Friday, May 28, 2010

Carroll vs. Harris: Quantifying Value - Part I

I am addressing Sean Carroll's arguments for why 'morality as science' is not possible.

(See Sean Carroll: You Can't Derive 'Ought' from 'Is')

One of his arguments is:

There's no simple way to aggregate well-being over different individuals.

This section has so many problems I will likely spend two or three posts addressing them.

However, it is absurd on its face, without even starting to address its problems in detail.

You are in a room and you have pressed down on two buttons - one button with your left hand and one with your right. I am going to move those buttons further and further apart. There will come a point at which you cannot keep holding both buttons down. You must release one of them.

If you release the left button then five atomic bombs will go off, each in a different major city. If you release the button under your right hand, a child in Bangalore, Maine, will discover a $1 bill laying on the sidewalk.

Carroll is telling us that, in this type of situation, he would stand there in utter distress unable to come to a conclusion as to which button he would release. "We can't make inter-personal comparisons," he tells us. "We just can't. It's not possible!"

Of course we can. We do it all the time.

Consider the property of temperature - before the thermometer was invented. People living in ancient Greece did not have an easy way to assign a number to the temperature of something, but they could tell that the kettle on the fire is hotter than the kettle sitting on the rock outside during a snow storm.

Anybody who claimed that this could not be done would be uttering an absurdity.

Obviously, we can make interpersonal comparisons if the differences are large enough.

Now, let's look at specific problems.

Problem 1: The focus on well-being.

I will start with the fact that, once again, Carroll is confusing the task of defeating Harris' position on morality-as-science with the general possibility of morality-as-science. Though he writes in the context of responding to Harris, he did not title his paper, "Harris failed to derive 'ought' from 'is'. He titled it, "You can't derive 'ought' from 'is'."

An inability to aggregate well-being still leaves open a great many options respecting the possibility of morality-as-science.

Problem 2: Simple?

Why would the possibility of morality-as-science depend on a simple way of measuring? It seems to me that science gets along quite well in realms where the systems of measurement are not at all simple.

While 'simple' has its merits - all else being equal there are reasons to prefer a simpler method over a complex one - it is not a requirement for the possibility of science. You will not see a dissertation committee tell a graduate student, "These formulae are too difficult; therefore, what you are doing is not science."

Problem 3: It is not the case that the difficulty we have in measuring something is proof of the impossibility of science.

I want us to return to ancient Greece for a moment.

We are in ancient Athens about 350 BCE where we some street philosopher is telling us that we can never have a science of temperature. A science of temperature, he tells you, requires making sense of claims like, "This object's temperature is precisely 0.762 times the temperature of that object."

He insists that it is impossible to even imagine how one would make sense of such a claim. To prove his point, he challenges us to do so. As ancient Greeks we would have to admit that he is right. In the absence of what I know about temperature I certainly do not know how I could have possibly made sense of this type of claim. Nor could I imagine an experiment that would prove that the statement is true or false.

Yet, even though the premises of this argument are true, the conclusion is false. Our inability as ancient Greeks to imagine how to assign numbers to temperature and make sense of these types of comparisons are not proof that it cannot be done. It is not proof of the impossibility of temperature-as-science. It only described the limits of knowledge at the time.

Similarly, Carroll, with his "can't imagine an experiment", is trying to tell us what cannot be done. Yet the best conclusion he can actually justify if we assume that the premises he provides us are true is that our current state of knowledge does not allow us to make sense of these types of statements - yet.

The analogy to temperature goes even deeper.

We did not discover a way of assigning values to temperature until we noted that the volume of a liquid will change as temperature changes. We put liquid in very thin tube, drew a line next to the tube indicating the current volume of the liquid, and we called that '0'. Then we warmed up the substance, watch the liquid in the tube expand in volume and push up the tube, drew another mark, and called it 100.

With this method there were still a lot of temperatures we could not measure. How do we measure temperature at the core of the Earth? Of a distant star? Our inability to do so still would not prove the impossibility of temperature-as-science. It would only prove the limited extent of our current knowledge.

Nor did the invention of the thermometer allow us to make sense of "This object's temperature is precisely 0.762 times the temperature of that object." It is NOT the case that something that is 100 degrees Celsius is twice as hot as something that is 50 degrees Celsius.

We had a temperature-as-science for over a hundred years before we could answer those types of questions.

Yet, Carroll tells us we cannot have a X-as-science until we can answer to those kinds of questions.

Carroll is mistaken.

Problem 4: There is, in fact, a way of aggregating values; of assigning a number to the capacity of a state of affairs to fulfill desires. It's not that simple, perhaps, but I have already argued that 'simple' is not a valid criterion.

Everything I have written above seeks to point out that our current inability to quantify value does not prove that morality-as-science is impossible. Carroll has not given us an argument in defense of his conclusion. Against Carroll’s claim that it cannot be done, we have a huge stack of questions relating to how ‘ought’ can be distinct from ‘is’ that we have to weight against – on the other side – saying that we just don’t know enough yet. Of these two, ‘we just don’t know enough yet’ seems the wiser option.

Yet, in fact, we can quantify value.

I will start to explain how in the next post.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Carroll v. Harris: Brain State Theories of Value

I am continuing to look at Sean Carroll's criticisms of Sam Harris' view on the scientific possibility of moral truth.

(See Sean Carroll: You Can't Derive 'Ought' from 'Is')

The next argument that Carroll uses happens to be the same argument that I use when defending desirism against brain-state theories of value.

Brain-state theories of value are theories that state that value is found in putting the brain in a particular state. Different theories suggest different states as being the ultimate holder of this value. Jeremy Bentham argued that it was pleasure and the absence of pain. John Stuart Mill suggested it was happiness. Harris has asserted that the "well-being of conscious creatures" has to do with being in a certain state of consciousness (or one of several states each of which may serve as its own isolated 'peak' of value).

Against this, Carroll wrote:

Imagine that you are able to quantify precisely some particular mental state that corresponds to a high level of well-being; the exact configuration of neuronal activity in which someone is healthy, in love, and enjoying a hot-fudge sundae. . . . Now imagine that we achieve it by drugging a person so that they are unconscious, and then manipulating their central nervous system at a neuron-by-neuron level until they share exactly the mental state of the conscious person in those conditions. Is that an equal moral good...?

Well, one could argue that an unconscious person cannot possibly be in the same mental state as a conscious person.

My arguments along the same line ask about putting people in an experience machine that puts their brain in a particular state. Or they have suggested the option of putting the brain in a loop where it constantly recycles through some five-minute script of great joy without the memory of having done this 10,000 times before.

In another example (serving a different purpose but still useful here), I have asked about a parent choosing to falsely believe that their child is healthy and happy while the child is being tortured, versus falsely believing that the child is being tortured while the child, in fact, is healthy and happy. The caveat being that the brain state created as a result of one's choice will not include the memory of being asked and answering the question.

The arguments differ slightly, but they point to the same result. A lot of people just don't seem to value brain states.

All brain-state theories are vulnerable to this type of objection.

However, once again Carroll falls victim to thinking that defeating Sam Harris is the same as proving that 'ought' cannot be derived from 'is'.

Desirism is not a brain-state theory and is immune to these states of affairs.

A desire that P is fulfilled by any state of affairs S where P is true in S.

