Thursday, April 29, 2010


Over in another section of the blogosphere an objection was raised against Desirism regarding its use of the terms "ought" and "prescription". A member of that studio audience wrote:

(See: Common Sense Atheism: All the Desires that Exist

Well, desirism does not explain why I ought to act in any particular way, except redefining “ought” to mean “there are reasons for others to encourage these desires”. That’s hardly a prescription, and I hold that presenting it as such is misleading.

There are two questions to answer relevant to this objection.

Question #1: Is the accusation that this is a case of redefining 'ought' accurate?

Philosophers have, for centuries, recognized that the language of value contains a distinction between practical 'ought' and moral 'ought', and a great deal of metaphorical philosophical ink has been spilled trying to account for the difference.

Religious ethics explains it in terms of a difference between what we want and what God wants. Kant sought to explain it in terms of a difference between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. John Stuart Mill simply asserted that the happiness of poetry was better than the happiness of pushpin, while G.E. Moore raised the objection that Mill failed to distinguish between what is desired and what ought to be desired.

Furthermore, when people engaging in moral debates, they are constantly offering up reasons in defense of their moral claims that have nothing at all to do with the 'ought' of practical reason. They point to the harmful effects on others as if that alone is morally relevant, independent of what the agent they are speaking to thinks about those who would be harmed. In fact, not being moved by the harms suffered by others is considered the epitome of evil.

If it were true that the only 'ought' in common English were the form of prescription defined in this objection, then all native English speakers should agree that it is true by definition that a child-rapist with 1 year to live trapped alone on an island with a child morally ought to rape that child any time the urge strikes him. Yet, native English speakers do not so readily agree to the conclusion that this is true by definition.

Contrary to the assertion made in this objection, native English speakers use the term 'ought' in two distinct ways. One way refers to the reasons that an agent has for doing or refraining from some action. The other, moral 'ought' refers to reasons outside of the individual's desires at the desires the agent should have.

If somebody's claim about what words mean in a language generates the conclusion that, "(Almost) nobody else ever uses this term correctly. I - or I and a bare handful of others - are the only people who use the term correctly," then there is something wrong with that person's understanding of language.

Words get their meaning by social custom. There can be no such thing as a word that "every competent speaker of the language but me and a small group of others uses wrongly."

Please note: This is the same argument I apply to those who claim that 'atheist' means 'lacking a belief in God' when competent English speakers the world over use it to mean, 'One who holds that the proposition that a god exists is false or almost certainly false." These people also claim that "we few actually use the word correctly, and everybody else who has used the word another way for decades or longer are using it incorrectly."

However, for the sake of argument, let us say that I am wrong about this. Somehow, I missed the fact that people only use the term 'ought' to refer to things a person has an interest in doing.

This leads us to Question #2.

Question #2: What does it matter that I am redefining a term, as long as I do not equivocate on my definition?

I can well imagine somebody raising the following objections:

Well, your theory does not explain the properties of aluminum, sulfur, carbon, and the like except by redefining "atom" to mean "the smallest piece of an element which, itself, is made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons.


Well, your theory does not explain the causes and symptoms of malaria except by redefining "malaria" to mean "a set of symptoms characterized by the following . . ."

Remember, the original definition of 'atom' was 'thing without parts', and the original definition of 'malaria' was 'bad air.' The definitions of these terms changed over time. The definitions of a lot of words have changed. The only time redefining a term is objectionable is when a person jumps back and forth between two different meanings.

Terms are constantly being re-defined. In fact, every invention of a new term - such as when a new species gets named - is a 're-definition' of a term from having no meaning to having a particular (arbitrarily assigned) meaning.

I deny that I am using moral terms in any way that is substantially different from normal usage. However, even if it is, a dispute over definitions is not a dispute over what is true in the world. It is merely a dispute over what language we are going to use to describe those truths. Since words have no meaning that is carved in stone by nature itself, there is no objective way to settle those types of disputes. This is as true for atoms and malaria as it is for prescriptive 'oughts'.

