruptible agent to put in charge of our own lives, we have reason to promote an inhibition in others against interfering with that liberty – and they have reason to create the same inhibition in us. This would give us reason to oppose “keeping women in-doors”.

So, as it turns out, you have started with a contradiction – that a violation of liberty can be harmonious with a love of liberty.

Furthermore, you seem to deny the descriptive nature of your theory. If all you're doing is describing a common should, then there is no "universal" should, in the sense that your "should" is not prescriptive.

Well, if I am describing 'should' then I am describing what prescription is and how it works, am I not?

And if I am describing the phenomenon of prescription accurately, then I should be able to identify that which is correctly prescribed and that which is incorrectly prescribed.

A state of affairs S is prescribed for agent A if and only if (and to whatever degree) the agent has a 'reason for action that exists' to bring about S. To say that S is prescribed for A, but A has no reason for action to bring about S, is incoherent.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. I have not seen the slightest bit of evidence supporting the existence of any other reasons for action. It is still the case that a claim that we should do something when there is no reason for action that exists to do that thing is nonsense.

DU doesn't, cannot, say that I or you "should" not torture a child…

Sure it can.

I or you should not torture a child.

That wasn’t difficult at all.

It appears quite obvious that a person who tortures a child has desires that tend to thwart the desires of others, or at least lacks desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. The bulk of people have many and strong reasons to condemn a person whose desires are such that he would torture a child. Those reasons give them reason to bring the social tools of condemnation to bear against those whose desires are such that they would torture a child. Identifying a person who would torture a child as somebody that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn is captured in the moral statement, "It is wrong to torture a child." From which it follows that I or you should not torture a child.

[Desire utilitarianism] merely points out that society at large will tend to exert social forces opposed to child torturing.

This is false.

What society at large will tend to do is not the same as what people in general have many and strong reasons to do.

What an agent will do is act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. What an agent moral-should do is act as a person with good desires would act. This means that there are two ways in which what a person will do can deviate from what a person should do.

The first source of deviation from what a person should do is caused by a lack of good desires or the presence of bad desires. If an agent does not have good desires, then there are circumstances in which he will not act the way that a good agent will act. That is to say, there are circumstances in which the action that will fulfill the most and strongest desires of the agent will not fulfill the most and the strongest desires of a hypothetical agent that has good malleable desires and no bad malleable desires.

The second source of deviation springs from false beliefs. A person who believes that there is a God that declares that homosexual acts have negative value and that people should condemn or even punish those who engage in those acts treat others unjustly on the basis of false beliefs.

It is still the case that there is something wrong with their desires. A person is blameworthy with respect for false beliefs when a person with good desires would have gone to the effort to make sure that beliefs arguing for doing harm to others would have sought a more secure foundation for those beliefs.

8 comments:

יאיר רזק said...

"A state of affairs S is prescribed for agent A if and only if (and to whatever degree) the agent has a 'reason for action that exists' to bring about S. To say that S is prescribed for A, but A has no reason for action to bring about S, is incoherent. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist."
I completely agree.

Identifying a person who would torture a child as somebody that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn is captured in the moral statement, "It is wrong to torture a child." From which it follows that I or you should not torture a child.
How does it follow? Remember, "[t]o say that S is prescribed for A, but A has no reason for action to bring about S, is incoherent". From the fact that "people generally" have good reasons to oppose child-torturing does not imply that you or I have reasons for action to stop child torturing.

I maintain that the conclusion follows only once you put in a shared human nature into the assumptions. Since other people condemn it, and we share their overall structure of desires, it is likely we'd want to condemn it too (assuming they know what they're talking about, don't have relevant false beliefs coloring their judgments, and so on). The key point is not that people in general condemn something, but that normative people do, and we are that.

What an agent moral-should do is act as a person with good desires would act.
Why should we care how an agent with "good desires", as defined above, would act, as opposed to say an agent with "effective desires", where a desire is effective if it tends to either thwart or promote other desires?

To move from description of desires as "good" to prescription of actions that "morally good" implies, you need something more. You need to bridge the gap between practically-should and morally-should, or your theory is not prescriptive.

יאיר רזק said...

First, I have to ask where the term 'average' came from in 'average desire fulfillment'?
I understand your algorithm to be something like: Given desire X, sum over all likely futures multiplied by their likelihood,and over all desires, adding each fulfilled desire and its intensity and subtracting each thwarted desire and its intensity. If the sum is positive, then desire X is said to "tend to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts", and is called "good".