The surgeon, in this case, will not only have to create the correct brain states "on a neuron-by-neuron level", but will also need to create an external state of affairs S so as to make it the case that P is true in S.

It is not enough to create a brain that believes that one's child is healthy and happy. One will also have to create a state of affairs in which the child is, as a matter of fact, healthy and happy.

We can approach this issue from another direction that gives us the same conclusion.

It is absurd, at best, to think that animals evolved to have one and only overriding interest – that is in establishing and maintaining a particular brain state. It is much more reasonable to expect that animals grew to have concerns with states of affairs in the real world, more so than with states of affairs of the between their ears.

However, these are problems with brain-state theories of value, not with the possibility of morality-as-science. It is a mistake to confuse the two.

If we make everyone happy by means of drugs or hypnosis or direct electronic stimulation of their pleasure centers, have we achieved moral perfection?

No. We will not.

Does the answer of "no" prove that we cannot derive 'ought' from 'is'?

No, it does not.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Carroll v. Harris: What Is and What Ought

There's no exclusive break between what 'is' and what 'ought'

There's only a gap between 'is' and 'is not'

So if there's no room for 'what ought' in 'what is'

Then 'ought' is a fiction, a myth, an 'is not'

Okay, now we know I am no poet.

I consider the claim that 'ought' cannot be derived from 'is' to be a very remarkable claim. It suggests that there something . . . 'oughtness' . . . that is totally distinct and separate from things that exist in the real world . . . 'isness' . . . yet is supposed to have relevance in the real world. It is referred to as a part of the real-world explanations for the movement of real matter through space-time. Yet, we are told, this 'ought' or 'should' that we are making a reference to and that has these owers is something distinct and separate from anything in the world of 'is'.

By the way, if we are going to separate 'ought' from 'is', it is not enough to simply separate it from empirical science. If there is anything that 'is' that is independent of science, 'ought' must be distinct from that as well. And yet it is said to be relevant in the real world of 'is'.

How is that possible?

My position is that 'ought' is relevant in the real world because 'ought' is a species of 'is', and there is no mystery as to how 'is' can be relevant in the real world.

So, when I put you cannot derive 'ought' from 'is up against 'ought' can interact with 'is' because it is a species of 'is', and I realize that one of them must be mistaken, it seems far more likely that we will find the error in the first proposition rather than the second. I would be far less surprised by a discovery thta 'ought' is relevant to 'is' because 'ought' is a subset of 'is' than that there is a realm of 'ought' separate and distinct from 'is' but still relevant in the world of 'is'.

Sean Carroll sought to prove that 'ought' cannot be derived from 'is', and wrote the following:

When two people have different views about what constitutes real well-being, there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong. It does not mean that the conversation is impossible, just that it is not science.

Carroll wrote: You Can't Derive 'Ought' from 'Is'

To be honest, I have no difficulty at all imagining these arguments. I have discussed them in this blog. However, no doubt some would want to dispute the success of that project. In this post I want to show how problematic Carroll's claims are, even if somebody like Carroll deriving 'ought' from 'is' is unimaginable. It is still more likely that there is a bridge somewhere that we have not yet discovered, then that there is a permanent and uncrossable gap separating 'ought' from 'is'.

First, I would like Carroll to prove that there is no experiment that we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong. Specifically, what method is Carroll using to determine the limits of our possible imagination. His premise that we cannot imagine such an experiment is desperately in need of an argument to defend it. However, Carroll only asserts it. In asserting it, he is actually merely asserting his conclusion. This makes his argument entirely and viciously circular.

Furthermore, his argument is actually nothing more than an argument from ignorance. What Carroll is really saying is, "I do not know of an experiment that can prove one of them right and the other wrong." He is using this as the first premise in an argument that claims to demonstrate that we cannot derive 'ought' from 'is'. However, ignorance is only a limit on what we do know, not a limit on what we can know. Reaching that further conclusion requires a bit more work.

Second, how is it the case that the limits of our imagination provide the boundaries to what is real and what is not? I have difficulty imagining a black hole - an infinitely small . . . thing . . . that nonetheless has so much mass that light itself cannot escape it. Or subatomic particles where not only is it the case that we do not know whether they are in state A or state B, but which are both until we look at them at which point they acquire state A and state B, or how particles can travel back in time.

I can imagine a school teacher 1000 years from now telling one of his students, "Those ideas were rejected 1000 years ago. What is real is limited by what people who lived 1000 years ago in substantial ignorance of a lot of what we know today could imagine. We have personal testimony that they could not imagine an experiment that will prove a moral truth. You are attempting to do something that Sean Carroll, 1000 years ago, testified that people living in his time could not imagine. So, you must be wrong. I am giving you an F on your paper."

I am not saying here that Carroll's conclusion is mistaken. I am saying that he is providing us with a poor argument if all he can tell us about in the defense of his conclusion are what Carroll claims to be the limits of what we can imagine.

Third, these types of subjectivists claims usually leave one of their essential propositions unstated. This is probably due to the fact that when it is brought out into the light, it reveals a significant problem with the whole project.

We can shine some light on this unstated proposition by asking the following question:

If there is no argument that can be offered to show that one of them is wrong, then why adopt a position on the subject?

As I see it, if I am faced with the option of A or not-A, and I there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong, then the only legitimate position to take on the subject is to withhold judgment.

However, the subjectivist does not see it this way.

The subjectivist tells us that there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong, and yet that it is at the same time permissible to adopt either A or not-A.

In Carroll's case, our feelings justify our adopting particular conclusions.

In the real world we have moral feelings, and we try to make sense of them. They might not be "true" or "false" in the sense that scientific theories are true or false, but we have them.

Let me remind the reader that we are talking about "feelings" about who is allowed to live and who is killed, who goes free and who is thrown in prison or enslaved, who is made comfortable and who is made to suffer.

What Carroll is telling us is that the feeling that certain people should die is all we need to justify the conclusion that they actually deserve to die. Our feeling might not be "true' or "false", but we do have them - and if we do have them, then our claim that those we want to kill deserve to die is sufficiently justified.

There seems to be a lot of people who have a feeling that homosexuals should be put to death. According to Carroll, "morality is still possible". It may not be the case that this feeling that homosexuals deserve to die is "true" or "false". All that matters is that we have the feeling. And, if we have the feeling, then it follows that morality demands the execution of all homosexuals.

Carroll has told us, there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove [them to be wrong].

Well, the corrolary to this is that there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove them to be right either. And if we cannot prove one statement right and the other wrong, then there is - by definition - no justification in adopting one option and rejecting the other.

In these cases, the only legitimate position to adopt is to withhold judgment.

Let me repeat . . . if Carroll's premise that there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove [them to be wrong].is true, then the only reasonable implication is not to go ahead and adopt one or another proposition that cannot be proved. The only sensible outcome is to say that right, let us then adopt no attitude on slavery, on the holocaust, on the rape and tortue of children, and the like. If no 'ought' statement can be justified - if no 'ought' statement can be derived from 'is' - then let no ought statement be made. Let us abandon 'ought' entirely and live in the real world - the world of 'is' - instead.

Desirism is perfectly comfortable with this option.

