Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Objections Considered: Why Should I?

A member of the studio audience asks:

Why should someone consider all desires that exist when making moral judgments? Why not just the desires of those they care about?

This question is a lot like the Hateful Craig Problem I discussed in post quite a while back. The answer here is going to start off the same, though I will take it in a slightly different direction.

See Atheist Ethicist, The Hateful Craig Problem: Why should I, who for purposes of this question hate everyone, wish to fulfill the desires of others?

This question was asked in relation to an alternative,

What if I have a humans-only morality and consider only the desires of humans?

I begin by asking, "What does the word 'should' mean in this question?" Clearly, I cannot answer the question until I know what it is that is being asked.

I hold that 'should' (and 'ought') refers to reasons for action that exist. When a person 'Why should I do X?' this can be reduced to a question of the form, 'What reasons for action are there for me to do X?'

Here, all I need to do is to point to the desires of non-humans and say, "Well, those are reasons for action that exist. When you ask what reasons for action are there for you to do X, I point to the desires of non-humans and say that there you will find reasons for action that exist for you to consider the desires of non humans."

The response at this point may be, "But I do not care about those reasons for action that exist. I choose to ignore them - to disregard them. I will not include them in my moral calculus."

However, now you are asking a different question. It is not, "What reasons for action are there for me to consider the desires of non-humans?" but "What reasons for action do I have to consider the desires of non-humans."

Desirism states that you may well have no reason to consider the desires of non-humans. The desires that you have are a very small subset of the desires that exist, and there is no reason to assume that this subset of desires includes a reason to consider the desires of non-humans.

Yet, moral claims seldom look at the reasons that a person has or doing or refraining from some action. The child rapist has a particularly strong reason to rape a child. However, the immorality of rape is not grounded on what reasons the rapist has or does not have for performing some action. It has to do with the reasons that others have for promoting or inhibiting that particular desire. It has to do with the malleable desires that people have reason to promote or to inhibit - including those desires that contribute to or inhibit the act of raping a child.

Non-human animals have reasons to act so as to promote in you desires that would contribute to the fulfillment of their desires. What non-human animals lack is the capacity to engage in a complex program of praise and blame that would help to shape those desires. Their limited system of beliefs stands in the way of them engaging in moral practices to the same degree that we do. They can make rudimentary moral judgments and impose them on others within their tribe, but they cannot participate in a complex global culture.

However, the fact that they are not capable of making the best possible plans to aid in the fulfillment of their desires does not change the fact that those desires exist and that they are reasons for action that exist.

We still have reason to promote in people generally an aversion to disregarding the desires of those who cannot fully participate in the moral culture - those who cannot plan sufficiently well to prevent being taken advantage of.

Such an aversion makes us safer. It would also inhibit actions that would be a threat to our pets and livestock and even our children. We have reason to praise those who consider the desires of agents who are incapable of fully expressing their own desires, and to condemn those who see an inability to express one's desires as a reason to disregard those desires.

"Why should I consider the desires of non-human animals?" implies "What reasons for action exist for me to consider the desires of non-human animals?" We can answer this question by pointing to the desires of non-human animals. Those are reasons for action that exist.

"What reasons for action do I have to consider the desires of non-human animals?" Answer: Possibly none. However, morality has never been concerned with what reasons for action an agent has, but with what reasons for action he should have - what reasons for action that others have reason to cause him to have. In this respect, non-human animals have many and strong reason to cause the agent to consider their interests. They simply lack the ability to act intelligently on those reasons.

Yet, the rest of us have many and strong reasons to condemn those who disregard the interests of those who cannot defend them. Many people we care about share those same qualities and, in some context, we may find ourselves unable to fully participate in the moral community either. In which case, we still have reason to have those in the moral community consider our interests. So, we have reason to praise those who consider the interests of those who cannot speak for themselves, and to condemn those who disregard such interests.

This is all that can be said on the matter. Somebody could well read this and assert that they still have no interest in considering the desires of non-humans. And they may well be right - they do not have such an interest. But the moral question is not whether they have or do not have these interests. It has to do with whether the rest of us have reason to create those interests in him through the use of social tools such as praise and condemnation.

On this question, the honest answer is that we do have reason to do so - even those of us who cannot make sophisticated plans to fulfill its desires still has reason to use social tools to create such interests in others. This remains a fact regardless of whether the agent to be praised or condemned cares about that fact.

Now, one can read all of this and still respond, "After considering these things I do not feel any interest at all in considering the desires of non-humans. Therefore, your argument fails."

However, remember, desirism states that you cannot reason somebody into virtue. Rather, you mold their desires through social practices such as praise and condemnation. The argument states that there are reasons to act so as to use social institutions to cause people generally to have certain desires and aversions. The reasons do not generate those desires and aversions. The actions that people have reason to perform are to do that.

3 comments:

KipBond said...

