Thursday, February 18, 2010

Should

A member of the studio audience has asked:

Group A is promoting desire X that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires for Group A, but at the same time, tends to thwart more and stronger desires of Group B. Group B has no way to affect the desires of Group A (e.g. social tools or force). As a member of Group A should you have desire X?

That depends. What definition of 'should' are you using?

Recall that I view the question, "What should I do?" to be like the question, "Is Pluto a planet?" The answer is, "It depends on what you mean by 'should' or by 'planet'."

Furthermore, I cannot provide any type of objective proof that a given definition is correct and that its competitors are incorrect. Definitions are a matter of social convention. An individual's definition can more or less conform to the convention. However, the lack of an objectively correct definition of 'planet' is no threat to an objective astronomy, and the lack of an objective correct definition of 'should' is no threat to an objective morality.

Regardless of how you define 'should' there are objectively true facts about the relationships between these desires and other desires. Those facts do not change on account of changes in what we call them.

It sounds to me that the person asking the question is telling me that Group A has no reason to promote desires that will tend to fulfill the desires of Group B and does have reason to promote desires that tend to thwart the desires of Group B. Furthermore, Group B has no power to change Group A's desires - not by praise or condemnation, not by rewards or punishments, or by any other means. This implies that that Group A does not and will not have any reason to promote those desires that fulfill the desires of Group B.

What should Group A do?

That's a worthless question. Group A is not going to promote desires that fulfill the desires of Group B. This is a fact. This fact is independent of how we define the word 'should'.

We can tell Group A that they should promote desire that fulfill the desires of Group B. They can accept the definition, shrug their shoulders, and say that they do not care to do what they should do.

Using a definition of 'should' that includes the desires of Group B will not change that. At best, such a definition might cause people to falsely believe that they have a reason to promote desires that fulfill the desires of Group B. However, this would be a lie - given the assumptions under which this case was presented.

Now, here is an interesting complication that can easily confuse things.

The definition of 'should' that this question depends on is not Group A's definition. It is not Group B's definition. It is our definition.

I have suggested that we use 'should' not only to identify where people have rason to apply social force to mold maleable desires, but as an actual act of praise and condemnation. Our use of the term 'should' will reflect the desires that we see ourselves (correctly or incorrectly) as having reason to promote or to inhibit.

In other words, what the question asks is:

Group A is promoting desire X that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires for Group A, but at the same time, tends to thwart more and stronger desires of Group B. Group B has no way to affect the desires of Group A (e.g. social tools or force). As a member of Group C do we have reason to praise or condemn Group A's attitude of ignoring the desires of Group B?

Why is the question actually a question about what Group C has reason to do or not do?

It is because the term 'should' that is found in the question is the 'should' of the English Language - the 'should' of Group C, which is us. The question is being asked of members of Group C using a language that Group C has invented to serve the interests of Group C. So, even though the question does not explicity mention Group C, it cannot be answered independent of facts about Group C.

I would argue that we have good reason to promote among the members of our community a hostile attitude towards those who ignore the desires of the powerless. This is because we have an interest in our desires being considered in any situation where we are powerless, and that the desires of those we care about are considered in those cases where they are powerless. Others have reason to promote those desires in us.

Whereas 'should' statements are acts of praise and condemnation we cannot answer what Group A should or should not do without answering the question of what Group C (us) has reason to praise or condemn.

So, should Group A have desire X?

Is Pluto a planet?

The answer is that it depends on what you mean by 'should' or 'planet'. And the fact that there is no objective right answer to either question is entirely unimportant.

3 comments:

Eneasz said...

Groovy, ty for this.

Christof Jans said...

Yes groovy. This is a post that I feel really increased my understanding of DU.

Kip said...

There is no Group C. The answer is that as a member of Group A, you moral-should have the desires that tend to fulfill the more and stronger desires of that group. Group B's desires do not affect anybody in Group A.