There is not mutually exclusive distinction between 'is' and 'ought'. There is only a distinction between 'is' and 'is not'. If 'ought cannot find a home in what 'is', then 'ought' is something that 'is not'

Under this option, the desirist would simply make descriptive claims about the relationship between states of affairs and desires - and dismiss all 'not-is' statements as 'is-not' statements. That would be sufficient.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Carroll v. Harris: The Irrelevance of Definitions and Differences

I am writing about Sean Carroll's argument as to why we cannot have a science of morality as described by Sam Harris in his talk to the TED conference.

Carroll wrote:

The point [of a science of morality] is simply that the goal of morality should be to create certain conditions that are, in principle, directly measurable by empirical means. (If that's not the point, it's not science.). Nevertheless, I want to argue that this program is simply not possible.

I will accept this account of a science of morality . . . except I am hesitant to say that the conditions must be directly measurable. It sems that science is filled with a long list of situations that are only indirectly measureable. Even here, there are fields of science in which certain situations are not measureable.

Against this possibility, Carroll provides three arguments. I will discuss one of those arguments in each of the next three posts.

(1) There is no single definition of well-being.

I am amazed at how many people think that this is a good argument. I encounter it all the time. People cannot agree on a definition of morality; therefore, morality cannot be made into a science.

How do scientists decide on the meaning of a word?

They simply decide. They state, "Okay, we're going to use this word to mean that thing over there.." Sometimes, they take a vote. None of this interferes with the objectivity of science.

Scientists seem unable to agree on the definition of a planet. Some of them insist on continuing to use a definition in which Pluto is classified as a planet. Yet, nobody has even suggested that "There is no single definition of 'planet'" would be a threat to the science of astronomy.

If there is a single definition of a word it is because a group of scientists have made an arbitrary decision to adopt a particular definition - and everybody else has decided to yield to the authority of the few. Yet, even there, we see no threat to the objectivity of science.

What scientists have realized, that too many people who write about ethics get flat wrong, is that definitions do not matter. Definitions are not about things in the world - they are about the language we are going to use to talk about things in the world. Anybody who insists that a particular definition - whether of atom or malaria orplanet orwell-being is the one and only possible ever in the whole universe correct definition of this term is starting out with such a warped sense of the role of language that everything that follows is nothing but confused gibberish.

When it comes to definitions of good or morality or well-being my answer is always, "If you don't like my definitions, then choose definitions you do like. It does not matter to the theory. The only effect that this will have on the theory is that some effort will need to go into translating the theory from the language I am using (a version of English) into another language 9(e.g., a different version of English). The theory itself is unaffected - no matter what definition of well-being you might adopt.

However, Carroll was not responding to my claims. He was responding to Harris' claims.

Which brings up (again) another objection to Carroll's argument. Carroll continues to confuse the task of criticizing Harris's view that morality is concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures with the question of whether a science of morality is possible. He continues to commit the fallacy of arguing against the former claim (which is easy to do - since Harris is wrong) with the claim that there is a possibility of moral science. He defeats the former then suddenly asserts that he has defeated the latter.

When we get into the meat of the debate, Carroll does not talk so much about the definition of 'well-being'. In fact, he spends the rest of this section using the term 'well-being' as if we are substantially in agreement over what it means, and claiming instead that it is not something that everybody values.

First, there are people who are not interested in universal well-being at all.

While I'm happy to admit that people are morally confused, I see no evidence whatsoever that [all people] ultimately value the same thing. The position doesn't even seem coherent. Is it a priori necessary that people ultimately have the same idea about human well-being, or is it a contingent truth about actual human beings? Can we not even imagine people with fundamentally incompatible views of the good? (I think I can.) And if we can, what is the reason for this cosmic accident that we all happen to agree? And if that happy cosmic accident exists, it's still merely an empirical fact; by itself, the existence of universal agreement on what is good doesn't necessarily imply that it is good. We could all be mistaken, after all.

Before responding to this passage we should note that Carroll confuses two distinct things - what we value, and what we believe about what we value. Carroll starts by talking about what we want - which I can easily understand to be a statement about what we desire. However, he quickly slips into speaking about our "ideas about human well-being" and "views of the good" as if these are the same thing.

The difference between what we value and what we believe about what we value is as plain as the difference between what I drive and what I believe about what I drive. I may think my car is a classic 1950s model Chevy that was once driven by James Dean. This could accurate describe what I believe about my car without accurately describing the car.

It turns out that neither interpretation is going to get Carroll where he wants to go. However, it does create some.

I agree with Carroll that it is absolutely false that we all value the same thing. And that we do not all believe the same things about what we value. In fact, one of my objections against Harris is that he cannot come up with even a remotely plausible story of how all value got wrapped up into one package called "the well-being of conscious creatures".

I pointed out, among other things, how evolution is going to give us desire that are more immediate and relevant. Animals have a desire to have sex, to eat, to drink, to be in a comfortable environment. They have no interest in "the well-being of conscious creatures." So, how is it that we only have an interest in "the well-being of conscious creatures" and gave up all of these other concerns? And where is the evidence for that transformation?

The difference between Carroll and myself is that I wrote in the context of a blog in which I argue not only for the possibility but the actuality of deriving 'ought' from 'is', and Carroll wrote his claim in an article that "you cannot derive 'ought' from 'is'"

So, I want to know how the fact that we have different desires, or the fact that we have different beliefs about what we value, at all supports the proposition that we cannot derive 'ought' from 'is'.

Our desires are not the only facts about us that differ from person to person. It is also the case that one person's age, height, weight, hair color, location, blood pressure, blood alcohol content, pulse, potassium levels, also differ from one person to another. Yet, nobody takes these individual differences to prove that that we cannot have a science of medicine. They also do not infer from this that some people that there is only one "correct" blood pressure and anybody whose blood pressure deviates from this amount has an "incorrect" blood pressure.

In short, none of this proves the impossibility of proving 'ought' from 'is'. All of these facts are true about desirism yet it still can derive 'ought' from 'is'. It simply includes among the is statements that it derives 'ought' from that different people have different desires.

In fact, one of the conclusions that we get from desirism is that, in some situations, different people ought to have different desires. It is better, all things considered, if some people desire that A and others desire that B than it would be if everybody desired A or everybody desired not-A. It is better that some people value teaching and other people value medicine than it is that all people value teaching (and not medicine) or that all people value medicine (and not teaching).

Carroll concludes this section by writing:

When two people have different views about what constitutes real well-being, there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong. It does not mean that the conversation is impossible, just that it is not science.

As it turns out, this is a wholly different argument, unrelated to the arguments that came before. It is not an argument based on the arbitrariness of definitions (which fails because all definitions in all fields of study are arbitrary). Nor is it an argument from individual variability (which fails because age, height, weight, location, and any number of other properties vary from individual to individual yet are still unashamedly used in science). It is an entirely new argument, which I will responid to in an entirely new posting.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Value of Desire Fulfillment

A member of the studio audience pointed me to another article that Sean Carroll wrote against Sam Harris' claim that there are moral facts - that there is a fact of the matter regarding what is right and wrong, virtuous and vicious.

Carroll wrote: You Can't Derive 'Ought' from 'Is'

What would it mean to have a science of morality? I think it would have to look something like this: Human beings seek to maximize something we choose to call "well-being" (although it might be called "utility", "or "happiness", or "flourishing", or something else).