This is an averaging procedure - you average over likely futures to determine what the desire will tend to do, and (more importantly) you average over desires to obtain a scalar measure of "goodness". The latter is not a true average as it lacks normalization, but is rather a weighted sum - is this the problem? If so, I apologize for being imprecise.

Desire fulfillment is just a word to describe a state in which there is a desire that P and P is true.
As this situation is counted as positive in the above sum, this is "valued".

Fourth, if it is demonstrated that keeping women in-doors is harmonious, it would have to be harmonious with the love of freedom, would it not?
Granted. I rescind my example-problem.

[Me: [Desire utilitarianism] merely points out that society at large will tend to exert social forces opposed to child torturing.]

This is false.

What society at large will tend to do is not the same as what people in general have many and strong reasons to do.


Absolutely. Not relevant to my point, though. DU logically ends at "Those reasons give them reason to bring the social tools of condemnation to bear against those whose desires are such that they would torture a child." It cannot bridge the gap and be descriptive without further assumptions.

I agree that people would generally also have mistaken beliefs and so on, but even brushing all these problems away for now, DU only gets that far.

יאיר רזק said...

It cannot bridge the gap and be prescriptive without further assumptions.

Arrg. I hate that there is no edit option.

Kip said...

> "Those reasons give them reason to bring the social tools of condemnation to bear against those whose desires are such that they would torture a child." It cannot bridge the gap and be [pre]scriptive without further assumptions."

What's wrong with that? Where would you want it to go?

יאיר רזק said...

I would want it to inspire me, to convince me to change my ways, I want it to go towards guiding my life (or, generally, the life of anyone studying the theory). That's why we study moral theories, to become better people, to do better. Not to acquire knowledge in social dynamics.

There is a difference between a rough descriptive theory [it is really only a rough draft - as Alfonso himself notes when he talks about false beliefs, reality is more complex] that belongs in social sciences, and a moral theory we can guide our lives by. Understanding where DU goes wrong does not merely gives a perspective on what it purpots to prescribe, but also a greater understanding on what we should strive for.

Incidentally - for my money, "personal morality" definitely is important. Self-improvement is part of the cores of moral theory. But as Alfonso says elsewhere, names are not important - it doesn't really matter if you call your attempts to be a better person "moral" or not, what is relevant is if you value and pursue such an enterprise.

Kip said...

> "I would want it to inspire me, to convince me to change my ways, I want it to go towards guiding my life (or, generally, the life of anyone studying the theory). That's why we study moral theories, to become better people, to do better. Not to acquire knowledge in social dynamics."

I agree. I think DU might can do that, but I'd love to hear Alonzo's (note, no "F") reply to that.

> "Incidentally - for my money, "personal morality" definitely is important. Self-improvement is part of the cores of moral theory. But as Alfonso says elsewhere, names are not important - it doesn't really matter if you call your attempts to be a better person "moral" or not, what is relevant is if you value and pursue such an enterprise."

I think, though, that "being a better person" is moral because it tends to fulfill more and stronger desires (of everyone's desires). If you were the only person in the Universe, then your actions or self-improvements would not be "moral" or "immoral" (at least not in our current understanding of the terms).

יאיר רזק said...

I think, though, that "being a better person" is moral because it tends to fulfill more and stronger desires (of everyone's desires). If you were the only person in the Universe, then your actions or self-improvements would not be "moral" or "immoral" (at least not in our current understanding of the terms).
That is not my understanding of morality.

Suppose that, suddenly, every person on earth would suddenly be gone from the earth except for you. You will be alone in the universe. Do you think you could not take any moral or immortal actions? Will pissing on people's grave be amoral? Would trying to work to re-create the human race with genetic know-how be amoral? Would bearing your condition with acceptance and bravery count for nothing? Would taking your life be an amoral, meaningless choice?

I think of morality, as the ancient Greeks did, as the study of "the good life". Part of the good life is engaging with others, certainly, but there are private moral goods too - things like realizing truths, enjoying the bounty of existence and life, creating beauty for its own sake, and so on.

Kip said...

Maybe Alonzo can do a post about that. Even if you don't label it "morality" it does seem important to me. What to call it then? And how is it related to morality?