Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An Independent Standard

I would like to thank Ken for giving this issue such thought and attention. I find it much easier to present a set of ideas when I can compare and contrast them with others.

Ken asked me a few questions that sprang from my respond to his article, and also posted a follow-up article today on the subject of "External Standards".

I expect a reader will not want to go back and review those articles, so let me start with a summary of the dispute to date.

Ken wrote that:

[The model if human morality I suggest] sees our morality as built on human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals.

I answered that this falls victim to the Euthyphro Dilemma. If morality is in any way grounded on these instincts and intuitions, than anything that becomes the object of these instincts and intuitions would be good. If we evolved a sense if moral outrage over interracial relationships that included a sense that people of other races ought to be killed, then it would follow that people of other races deserved to die.

However, that conclusion does no follow from these premises, suggesting that there is an external standard against which our instincts and intuitions can be measured, and potentially found wanting.

This inspired Ken's request:

1: Previously you demanded of me an "external standard" to determine right and wrong. Specifically: "morality is to be found somewhere outside of God, or outside of 'human instincts.'" So I ask again - what is your "external standard?" Because my brief reading of "desirism" doesn't indicate one.

Before answering thus question, I would like to point out that this is a derailing of our previous conversation. Even if my own ideas utterly fail, this will not save Ken from the Euthyphro problem. At best, it will serve as a distraction - a way if saying, Let's just ignore the problems with my account and focus on the problems with your account instead.

However, an objection does not stop being valid simply because we decide to shift our attention away from it.

With that in mind, here is my answer:

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Some desires are malleable - they can be weakened or strengthened through social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Moral questions are ultimately questions about which changes in malleable desires people generally have the most and strongest reasons to act so as to promote and inhibit through the use of these social forces.

Morally evaluating that which cannot be changed is nonsensical. "Ought" implies "can" so "ought to be different" implies "can be different". This is why morality is concerned with malleable, rather than fixed, desires.

So, the instincts and intuitions we ought to have are those that people generally can cause people to have and that they have the most and strongest reasons to use those social forces to cause people to have.

There is a potentially huge gap between the instincts and intuitions people do have and those that people generally have power and reason to cause people to have. The Euthyphro question sees this gap. This gap explains why the Euthyphro problem remains a potent objection to Ken's theory even if my account of the instincts and intuitions we ought to have fails.

But ask that question here:

People have the power to use social forces to bring about desire D and their reasons for doing so greatly outweigh their reasons not to. Should they not use those social forces to bring about that change?

The very question, "Should we do X" invites the person answering it to provide the reasons for action that exist for doing X. There is no other answer to give to a 'should' question but to answer with reasons for action that exist.

You may also need to provide other facts. However, those facts are only relevant if you can tie them to the prescribed action with reasons for action that exist.

We can also dismiss all reasons for action that do not exist. All attempts to answer a "should" question by appeal to reasons for action that do not exist - God's will, foundational 'oughts', categorical imperatives, intrinsic values, hypothetical contracts, impartial observers, decisions made behind a veil of ignorance - can be dismissed. Those claims are all false.

Desires are the only reasons that exist.

Desires exist - at least all of the desires we are aware of - as properties of brains. They are entities that we appeal to in explaining a whole range of physical observations - namely, the intentional behavior of humans and other complex animals. Desire claims have the same status as gravity claims and atom claims in their power to explain and predict real-world observations.

So, the question is, "What instincts and intuitions should people generally seek to cultivate? This is the question, "What instincts and intuitions is it within our power to cultivate, and for which the most and strongest reasons for action exist?"

Or, "Which instincts and intuitions within our power to cultivate would fulfill the most and strongest desires?"

That is my proposed standard. The Euthyphro argument identifies a potential gap between the instinct and intuitions we have and the instincts and intuitions we should have. I have provided a framework for determining what instincts and intuitions we should have. However, even if my account utterly fails, that gap still remains - and it remains a serious problem for all accounts of morality such as Ken's

In his next question, Ken asked about the objectivity of moral claims. I assert that moral claims understood in the way I described above are as objective as any claim made in any science. This post is long enough, so I will save that post for the near future.

Related Articles

Atheist Ethicist: The Science of Morality - Proving Moral Claims and the Science of Morality

Open Parachute: Answering Questions on Morality and Foundations of Human Morality

3 comments:

Paul Baird said...

My tuppenceworth

Ken wrote:
"[The model if human morality I suggest] sees our morality as built on human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals."

You wrote:

"If morality is in any way grounded on these instincts and intuitions, than anything that becomes the object of these instincts and intuitions would be good."

I agree with both statements.

I see both as definitions of 'is' as opposed to 'ought'. I'm not sure that there needs to be an 'ought' at all.

The absence of the 'ought' would certainly explain alot of bloody human history.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding the whole issue. :-)

George W. said...

I think I disagree with your flippant dismissal of Ken's argument.
Although I find Ken's comment to be a gross simplification of the grounding of our total morality, I do agree with it in principle.
Your rejection of his argument seems to start with the premise that all instincts and intuitions inform our moral concepts. Rather, I think of morality as being the triumph of our social instincts and intuitions over our selfish ones. Morality then, is reason + instinct + X, where X is those variables which allow morality to be semi-pliable, like social and cultural evolution.

When you dismiss his suggestion and replace it with "desire", you essentially just change the language from scientific to philosophical. Can man not desire that which is immoral? When you answer that objection, you answer your own objection to Ken.

Kip said...

Paul wrote:
"I'm not sure that there needs to be an 'ought' at all."

That's like saying that there doesn't need to be any reasons to act. I'm pretty sure we do have reasons to act. And, others have reasons for us to have these reasons. So, do we need to have these reasons? Well, relative to what? Relative to other's reasons, then sometimes yes. Relative to my other reasons, sometimes yes. Relative to the entire universe… is a confused question. The universe is not an agent that can have reasons, but contains many agents that do have reasons.