Thursday, January 21, 2010

Objections Considered: Arbitrariness

This is the cardinal mistake of desirism - it classifies desires as abstract as "good" or "bad" according to arbitrary criteria, instead of addressing the real desires of real humans.

This is a common objection that I hear. It can be found in another recent comment from a member of the studio audience:

[Y]ou have said that when we consider moral questions, the desires in question become "all desires that exist." Why? . . . How do you get from practical-ought to the moral-ought, without already instilling your own values into the equation (the value of considering all desires that exist)?

The fact is that I can drop the terms 'good' and 'bad' - and moral terms like 'good' and 'evil' completely out of this theory and it will not change the theory whatsoever. The terms 'good' and 'bad' are merely code words.

When the first person pointed to a rock and said 'rock', he set up the question, "Okay, now, what else is going to count as a rock?" There is no law of nature that dictates what the word 'rock' means. People simply make these things up. They decide, "Heck, it sure is convenient, when w want to talk about these naturally occurring hard things that seem to be everywhere, to use the term 'rock', so that's what we are going to do."

Every word that exists is assigned its meaning by means of arbitrary criteria.

Do you think that there is some experiment that people used to determine that a 6-proton atom would be called 'carbon?' It is not as if they peered through a carbon atom through a microscope and read the name off of it. Chemists decided, quite arbitrarily, that they would assign the word 'carbon' to the 6-proton atom. They did not prove that 6-protons are properly called 'carbon' by means of any natural experiment. They simply made an arbitrary decision, and agreed among themselves to follow it.

To accuse me of doing the same thing that geologists and chemists do does not provide me with any reason to reject any theories that I may have about the nature of rocks or of atoms or of morality.

If this is to be a meaningful objection, then the person who raises it cannot be accusing me of arbitrarily assigning meanings to words. That is a necessary part of language - and anybody who participates in the institution of language necessarily participates in the same arbitrariness. If I am guilty of doing the same thing that geologists, chemists, and physicists must necessarily do, then I am just as guilty as the geologists, chemists, and physicists.

Instead, a meaningful objection must be one in which I am accused of arbitrarily assigning a property to an object or state of affairs - a property that it does not have as a matter of objective fact.

Yet, if this is the accusation being made, the accuser has the obligation of identifying the property that I am allegedly assigning arbitrarily to some object or state of affairs. They have to make an accusation that takes the form, "When you apply the term T to state of affairs S, you are claiming that S has property P. Yet, the assignment of property P to S is arbitrary and cannot be demonstrated as a matter of objective fact."

That would be a problem; it would be a particularly significant problem for me because I hold that arbitrarily assigned properties do not exist. The only realm where properties can be arbitrarily assigned or removed from objects or states of affairs is in the realm of fiction - not the realm of fact.

Note that I have written several times that I do not believe that there is a mutually exclusive is/ought distinction. I think that such a distinction is nonsense. It smacks of dualism - of the existence of an odd realm of existence distinct from yet capable of interacting with the realm of what is. Instead, I hold that there is and is/is not distinction. Either moral properties fit into the realm of what in, or we must assign them to the realm of what is not and move on.

In light of that assumption, the accusation that I am guilty of arbitrarily assigning some property to some state of affairs would be particularly damaging.

If the accusation that I am guilty of arbitrarily assigning a property to an object or state of affairs, then name that property.

If the accusation that I am guilty of expressing my theory by using language (the practice of arbitrarily assigning definitions to symbols), then, I am as guilty as any geologist, chemist, and logician.

6 comments:

supersage400 said...

Alonzo, I'm curious about something. You say here and have said elsewhere that there is no is/ought dichotomy at all. However, elsewhere, you have accused some folks, such as Ayn Rand, of committing an is/ought fallacy of deriving an ought from an is. I am a bit confused. Surely they can't be accused of a fallacy which is based upon something that does not exist?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

supersage400

You say here and have said elsewhere that there is no is/ought dichotomy at all.

No, I said that there is no mutually exclusive is/ought distinction.

An is/ought distinction does exist. However, it has the same form as the rectangle/square distinction or the cat/tiger distinction.

All ought statements are is statements. However, it is not the case that all is statements are ought statements.

Because of this, it is possible to gather a set of is statements that do not legitimately imply an ought statement. It is possible to try to infer an ought statement that is not justified by the specific 'is' statements the author provides.

Specifically, 'ought' or 'should' refers to reasons for action that exist. If the premises do not include reasons for action that exist then the inference is invalid. The speaker has committed the is-ought fallacy of deriving a reasons-for-action conclusion with no reasons-for-action premises.

However, it is perfectly consistent with this view to hold that reasons-for-action premises are still 'is' statements. They are just a particular subset of 'is' statements - a subset that too many people often leave out of their arguments.

So, I assert that an is-ought distinction does exist and is often violated. However, it is not a mutally exclusive distinction that makes it permanently impossible to derive an 'ought' from an 'is' because they refer to two different types of things.

Kip said...

You did not answer my question, Alonzo. You answered a different question. I will try to clarify it. First, let me quote the original question I presented:

==================
When considering what one "should" do, we consider the desires in question. A murder "should" dispose of the murder weapon (because it will tend to fulfill his desire of not being caught). However, you have said that when we consider moral questions, the desires in question become "all desires that exist". Why? It doesn't seem to me that common usage of the term would imply such. If anything, it might mean "all desires that we know about", or "all desires that we care about". But, "all desires that exist"? I don't think people mean that. So, how do you defend your usage? How do you get from the practical-ought to the moral-ought, without already instilling your own values into the equation (the value of considering all desires that exist)?
===================

I don't care what labels you are using -- that's not what I'm talking about. You claim that moral oughts refer to "all desires that exist", as opposed to a subset of desires that exist. Why do you make that claim? Where is the evidence or reason?

I ask because I'm not so sure that is true. It seems to me that when people make moral claims, such as "it is immoral to steal", they are implicitly only including the desires of their "in-group". Specifically, the group from which they would engage in some sort of moral discourse, to reach a sort of "harmonicity of desires".

They don't include desires of the "out-group" -- others from different tribes, or nations, or families, or species that they do not try to form "harmonicity of desires" with.

If you would say they "should" consider those desires, then you are begging the question, since you are already infusing a moral value into the equation in order to make that "moral-ought" statement.

יאיר רזק said...

My critique has to be read in context. I agree that all word assignment is arbitrary. My accusation was specifically in regards to the relation between the theory and the people. Egoism, a la Carrier, defines "good" in a way that is founded on what humans desire, and therefore is not arbitrary in this sense. Desirism defines "good" arbitrarily in that its definition is founded on which desires tend to fulfill other desires, which bears only coincidental relation to what people desire.

This is truly a semantic point of little importance. The important thing is not how desirism defines the word "good", but whether this definition is useful to us. It isn't. What's useful for us is what we want to do, not what tends to fulfill other desires.

Kip said...

> "What's useful for us is what we want to do, not what tends to fulfill other desires."

I'm pretty sure that when I "want" something, that's the same as saying that it "fulfills my desires".

יאיר רזק said...

"I'm pretty sure that when I "want" something, that's the same as saying that it "fulfills my desires"."

Then why do you care about a definition that is concerned with OTHER desires? It is simply not a topic of interest.