Here, I want to repeat an objection to Carroll's argument that I mentioned last time. Carroll needs to distinguish between having objections to Harris' theory of morality and with the possibility of scientific morality in general. Proving that Harris is wrong no more proves that we cannot have a science of morality than proving that the ancient Greeks were wrong concerning the fundamental particles of matter proves that we cannot have a science of chemistry.

In fact, Carroll is wrong to think that a science of morality has to be one of these options. I argue that morality is not concerned with the maximization of any one thing. In fact, I view those theories to be absurd. You cannot come up with any type of decent account of how hundreds of millions of years of evolution has designed the human brain to have only one interest - be it Aristotelian eudemonia, Benthamite pleasure, Millian happiness, Singerian preference satisfaction, or Harrisian well-being.

If somebody wants to explain to me how that happened, I would be interested in hearing their story.

Instead, we evolved a number of different interests. We have an interest in sex and, here, we tend to be disposed to find particular physical features as identifying a preferred mating partner. We have an interest in food - and a stronger preference for some types of foods over others. We also have an interest in drinking. We have an interest in being in a comfortable environment. We have an interest in the well-being of our children and of our associates. These interests can be explained in terms of our evolutionary history. We can account for how evolution favored those with some interests and selected against others - like those with an interest in jumping from great heights, perhaps.

Furthermore, evolution has made our desires malleable. Our environment teaches us to like certain things and dislike others. In this, desires are much like beliefs. The belief that there is a tree over there is not genetic. It is the effect of photons striking the tree and bouncing off, then striking the eye, and being processed in the brain in such a way as to generate the belief, "There is a tree over there."

A brain that is malleable enough to form different beliefs depending on how it interacts with the environment is also capable of forming different desires depending on how it interacts with the environment.

Which means that all of us have some power to modify the desires that other people have by controlling the types of interactions they have with their environment. If we respond to certain expressions of desire through praise and condemnation we have the power to cause others to like certain things they might not otherwise have liked, and to dislike certain things they might not have otherwise disliked.

So, any theory that begins by saying that we are out to maximize something has already ran into problems. These theories can be discarded - or, at least, they have a lot of work to do to prove that they are worth taking seriously.

Which means that Carroll is mistaken in saying that a science of morality has to be a maximization theory and that by defeating maximization theories Carroll has defeated the possibility of a science of morality.

Here, an astute long-term reader of this blog might raise the question, "Isn't this the same thing you are doing with 'desire fulfillment'? Are you not treating desire fulfillment the same way that Jeremy Bentham treated pleasure, and Sam Harris treats the well-being of conscious creatures?"


Desire fulfillment has no value.

Well, it could have value if the right set of conditions are met, but it need not have any value at all. If desire fulfillment has value, then it has value in virtue of the same types of relationships that give value to rocks, paintings, movies, and everything else. It must stand in a particular relationship to reasons for action that exist (desires).

I admit that, for many people, this is a difficult concept to grasp. We are accustomed to thinking about theories in which the author proposes some entity and says that this is the good. This is the thing to which all value adheres. Therefore, it is easy and comfortable to put any new theory one encounters into that model. However, in this case, it is a mistake. Desirism does not talk about maximizing some entity called 'desire fulfillment'. It talks about making or keeping true those propositions that are the objects of our desires.

Okay, let's take a little closer look at what this means.

Let us assume that we have an agent A who has a choice to make between two possible future states. A has one desire - a desire that P. For our example, P = world W is left in a pristine and undisturbed state. In future state S1, A exists and W is left in a pristine and undisturbed state. In future state S2, A does not exist and W is left in a pristine and undisturbed state.

A has no particular reason to choose either world over the other. In fact, he has no basis on which to make a choice. In both possible future states P is true, so his desire is fulfilled. So, both possible future states are equally valuable to A.

We - appealing to our own desires and even to the desires we want to promote in our community, will have a disposition to favor S1 over S2. We may 'feel' as if S1 is the better option. However, that is based solely on the fact that S1 better fulfills our desires. It has nothing to do with how the two states of affairs relate to A's desires. A, who has only this one desire, has no reason to choose S1 over S2. To A, both possible worlds have equal value.

We can imagine cases in which A's presence has instrumental value. We can imagine that A's presence is required to keep other people from disturbing W. However, in these types of cases, we are no longer talking about cases in which A is choosing between S1 and S2 where P is true in both cases. We are talking about cases in which the agent is choosing between S1 (I am here and am keeping W pristine and untouched) and S2 (I am not here and others have invaded W.

It is perfectly consistent with the theory to hold that, if these were the options, S1 would have more valuable than S2.

Now, if I were treating desire fulfillment the way Bentham treated pleasure, or Mill treated happiness, or Harris treats the well-being of conscious creatures, I would have to say that S1 has more value than S2. S1 contains desire fulfillment, while S2 does not. Recall that desire fulfillment is a state in which an agent has a desire that P, there is a state of affairs S, and P is true in S. S1 is the only future state in which there is an agent who has a desire that P. So, S1 is the only state that contains desire fulfillment.

However, desire fulfillment is not what has value. For an agent with a desire that P, states of affairs in which P is true have value. For an agent with one desire - a desire that P - he has reason to bring about S if and only if P is true in S. P is true in both S1 and S2, so the agent has no basis for making any type of choice between them.

In order to arrive at the conclusion that S1 has more value than S2 we must introduce a second desire. Let us introduce another agent, B. B has a desire that Q where Q = "desire fulfillment exists". In this case, B has reason to choose S1 over S2, because Q is true in S1, but not in S2.

B has reason to try to persuade A to choose S1. Yet, given the assumptions we have made in this example, B is going to have a hard time doing this. He cannot bribe A. The only thing A cares about is that the world is left in a pristine state and that is going to happen regardless of whether A chooses S1 or S2.

B does have the option of threatening A. However, the only threat that holds any promise of working is for B to say to A, "If you choose S2, then I will go and stomp all over W. I will ensure that W is not left in a pristine state."

So, I emphatically deny that desirism states that desire fulfillment has any kind of value. The only way that anything can have value - any S - is to the extent that P is true in S and there exists a desire that P. Even here, that value only motivates the person who has the desire.

Desire-fulfillment is not an exception to this principle. It is one of the things that has value only to the degree that P is true in a state of desire fulfillment, and there exists a desire that P.

(Note: S can also have instrumental value if S is able to help bring about T, and P is true in T, and there exists a desire that P.)

So, while other theorists may say that we are concerned with eudemonia, or pleasure, or happiness, or preference satisfaction, or the well-being of conscious creatures, or even desire fulfillment, I deny all of these possibilities.

What we are really interested in is making or keeping true the propositions P that are the objects of our "desires that P". That is what we are interested in. And because we are not governed by any single desire, it is not the case that there is any single "thing" that is the measure of all value that we can then hope to maximize.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Religion and the "Really Wrong"

One of the ways in which those who defend a religious ethic claim to have an advantage over those who defend a secular ethic is in having something to say to those who might otherwise contemplate evil.

How can you explain to somebody that it is really wrong for them to torture young children? If there is no God and, thus, no supernatural morality, then all you can tell the torturer is that you don't like it when he tortures young children. However, that falls significantly short of the goal of telling him that it's really wrong.

One of the things that follows from teaching somebody that torturing young children is really wrong is that they will then if you can convince them of this, then they will not torture young children.

