Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Desirism vs Subjectivism III: Merely Stating a Preference

Tomorrow I am going to disappear for a few weeks. While I am gone, you are free to talk amongst yourselves. In these last few posts before the break I am posting comments to a post from Chris concerning the differences between subjectivism and desire utilitarianism (desirism).

After making an assumption in which an agent is said to desire Y or Z, Chris wrote:

[T]he conflict, ethics wise, is when some other person fails to desire Y or Z or both. Then we have to say something like "Well, you ought to desire Y or Z". But why would this be? It is a fact that this other person does not desire Y or Z. I may be willing to work to "force" this person to desire Y and or Z, but it is incoherent to say he 'ought' to desire this or that unless I acknowledge that I am merely stating a preference.

Why is it the case that I must be speaking about my own desires when I use moral language? There are a lot of desires in the universe – all of them just as real as my own. The claim that I am only capable of talking about my own preferences is simply false. I am quite capable of making intelligible claims about relationships between objects of evaluation and preferences that are not mine. Among these, I am capable of speaking intelligibly about malleable desires that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit.

In fact, if I were interested in getting you to do Q, it would be foolish of me to merely express my preference that you do Q, unless I thought my preferences had some magical control over your decisions that the mere knowledge that I had a preference would influence your action. The rational thing for me to do would be to relate doing Q to your own preference – to convince you that you had a reason to do Q, not that I had a reason for you to do Q.

Of course, if you do not have a reason to do Q, the fact that doing Q would bring about a state that I desire gives me a reason to give you a reason to do Q. I can do this in one of two ways.

The first is by threat. "You desire that P. If you do not do Q, then I will work to realize not-P". In other words, I will thwart your desire unless you act to fulfill mine. Please not that the criminal law functions almost exclusively on this principle, where fines, imprisonment, or (in some cases) death are the desire-thwarting actions of those trying to get you to do Q (or, in most cases, to refrain from doing R).

The other way I can give you a reason to do Q is to alter your desires. If I can give you a desire that R, and doing Q will realize R, then I can give you a reason to do R.

So, how can I alter your desires? Among the tools I have available are praise and condemnation. I can also use positive and negative reinforcement. I have no ability to reason you into a new desire (I can only reason you into an action that better fulfills the most and strongest of the desires you already have), but this does not imply that I am impotent.

In the same way that I can speak intelligibly about the desires that I have reason to cause you to have, I can also speak intelligibly about the desires that people generally have reason to want you to have. I can add to my praise or condemnation that, "It's not just me. People generally have many and strong reason to promote the general strengthening of this desire that would give those who have it a reason to do Q or to abstain from R."

Though this statement alone might not motivate you to do Q, it does put you on notice that there are many and strong reasons to criticize and condemn those who do not do Q and to give them other types of reasons for doing Q such as making threats and making good on the threats given.

Moral claims, in this sense, are almost entirely independent of my own preferences. Insofar that they are dependent on reasons for action that exist, and the reasons for action that I have are a portion of the reasons for action that exist, they are somewhat dependent on my desires. However, the influence of my desires is quite small. The moral claims that were true before I was born remained true after I was born. The moral claims that are true the day before I die will be true the day after I die.

Furthermore, it makes perfectly good sense for people in a society to talk about desires that people generally have many and strong reason to promote, and desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit. In fact, the very same reasons that exist to promote some desires and inhibit others are themselves many and strong good reasons to discuss what desires to promote and what desires to inhibit.

It makes no sense to limit claims about relationships to objects and desires to relationships between objects and my desires. It is as absurd as limiting claims about relationships between objects in space to claims about the relationships between objects and my current location in space.

Moral claims are not claims about what I like or do not like. There is no reason for such a claim to move people in any way. They are claims about what desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, where the method of promoting those desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. If I can make and defend such a claim, it follows necessarily that people generally have many and strong reasons to act on such a claim.

This is not "merely stating a preference". It is "merely stating a relationship between malleable desires and the most and strongest of all reasons for action that exist." However, using the term 'merely' when talking about the most and strongest of all reasons for action that exist is incoherent – so that part needs to be dropped.


josef said...

Perhaps you could use blogger's "scheduled post" feature to post open threads?

Doug S. said...

I am not entirely convinced that praise and condemnation create desires that did not previously exist. Rather, it could simply be that people have a strong pre-existing desire to be praised and another strong desire not to be condemned.

Similarly, suppose that you do not have a desire to eat rice cakes. However, if I were offer you $5 if you eat one, and you respond to this offer by eating a rice cake, you would not be eating a rice cake because you had a desire to eat rice cakes. You would be eating the rice cake in order to satisfy your desire for the $5. (And your apparent desire for the $5 might only be because having the $5 serves as a means to fulfill some other desire.)

In fact, it might even be true that no desires are malleable - that people only want a relatively small number of things (food, friends, social status, security, etc.) and all the various desires that people appear to have are only sought as means to those ends, even if we are not consciously aware of it.

Chris said...

I am quite busy at school (beginning of the year and No Child Left Behind and such) so I don't have a lot of time to respond to the last four or five postings, so I will do what I can here.