Alonzo> I hold that 'should' (and 'ought') refers to reasons for action that exist

You are implying "all", here, right? Why does "should" mean that? That's the question. Why do you hold that "should" refers to "all" reasons to action that exist. The structure of your sentence (the quotes around "should" and "ought, and the word "refer") seems to imply that you are talking about semantics, here. You are saying that when people use the word "should" that they are referring to all the reasons for action that exist. This is precisely the premise that I am questioning. It does not seem to me that that is the case. If it were, I do not think we would have so many moral disagreements. When a group says that "gays should not marry", they are clearly not referring to all the desires that exist. Are they? When a group says "women should not have abortions", they are not referring to all the desires that exist, are they? So, clearly, the moral language that people use is not referring to all the reasons for actions that exist. But, you say that "should" does refer to all the reasons for action that exist. Why do you say that, Alonzo?


Alonzo> ...even those of us who cannot make sophisticated plans to fulfill its desires still has reason to use social tools to create such interests in others. This remains a fact regardless of whether the agent to be praised or condemned cares about that fact.

This argument works because the "us" using the social tools have motivational reasons to use our social tools to change the desires in others to cause them to consider the desires of the group that cannot use the social tools. However, cases exist where there are no people that are so motivated, and therefore those who cannot use social tools to mold desires are left having their desires thwarted. Nobody using the social tools will use moral language to call this "bad" or "immoral", however, the fact is still there. So, would the thwarting of those desires really be "bad" if there is nobody to use social tools to call it so? (I suppose this is a little like the tree falling in the forest making a sound question.) Is the badness of the thing in the thwarting of the desires, or is it in the causing of the use of social tools to change the desires causing the thwarting of the desires?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Which reasons for exist depend on the sense in which the word 'should' or 'ought' is used.

It can be made quite specific. "If you want to get to the store before it closes, you should leave right now."

This clearly does not refer to all desires but to the specific desire of getting to the store before it closes.

Or, "You should order the prime rib. You would love it."

That speaks only to the desires of the agent doing the tasting, not to all the desires that exist.

Moral language, I argue, makes the most sense in terms of discussing malleable desires relative to other desires. However, as I have argued, this reduction is not worth a lot of time and energy to defend. We could abandon moral language entirely. Relationships between maleable desires and all other desires would still exist, and what is objectively true about those relationships will remain objectively true.

We can use moral language to talk about them . . . or not . . . what they are and how they work is independent of the language we choose.

Clearly, things can be good or bad in a non-moral sense. We can have a good knife - a knife that is such that it is useful to fulfill those desires that knives are typically used to fulfill.

Earthquakes are bad, and are called bad, because of their tremendous desire-thwarting effects. To say that desires are bad is to say that we have reason to avoid earthquakes (or at least certain desire-thwarting effects of earthquakes through building codes and the like).

We are not blaming the earthquake to say that it is a type of natural disaster. We are just acknowledging its desire-thwartingness.

Kip said...

Alonzo> Moral language, I argue, makes the most sense in terms of discussing malleable desires relative to other desires.

Clarification: you mean "...relative to all other desires that exist." But, what do you mean it "makes the most sense"? Do you mean that it's how people use the terms? That's precisely what I'm objecting to. It does not seem to me that people use the terms that way. You do, and maybe some other people do. But I don't even think a large group of people do much less a majority of people. It does seem clear to me that moral semantics is very diverse.

If you mean something else by "makes the most sense", then please explain.


> However, as I have argued, this reduction is not worth a lot of time and energy to defend. We could abandon moral language entirely. Relationships between maleable desires and all other desires would still exist, and what is objectively true about those relationships will remain objectively true.

I agree. But, it wouldn't be prescriptive, just descriptive. It may be true that non-human desires are thwarted when we do X, but that doesn't mean that we "morally-ought" not to do X if we don't use the term "morally-ought" to include the desires of non-humans. Again, this is the central point I'm questioning.

To summarize and clarify: if moral-oughts are to be prescriptive and include all desires that exist in the moral calculation, then an apriori moral value must be the basis for making that judgement - that all desires that exist moral-ought to be used in moral calculations. Otherwise, if the moral-ought claims are not backed up by said apriori moral value, then there is no prescriptivity in the moral calculation -- just like your example of the earthquake thwarting desires might be "bad" in the sense that it thwarted desires, it wouldn't be "moral-bad" in the sense that it moral-ought not have done it. Similarly, if, for example, humans did not value including non-human desires in moral calculations, then there would be no moral prescriptivity coming to bear when non-human desires were being thwarted -- even if it were factually true and recognized by all humans that non-human desires were indeed being thwarted. Unless it is first wrong for non-human desires to be thwarted, unless that is "moral-bad", then there is no prescriptivity arising from the facts -- there will be nobody using social tools on those who are thwarting the non-human desires, and whereas any sort of tools were to be used against those thwarting the non-human desires, presumably in the form of thwarting of human desires, the rest of the human population would work to stop the non-humans from thwarting the human desires.

This would happen until either 1) the non-humans became powerful enough that the humans would be better off including them in their system of morality, or 2) a group of humans used social tools to slowly change the desires of humans to start considering the desires of non-humans, or 3) the non-humans or humans become extinct, or some other level of relative power was shifted so as to change the group dynamics. (Or some other option.)


Alonzo> We can use moral language to talk about them . . . or not . . . what they are and how they work is independent of the language we choose.

If we do use moral language to describe them, then we are including them in our moral system. If we don't, then we aren't. So, the decision is whether or not we want to include them or not -- not so much what word(s) we are using.