So, now the religious ethic has two advantage over secular competitors. First, it provides a way of describing the torture of young children as really wrong, and, second, it provides a way to convince somebody not to do that which is really wrong.

Well, actually, it fails on both accounts.

Really Wrong?

First, it fails to provide an account of something being really wrong because it fails in so many ways to give us an account of what is really wrong. Working on the Sabbath is punishable by death. Not only that, but you also have to give your slave a day of rest as well? One shall not charge interest on a loan except to foreigners? The penalty for rape is to be forced to marry your victim?

Is it really right to punish the children and grand children and great grand children of somebody who has dome something wrong? Is it really right to execute, immediately, any person who tries to convert somebody to another God? Or anybody who gives up a religion for another? Is really right that engaging in a homosexual act should be punishable by death? Is it really right to release a plague that will kill the first born in every family in order to obtain a political objective?

It is permissible to obliterate a city - men, women, and children - if one cannot find 10 righteous men, where 'righteous' is defined, among other things, as a willingness to kill those who work on the Sabbath or who engage in homosexual acts?

How is this supposed to be a guide to what is really wrong?

The Extension of Moral Error

Furthermore, once somebody looks at the religious text and sees all of the things that it gets wrong, they then merely need to extend those attitudes towards the few things that religious texts get right - to theft, murder, and lying among others. It is easy to draw the inference that murder, theft, and deceit are really wrong in the way that working on the Sabbath and charging interest on one’s money are really wrong.

Interpretation and the Introduction of Human Preconceptions

A common retort that I encounter when I give these alleged prescriptions - those not endorsed in the 20th century even by religious conservatives - out of context. As such, I am not delivering the correct interpretation.

However, let us be clear about how context works. What these agents are doing is first taking some ideas of right and wrong and using them as a measure of what scripture says, "in context.". If a particular interpretation of a passage yields a result that the interpreter does not fail, then the interpreter does not admit to being wrong about the morality of act. Instead, the interpreter complains that the interpretation being used is flawed - that a correct interpretation is one that yields the moral answers that the speaker is comfortable with.

However, this does not do anything to explain why a particular act is wrong. In fact, the way this works is that the interpreter simply begins with the assumption that his own prejudices and preconceptions are correct, and scripture is to be interpreted so as to support those assumptions. It is little wonder that he who claims to find such virtue in religion is so strongly motivated to do what the religion tells him to do. Under this cover of "context" assigns his preferences and prejudices to God.

Threat as a Form of Moral Argument

Furthermore, an appeal to religious authority actually does not explain why these things are really wrong.

It provides motivation by offering rewards and threatening punishments. However, these do not explain the wrongness of things.

A kidnapper can tell his victim, "The first time I catch you trying to escape, I will cut off A finger. The second time, I will cut off your hand." This may be effective in getting the victim to decide not to try to escape. However, it is a poor argument when it comes to explaining why trying to escape is really wrong.

Similarly the claim that an all-powerful God is watching over us and will threaten us with permanent torture if we commit the crime of working on the Sabbath or charging interest on our money. For those who believe it, this may be in fact inspire them to refuse any job that requires working on the Sabbath and who never puts his money into a saving account or any interest-bearing securities. However, it fails to provide any explanation at all as to why it is really wrong to do these things.

The people who obey God in these cases are like the victim who obeys the kidnapper. He is not doing so out of an understanding of the really wrongness of the action. He is doing so out of a desire to avoid the consequences of getting caught.

”It works” versus “It’s True”

Still, it works, right? If you can convince somebody not to torture a child or work on the Sabbath because some supernatural all-knowing, all-powerful being will condemn them to eternal suffering, then even though this fails to explain why it is really wrong, you have still saved a child from torture or prevented an act of working on the Sabbath. That is its own justification for these stories.

Well, not really. Not if you want to teach people that it is wrong to "bear false witness" or engage in other acts of deception.

It is important to note that this defense of divine command does not say that "it is true." It says, "It is useful." The reason to convince people that an omnipotent all-knowing distributor of justice is always looking over their shoulder with an eye to permanent punishment is that "it works". It provides those who believe it a reason to obey the commands they are given.

Consequently, one of the moral assumptions that sit at the very heart of this kind of argument is that controlling the behavior of others is a good reason to make claims that are not true, regardless of whether or not the claims are true. It is a recipe for deception as a social tool. It says, "We are not going to pay attention to what is true. We are going to pay attention to what is useful in terms of manipulating others into doing what we want them to do."


So, we end up with all sorts of problems associated with the idea that the scripture and religion have an advantage over secular ethics in giving us an account of what is really wrong. First, it is full of errors. Second, the art of interpretation means that the interpreter uses his own right and wrong to determine which interpretation of scripture is correct and thus assigns his or her own moral sentiments to God. Third, the motive to obey is not grounded on an appreciation of the rightness or wrongness of actions but on fear of punishment. Fourth, the argument is grounded on the assumptions that the merit of a claim is not that it is true but that it is useful in manipulating others into doing that which the speaker wants them to do.

None of these qualities are particularly useful when it comes to creating a fair and just society.

None of them are consistent with the claim that those who profess that morality comes from God that religious ethics provides gives us a better understanding of why anything that is wrong is really wrong.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Desirism, Descriptions, and Prescriptions

Here is a simple and straight forward question that I got from Luke Muerhlhauser's studio audience.

Is Desirism a descriptive or a prescriptive theory?

Answer: Both

The rule that links the two is that the only legitimate prescription is an accurate description of a relationship between some potential state of affairs and reasons for action that exist. Absent the details, it says that all legitimate prescriptions are descriptions.

Now, by a prescription I am referring to any should or ought statement. "Jim should go see a doctor." or "We should recognize and respect a separation between church and state," or "You ought to pay Alice back the fifty dollars you borrowed last week."

Any should or ought statement invites the question, "Why should I?" or "Why is it the case that I ought to?"

From this question, the only legitimate answer is a reason for action. In fact, the only legitimate answer is a real reason for action.

If you give an answer that is not a reason for action, then do not be surprised if the person you are talking to simply stares back at you in confusion.

"You should comb your hair before it dries."


"Because water has a freezing temperature of 0 degrees Celsius."


You need a reason for action to answer a "Why?" question. Not only that, you need a reason for action that bears the right kind of relationship to the state of affairs you are evaluating.

"You should comb your hair before it dries."


"Because I know you hate to eat fish."

"What? If I don't comb my hair before it dries then I will have to eat fish?"

And you need a reason for action that is real.

A person might give his answer by referring to God's will, categorical imperatives, a reason for action that is an inherent property of some states of affairs themselves, some hypothetical social contract, the wishes of an impartial observer, choices made by substantially ignorant people behind a veil of ignorance, and the like. However, these reasons for action do not exist. Therefore, none of them provide a legitimate answer to the "Why should I?" question.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

Regular readers might be tired of hearing this, but a great deal is built on this.

Beliefs and desires are propositional attitudes - they are attitudes that an agent takes towards a proposition. A"belief that P" is the attitude that P is true - that P is an accurate description of the world. A "desire that P" is a motivational attitude that pushes the agent to realize states of affairs in which P is true. A parent's desires "that my child be healthy" is a motivational attitude that pushes the parent to act so as to realize states of affairs in which the proposition "my child is healthy" is true.

A "desire that P" is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true.