However, let's pretend that I am wrong about this. Let us pretend that there is a law of Nature or of God that dictates that no term shall ever be re-defined AND that Nature or God has assigned the meaning used in the original objection.

Even here, I am still free to invent new terms to describe the theory without changing the content of the theory one iota.

Let us stipulate that the terms "prescription" and "pought" refer to the reasons that an agent has for performing a particular action or realizing a particular state. At the same time, "mrescriptions" and "mought" refer to "reasons for others to encourage these desires".

Recognize that when we are talking about reasons that people have to encourage (or discourage) a particular desire we are still making a prescription to those others. We are telling them what desires they pought to encourage. The relationshhip between these two terms is that the desires that A, B, and C pought to encourage in D are the desires that D mought to have. You are mrescribing for D the desires that you are prescribing A, B, and C to create in D.

This third option might be clearer and more precise. However, the terms 'pought', 'mrescription', and 'mought' do not exist in the English Language. So, I cannot expect people who read them to have any idea what they mean.

I could use Option 3. It would be more precise. However, native English speakers do not know these words. I would have to teach them how to speak the language just to write on the topic.

As I see it, I have no need to go to this option. English contains a well-known and widely used distinction among two different types of prescriptions. The English language suits my purpose quite well, so I do not need to invent another.

Still, the important point here is that none of these elements describe a dispute about what is true in the world. They merely describe a dispute over which language we are going to use when we talk about the world. So, there is nothing in this dispute that has any potential to identify any type of break between the claims made in this theory and what is true in the world.


Martin Freedman said...

Hi Alonzo

I am not sure to whom you were addressing this post left dangling by no reply (yet) from Polymeron.

Anyway AFAIKS what you have written is quite consistent with what I am saying, however maybe you have read my writing differently to the way I intended, in which case it would be useful for me to know this, since if you can charitably misread me this way, what about others less familiar and less charitable with desirism!

Anyway as I am now putting it. A prescription means "there are reasons to act of the kind such as to keep or bring about a state of affairs in question".

I am now not making a strict distinction between a practical and moral ought, regarding them only as differences in scope, so I could say that a "practical prescription" (pought) means "there are reasons to act that the agent has of the kind to keep or bring about the state of affairs in question" and that a "moral prescription" is a universal prescription which means "that there are reasons to act for everyone to keep or bring about the state of affairs in question".(mought)(lets assume ceteris paribus and provisionalism regarding "everyone" etc.)

Polymeron translated this to "“there are reasons for others to encourage these desires”" which is not what I said but is the outcome of mought reasons to act lacking in the current pought reason of the agent unless and until the social forces are applied.

Does this make sense?

josef said...

This defense is not unique to desire utilitarianism is it? Pretty much any moral realist who wants to talk about oughts (and this includes Sam Harris), should have the right to say they are talking about "oughts," and that even a "redefinition" of ought isn't a real indictment of this or that brand of moral realism.

Anonymous said...

I deny that I am using moral terms in any way that is substantially different from normal usage.

I object, because,

1) you define [the generic] "good" as "such as to fulfill the desires in question," then

2) you define "the right act" as the act the person with "good desires" would perform, but

3) you use the generic definition of "good" as the base for your moral definition.

The problem is that in my experience with normal usage, "the right act" is not necessarily "the act a person with desires that are such as to fulfill the desires in question" would perform.

So, in my opinion, you are using moral terms in a way that is substantially different from normal usage.

Anonymous said...

..a "moral prescription" is a universal prescription which means "that there are reasons to act for everyone to keep or bring about the state of affairs in question". (faithlessgod)

Those don't exist, except where "everyone" shares the underlying assumptions that would prompt the moral ought.

If "everyone" shares underlying assumption X, then - and only then - can such "universal prescriptions" be made.