First, Alonzo, thank you for your thoughtful responses. You have been fair. I will say though, that I have not actually proposed a framework for developing normative propositions, per se, certainly not in my comments you are quoting--I am not at all sure that I could, even if I wanted to--I don't believe that a meta-ethical subjective position leads to that and I really don't claim it does. That may be where I am confused. You are presenting a normative framework, whose conclusions I often agree. I am just not sure I accept (or maybe understand) the underlying premises--or that the premises you state lead to your goal.

Anyway, a few points.
You go on about how I should not restrict myself to talking only about my desires as if I were saying that my subjective preferences exist in some bubble, completely separate from all other concerns. If I were in fact claiming that my subjective reality were bubbled off from all other subjective concerns, I would not just be unwise, I would be factually wrong. That is not what I claim at all. When I think about ethics, I am thinking about conflicts between what I desire and what you desire. Obvious the conflict can and often is immediate in that it affects me right now. But, I am being deliberately generic here. If I have a preference for allowing homosexuals to marry, an issue that does not necessarily affect me in any immediate sense, then I will act only to the extent that I desire to act--either to change someone's own desires, or to coerce some behavior. It is still my desire that moves me, even if my desire takes into consideration other people's immediate concerns. If I take sides in any conflict even when that conflict involves other people's conflicting desires and does not affect me at all, per se (in other words if I turned and walked away, I would unlikely be affected by the conflict) then it is still the case that on some generic level, for whatever reason, I now have a desire (or preference) that the the conflict be resolved in a particular way--even though I have no immediate, or obvious stake in the issue. (1)

My point, that you critique, is that what will move me to act, is a desire. I can look at other peoples desires, of course, but until some desire builds in me I am not likely to act short of coercion.

My concern is that when someone says to me "I am not moved to restrict some behavior or require some behavior of your's because of my desires, per se, but because I have analyzed all the desires of the whole of humanity" then I am tempted responde, "No, you are moved because that is your preferences. Don't pretend otherwise. You may have this preference because you are aware of other people's desire and filled with empathy, or what not; you may have all the facts of the universe at your disposal, and all of that may move me to share your desires. Feel free to share with me what you value (whether you are honest and admit that you have your own preferences or pretend that it is a fact of nature that we ought to prefer this or that) and I may share your values. Show me how doing this or that leads to some state and convince me or cojole me to value this state. It doesn't matter because you are not going to convince me willing to desire something until it is in some way connected to something I in fact value or desire."

Forgive any typos, I am about to start first block. I want this to post.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

If you begin with the fact that A has a desire that P, that B has a desire that not P, that there are no relevant counter-weighting desires, and we are at the moment of action, then A is going to act so as to fulfill his desire and thwart B's desires. That's all can be said on the matter.

If somebody says to me that the reasons for his intentional actions are not his own desires then he is mistaken. He may claim that there is an outside motivational power, but no such outside motivational power exists.

The only way you are going to be able to convince a person to choose to act different in the short term is to point out that a different action will best fulfill that agent's current desires given his current beliefs. That is the only option available.

However, over the longer term, you have another option - the option of changing that person's desires. This is not done by reason (since desires are not 'reasonable' or subject to reason). This is done through the use of such tools as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment that over time has an effect of molding the desires of others.

Furthermore, there is a set of relevant facts concerning the reasons for action that exist for molding desires.

Morality is not about convincing you to do or to forbear some action today. Today, you are going to do the act that best fulfills your current desires given your current beliefs.

A few years from now you will also act to as to fulfill your desires a few years from now given your beliefs a few years from now. Given this fact, I have reason to act in ways so as to mold those future desires, so you are less likely to choose to do actions that thwart my desires and more likely to do actions that fulfill my desires.

This social institution of molding desires so that, over the long run, people tend to act so as to fulfill the desires of others and tend not to act in ways that thwart the desires of others - that is the concern of morality.

Chris said...

Alonzo, I think I agree with everything in your last comment. I am not sure that it is really much different than what I was trying to say (maybe I did not say it quite as well.)

I suspect that you would say, with some truth, that some philosophers(certainly subjectivists)spend to much time poking holes in the arguments of traditional ethical objectivists. It is not that hard to show that "goodness" or "oughtness" are not intrinsic to people or actions.

But I do try in my own mind to separate my meta-ethical ruminations and my normative thoughts. I agree with you completely on how we really do work in the real world when we have conflicts. I am not quite sure that I am as optimistic as you are over our ability to clearly outline our desires and how they affect our actions. But that may be just me. I still suspect that in many areas that are gray, we ultimately just fall back on winging it to some extent.

But I do have a question:

You say, "Why is it the case that I must be speaking about my own desires when I use moral language? There are a lot of desires in the universe – all of them just as real as my own. The claim that I am only capable of talking about my own preferences is simply false.

Later you say:
If somebody says to me that the reasons for his intentional actions are not his own desires then he is mistaken. He may claim that there is an outside motivational power, but no such outside motivational power exists.

What then is the purpose of knowing that there are lots of desires in the universe or specifically what they are if they cannot serve as an outside motivational power?

Sure, I can talk about your desires (and I do think they can affect me by simply knowing them) but you as much admit that I am ultimately moved only by my own desires (which seems to be similar to my original point if my desire is seen generically as a preference.)

But I think we have spoken at cross purposes. You are primarily dealing with pragmatic methods of dealing with moral conflict (and stating our preferences does little in and of itself) while I am simply focusing, on my original comments on the maybe trivial point that it all reduces to preferences and desires and not specifically on the best way to convince people to change a malleable desire.