So, now, a legitimate prescription is an accurate description of a relationship between a state of affairs and a set of desires such that it relates the propositions that are true in a given sate of affairs to the propositions that are the objects of real desires.

"You should comb your hair before it dries that way otherwise when you go out in public you will be subjecting yourself to ridicule and you hate ridicule. Even if you do not hate ridicule, people tend to treat those who look ridiculous with less kindness and respect, and you may find you have reasons to want their kindness and respect."

Now, we have a description of how a state of affairs relates to a set of reasons for action that exist - specifically, the desires of the agent we are talking to.

"You should comb your hair before it dries that way" is both a prescription and, at the same time, a description of how a particular state of affairs relates to a set of reasons for action that exist.

A moral statement, like any other prescription, has to follow this same formula. Any moral statement that is a legitimate prescription must also be an accurate description of a relationship between some object of evaluation and real reasons for action. Any theory of morality that deviates from this formula has wandered into a world of make-believe. Their moral prescriptions are as fictitious as the reasons for action they invent.

I have proposed that the states of affairs that moral 'oughts' are primarily used to evaluate have to do with the strength and prevalence of malleable desires. Malleable desires are those that can be molded using social tools such as praise and condemnation. A moral 'ought' prescribes malleable desires to the community at large.

It is important to note that they are not prescriptions for the given individual one is talking to. They are prescriptions for the community as a whole. As such, they consider all of the reasons for action that are real. A moral claim is not really a claim about what "you ought to do", but a claim about "what any member of the community in your situation should want to do," where praise and condemnation are used as tools to help bring it about that it is something that people generally do want to do.

At this point, the task is to come up with the relationship between an object of evaluation and a set of desires that best accounts for the way a term is used in public discussion.

Applying this methodology to the term 'health', we note that this term is used to evaluate mental and physical functioning. An accurate prescription in the health department is an accurate description of a relationship between some state of physical or mental functioning and the desires of the agent. A form of functioning that tends to thwart the desires of those agents who have them is an 'illness' if its cause is minute and impossible to recognize by simple means. If its cause is easy to recognize - like getting trampled by a horse or falling off a ladder - we use the term 'injury'.

If we study the term 'useful', we apply it to any number of things. The desires or reasons for action that are relevant to the usefulness of something are determined by the context of the sentence in which the term is used. However, we only use the term to refer to indirect relationships between states of affairs and desires. That is to say, something is useful only insofar as it has the ability to bring about something else - and that something else has true propositions that are the objects of those desires being referred to in context.

Looking at the way people use the term 'beautiful', for some reason this is only used to evaluate things heard or seen - not things that are smelled or touched or tasted. Furthermore, it is applied to states that fulfill the desires directly. Looking at them, or hearing them, appeals to us not because of what we can use them for, but in themselves.

The relationship that makes the best sense of how moral terms are used - without wandering off into the realm of fiction and fantasy - is the relationship between malleable desires (desires that can be molded using forces such as praise and condemnation) and all other desires. A moral 'ought' is not a prescription made to an individual. It is a prescription made to the community. It is not a statement about "what you ought to do", though it is often expressed that way. It is a statement about "What people in the community generally have reason to cause any person in your situation to want to do."

It is often brought up that we have the power to take the term 'moral' and apply it to something other than this. However, we also have the power to take the terms 'health', 'injury', 'illness', 'useful', and 'beauty' and apply them to other things as well. We also have the capacity to take the terms 'atom', 'malaria', 'planet', and every other term in our language and apply them to something else.

It is true that we can take the term 'moral' and apply it to something else. It is also not important. The person who thinks that this is important - that this reveals some significant secret about morality - does not understand language. If this were some great discovery proving the subjectivity of morality, then it also proves the subjectivity of chemistry, medicine, astronomy, and every other field of study.

So, is desirism a descriptive theory or a prescriptive theory? Well, any theory that separates the two - that claims that the two are mutually exclusive - can be thrown out. Those theories are dealing in the realm of make-believe. Legitimate prescriptions are accurate descriptions of relationships between states of affairs and reasons for action. If your moral prescriptions are not, at the same time, accurate descriptions, then they are fictions that have no relevance in the real world.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sam Harris, Sean Carroll, and Deriving Ought from Is

Last month I wrote a series of articles concerning Sam Harris' speech at TED on the possibility of a science of morality.

(See Sam Harris' Presentation Science Can Answer Moral Questions)

I was not the only one to offer criticism of Sam Harris' comments. So, to compliment the points that I raised, I would like to say some things about the points that others have raised. Specifically, I would like to address the points raised by Sean Carroll.

(See Sean Carroll The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate.)

Harris asserted that the concern of morality is with the well-being of conscious creatures. Furthermore, we can tell, just by looking at the world, that there is obviously greater well-being in some parts of the world than others. He takes the well-being of conscious creatures to be an objective fact that we can study and come up with scientific truths about. These are not just scientific truths about how to obtain the well-being of conscious creatures, but scientific truths about the well-being of conscious creatures itself.

I would like to start by giving my take on Sam Harris' argument. As I see it, Harris' argument is much like the following:

Yes, we can have a science of physical matter. After all, every object in the universe is made up of a mixture of the four elements - earth, air, fire, and water. These elements are made up of atoms, which are extremely small pieces of an element which themselves have no parts. Now, we can have an objective science of the atoms of the four elements. Therefore, we can have a science of physical matter.

In other words, what Harris got right was his claim that we can have a science of morality. What he got wrong was his specific claims about the nature of the subject that we are studying scientifically.

The reason that this is important is because some of the criticisms that Harris has had to put up with commit a clear fallacy. They have attacked the specifics of Sam Harris' theory and then asserted that this disproves his claim that we can have a science of morality.

This is as fallacious as taking objections to the theory of matter included in my analogy to Harris's argument and taking that as proof that we cannot, in fact, have a science of physical matter. "Your theory fails, so a theory of physical matter is not possible."

It does not fail, so long as there are other theories that are out there. What the person raising this objection needs is not to find problems with Harris' specific theory, but some reason to believe that no theory is possible.

Carroll appeals to David Hume to provide that argument.

There is an old saying going back to David Hume that says that you cannot derive an ought from an is. And Hume was right! You can't derive an ought from an is! Yet people keep on trying.

Prove it.

Show me an argument that proves that you cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. Hume gives us no argument. Hume gives us a fallacy. He gives as an "argument from ignorance". He says, I don't know how to do it; therefore, it cannot be done." Yet, it is a bit like saying that I cannot figure out the volume of an irregular solid; therefore, it cannot be done. Or, I cannot calculate the orbital mechanics necessary to get a spaceship from the Earth to the Moon; therefore, it cannot be done.

Here is Hume's often quoted paragraph:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

There is nothing in here but an argument from ignorance.

It is as if we have introduced a new principle of logic that says:

• X is inconceivable to Hume.

• Therefore, not-X

Since this ill-fated paragraph was written, people have used it as an excuse for closing their minds to any discussion of real-world 'ought'. As soon as somebody starts talking about 'ought' as something in the real world, they shut their minds, shout "You can't do that", and point to Hume's argument from ignorance as proof.

It is as bad as any religion.

If there is an actual proof - something other than Hume's fallacy - I would like to know what it is.

There is an argument against accepting Hume's claim or, more precisely, concluding that what Hume finds to be inconceivable can somehow be done.

It has to do with all of the questions that surround the alternative.

If you believe that 'ought' cannot be derived from 'is', then I have a question for you. Do 'ought' statements have any relevance in the world of physical matter?

Is an 'ought' relationship - whatever it is - ever in any way a part of the explanation for, for example, the movement of atoms through space and time? Has it, for example, ever influenced a human action or been a part of explaining why a person did something or refrained from doing something else?

If the answer is "yes" then you are telling me that something that is completely divorced from what "is" - that is completely separate from it - has the power to influence the movement of matter through space-time.

How does that happen?

Now that you have told me what an ought-relationship is not - that it is not derived from 'is' - can you please tell me what this 'ought-relationship' is? And, in giving me this explanation, include an account of how 'ought' has the power to effect the movement of objects in the real world?

In fact, if we divorce 'ought' from 'is', can we even make sense of the question: "What 'is' an ought relationship?"

This is how Hume's so-called law shuts down the brain. If we accept it, not only can we not get answers to any questions, we cannot even form questions to ask. We have placed 'ought' outside of all intelligible conversation.

If the answer is "no", then my question to you is, "Why are we still talking about it?" If ought-relationships have no impact on the real world - if it has no explanation to offer as to why matter moves in a particular way - if it has no influence on any intentional action at any time - then why speak about it at all as if it has real-world relevance?

In any discussion of any real-world issue, anybody who brings up an ought-relationship as if it is relevant to the discussion can be hereby dismissed as speaking nonsense. It is as senseless as bringing up God or ghosts or any other imaginary entity that, because it is imaginary, can never have relevance to that which is real

So, this is my answer to those who say, "And Hume was right!"

If Hume was right, then explain to me how this 'ought-relationship' you are talking about has relevance in the real world? How can an 'ought' distinct and separate from 'is' have any relevance to what is?

Or, in other words, if you cannot derive 'ought' from 'is', then is it not also the case that you cannot derive 'is' from 'ought'?

Or, my common way of expressing this problem:

There is no mutually exclusive is-ought distinction. There is an is-is not distinction. Ought either needs to find a home in the world of what 'is', or we need to put 'ought' in the realm of what is not

Having said this, Harris is still wrong when he says that morality has to do exclusively with the well-being of conscious creatures. He is going to struggle to defend his claim that moral ought resides as a property in the well-being of conscious creatures - because it does not. However, Harris is wrong as a matter of fact, not because of the impossibility of deriving fact from value.

For the record, I hold that the 'ought' relationship is a relationship between states of affairs and desires, and that 'moral ought' is a relationship between malleable desires other desires. A virtue is a malleable desire that tends to fulfill other desires, while a 'vice' (using the term in its classical sense) is a malleable desire that tends to thwart other desires.

However, it doesn't follow from the fact that Harris made a mistake about what 'ought' is that 'ought' cannot be derived from 'is'. You might as well say that because the ancient Greeks were wrong about atoms that there can be no science of chemistry.

We need to find a theory that actually works - even if it turns out to be one that Hume could not have conceived.

Friday, May 07, 2010

What The Emotivisits Get Right

What The Emotivists Get Right

As a moral realist (one who holds that moral claims are propositions that, when true, tell us truths about the real world), I would normally be classified as somebody who must then assert that the emotivists are mistaken.

Emotivists state that moral statements are not propositions at all. They are emotional utterances. To say that charity is good is functionally the same as cheering charity. To say rape is bad is functionally the same as booing rape. Cheers and boos are not propositions having a truth value. Consequently, moral claims are not propositions having a truth value.

While I reject the emotivist claim that moral statements are propositions, there is a grain of truth to what the emotivists are telling us. Moral claims have an emotive component. They are not only statements about what it is people have reason to praise and condemn. They are also acts of praise and condemn. They carry within themselves the praise and condemnation they claim to be justified.

Specifically, I defend a theory that holds that moral claims, when true, describe relationships between malleable desires and other desires.

Briefly, a part of the theory states that desires are one of two types of propositional attitudes - the other being beliefs. A belief that P is a non-motivational attitude that P is true. A desire that P is an attitude that motivate the agent to make it the case or keep it the case that P is true.

A desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true.

A virtue is a malleable "desire that P" that tends to fulfill other desires, while a vice is a malleable "desire that P" that tends to thwart other desires.

There is an objective fact of the matter as to whether a malleable desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires - tends to make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of those other desires. Consequently, there is an objective fact of the matter as to whether a desire is a virtue or a vice.

A true moral statement concerning virtue and vice, then, describes a "desire that P" as a desire that tends to fulfill or thwart other desires. In doing so, it describes the "desire that P" as a desire that people in general have reason to praise (so as to make it stronger and more common), or to condemn (so as to make it weaker and less common).

However - and this is the part that the emotivists get right - a moral utterance is also, and at the same time, an act of praise or condemnation itself. Moral statements have an emotive component - a cheer or a boo - that is included for the purpose of actually strengthening the desire it identifies as a virtue and inhibiting the desire that it idenfies as a vice.

Because true moral statements are both descriptively true and emotive acts of praise and condemnation, the realist and the emotivist both can find evidence for their positions. What then happens is that the realist points to the evidence for his position and says that the emotivist is mistaken. The emotivist does the same thing - pointing to the evidence that exists for emotivism and claiming that this implies the rejection of moral realism.

"Sam is a good person," both describes Sam as having qualities (malleable desires) that people generally have reason to make more common in themselves and others. It also praises Sam and, in so doing, seeks to strengthen those qualities, not only in Sam, but in any who witness Sam's praises.

In some of my discussions in defending desirism, this dual nature of moral claims presents a problem.

People often ask me "what if" stories to determine what desirism will say under some set of imaginary and hypothetical situations. For example, in a recent discussion, I was asked what desirism would say if it were the case that children could be made to enjoy sex - would this not argue that sex with children is permissible?

A part of that answer is "no" because making children vulnerable to sexually transmitted disease and other forms of physical harm would still be desire-thwarting. Furthermore, our inability to distinguish whether a given relationship conforms to these qualities would make it significantly harder to prevent harsher forms of abuse.

However, what if these other problems could also be solved?

Now, we are entering into the realm of science fiction - an imaginary world that is significantly different from the real world in which we live.

One might be able to dream up an imaginary world where the desire to have sex with children creates little or no tendency to thwart other desires. In this case, desirism would have to say that the people in that world have little or no reason to promote an aversion to having sex with children.

But that is not this world.

Here, the dual nature of moral claims comes into play.

I could say that in that world, according to desirism, having sex with children would be morally permissible. However, I could only make this claim if I was using the phrase "morally permissible" in a sense that was free of its emotive content.

To say that these acts would be morally permissible in the emotive-laden sense of the term is to say that we have no reason to want those of us with which we live today to have an adverse reaction to the events in that story. But this is not true. We have a great many and strong reason to promote an adverse reaction to the events in that story among fellow members of our community. That adverse reaction will help to keep our children safe.

At the same time, if I were to leave the emotive content in the moral term and say that those acts will still be immoral (because we in this world whose children are at risk should still have an adverse reaction to such a state), then the person raising the objection switches to the non-emotive sense of the moral term and accuses me of being inconsistent. Yes, it is true, from the assumptions build into the story that the people in the story have no reason to condemn such acts. But we still do.

The problem here resides in equivocating between two different senses of a moral term - between the emotive-laden sense and the emotive-free sense. With or without the emotive content, a moral claim gives different answers to what appears on the surface to be the same moral question. But this is only an illusion. In fact, we are being asked two different moral questions. As such, there are two different answers. It is important to keep both the questions and the answers distinct.

There are still objectively true and false answers to both moral questions. We simply need to be clear as to which moral question we are answering - the one with emotive content, or the one without.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Conflicting Desires

A member of the studio audience has written with the following question:

My question is that I understand the bad desires being those that thwart other desires and good desires being those that fulfill other desires but given no intrinsic value doesn't that mean that all desires could thwart and fulfill other desires?

I would like to begin by looking at conflicts among propositions in general.

You look at a set of propositions and discover that it contains the following pair:

Jim is seventeen years old.

Jim is not seventeen years old.

You put these two side by side and, assuming that we are talking about the same Jim and using the same standard for "year", the two statements contradict each other. They cannot both be true.

How do you determine which proposition to adopt?

You cannot do so by looking just at these two propositions. You have to look outside of these propositions at other pieces of evidence.

That is to say, we bring other propositions to bear on the subject and to see which has the more and stronger support. For example, if other propositions are that Jim was born in 1992 and the government does not consider him eligible to vote, we have arguments favoring (though not demanding) the 17-years-old hypothesis.

Of course, either of those pieces of supporting evidence could be mistaken, so we need to find ways of verifying or falsifying them.

And so on. And so on.

Either way, the ultimate aim is to pick the option that has the most and strongest support.

The same is true when we have conflicting desires.

A desires the P and B desires that not-P.

Desirism states that, if this is all there is in the universe, these two beings with these two desires, then there is no way to resolve the conflict. A and B are at a state of war until one of them defeats the other.

We can even allow that both desires are malleable. A can acquire a desire that not-P and B can acquire a desire that P. However, given that there is no intrinsic value - no intrinsic betterness of the desire that P vs. the desire that not-P - there is no reason to choose the desire that P over the desire that not-P.

Some might object that desirism fails because it cannot identify the correct desire to promote in these types of circumstances. However, desirism does not fail. It correctly points out that there is no answer to be had in those types of circumstances. It is the theory that reports to have an answer where no answer can be had that fails.

There may be people who want to live in a universe where these types of situations generate moral right answers, but that is not enough to prove that we actually live in such a universe and that any theory that says otherwise is mistaken.

Also, please note that this does not lend itself to any type of moral subjectivity where A and B each get to freely choose a different answer. Both of them live in a universe where the fact of the matter is that they live in a universe of irresolvable conflict and any who claim that one is better than the other is simply making a false claim.

Subjectivism says, "Let's take make-believe claims that we know to be make-believe and treat them as real."

Now, as a matter of fact we do not live in that world. We live in a world where there are a lot of additional desires providing a lot of additional reasons for action which can be used to evaluate whether the reasons for action more strongly support the desire that P or the desire that not-P.

When two desires come into conflict, we have a number of other facts to bring to bear to determine which of these desires tends to fulfill the most and strongest other desires and which do not.

Let us put homosexual desire - the desire some individuals have to have sexual relationships with another of the same gender, with the aversion to homosexual relationships - an aversion to a state of affairs in which a person of one gender has sexual relationships with another of the same gender.

Note that the conflict here is not a conflict with an aversion an individual may have to performing homosexual acts. Person A can be gay, while Person B is heterosexual, and their desires are not in conflict. It is only when Person A is gay and Person B has an aversion to the existence of homosexual acts that there is a conflict.

In itself, this does not tell us whether we should resolve the conflict in favor of those who have homosexual desires or those who have an aversion to the existence of homosexuality.

However, now we bring other facts to bear on the subject.

One fact to look for is whether a desire is a desire to thwart the desires of others. The person who desires the suffering of others is a person whose desires can only be fulfilled in any possible world in which the desires of others are being thwarted. He cannot live in peace with others.

In the case of homosexuality and the aversion to homosexual acts, this does not apply. The homosexual can fulfill his desires in a number of possible worlds in which no other desire is being thwarted - a world in which nobody has an aversion to the existence of homosexual acts.

The person with the aversion to the existence of homosexual acts can find his desires fulfilled in a world where no other desires are being thwarted - a world without people who desire homosexual acts.

Another thing to look for is to determine which of the two desires is most easily malleable. In the case of homosexuality, homosexual desire seems to be far less malleable than the aversion that homosexual acts exist. We see this in the fact that the latter change their orientation far more easily and frequently than the former.

When talk turns to whether homosexuality can be 'cured', a relevant question to ask is whether the aversion to homosexual acts can be 'cured' and to ask which cure involves the least amount of stress and difficulty on those who are going to undergo treatment. In this case, the evidence seems to suggest that 'curing' the aversion to the existence of homosexual acts is far easier than 'curing' homosexuality, so that is the option that we should go for on a social level.

Now, an argument may be offered that attempts to 'cure' the aversion to the existence of homosexual acts constitutes an attack on some religious beliefs. However, the condemnation of slavery (for example) also went counter to certain religious beliefs. If the argument that the aversion to homosexual acts have some sort of religious protection is valid, then the argument that slavery has religious protection would also be valid. At the same time, if we have reason to reject the claim that slavery is protected as a religious practice, when we also have reason to reject the claim that the aversion to the existence of homosexual acts is a protected religious practice.

The argument above further illustrates how we bring other concerns to bear to determine the value of each element of a conflicting set of desires and aversions. In this case, we are looking at the desire to protect religious practices. We bring into the argument the implications that a desire to protect religious practices would have in light of the claim many would make that their biblical interpretations say that certain types of slavery are legitimate. Or the killing of heretics. Or the burning of witches. We look at the desire-thwarting potential of this aversion and we say, "No, a desire for the protection of religious practices - given the types of religious practices we would have to protect - is not such a good idea."

The analysis just keeps going from here, bringing to bear the reasons for and against promoting or inhibiting each desire, to determine which side has the greatest support.

At this point, some would argue that lack the ability to make this calculation is an objection to the theory. I would argue that it is sometimes difficult, but that it is not always impossible - particularly considering the fact that we do not always need our final answer to be that precise.

For example, the movement of an object in orbit around the Earth is determined by the total of all of the forces of all of the bodies in the universe acting on it. We lack the ability to determine the precise effect of all of these influences. However, in spite of this, we can still launch a rocket that will rendezvous and dock with another rocket in space.

We do this because we do not need to know the precise location of the two rockets in order to get them docked. We need to be close enough for a successful docking. The influences of the vast majority of objects in the universe - even massive objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy - are just too small to consider.

Similarly, we do not need to know precisely all of the effects of promoting an aversion to rape. We know the effects of rape and the 'gravity' of these effects is so great that we can confidently assert that it outweighs any concern that might be put up against it.

So, this is how we resolve conflicts. This member of the studio audience is correct to point out that we have no way to resolve the conflict if we fix our attention solely on the two desires that are in conflict. We have to look instead at what the two desires are and the power that those desires have to fulfill or thwart other desires. From this, we can figure out how to resolve the conflict.

By the way, just as a final note because this is a common source of confusion, we are not looking at the consequences of this specific act to fulfill or thwart desires.